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Gemstones for Beginners

From sapphires to rubies, discover the world of gemstone jewellery with our beginner's guide to all things gemstone. Explore gemstones with Ernest Jones.


From gorgeous vibrant colours to soft subtle hues, gemstones bring beauty and variety to any fine jewellery collection. A popular choice for unique engagement rings and statement pieces, gemstone jewellery is available in a wide range of styles, shades, and cuts, and is as versatile as it is eye-catching. So, whether you want to exude sophisticated style, achieve a vintage-inspired look, or show a touch of playfulness with a pop of colour, gemstones offer it all.

In this feature, we'll explore these exquisite stones in more detail and answer key questions like what are gemstones, how are gemstones formed, and where do gemstones come from.

What are gemstones?

From diamonds to sapphires and morganite to aquamarine, the striking beauty, elegance, and luxurious look of gemstones have long captivated us, so it’s little surprise that they have been adorning royals, the rich and famous, and the well-to-do for centuries.

Without a doubt, it’s a gemstones colour and physical appearance, from the dazzling clear lustre of diamonds to the vibrant blue of sapphires and the rich red of rubies, that makes them so highly sought-after. But what actually are gemstones? The technical answer is that they are the naturally occurring crystalline form of a mineral. Whilst all minerals could be classified as gemstones, only the very best and most beautiful are deemed suitable for use in jewellery such as gemstone rings.

When it comes to how many types of gemstones there are in the world, the answer is hundreds, but only around twenty are widely used in jewellery. Each type of gemstone has its own characteristics, such as level of hardness and chemical composition. One of their most charming traits is that each naturally formed stone is unique – with its own shade, colour intensity, and qualities. Therefore, gemstone jewellery offers you a true one-of-a-kind piece.

Many people are attracted to gemstones because of each type of stone’s spiritual and symbolic meaning, such as strength, trust, and love, and the hope that wearing the gemstone will help bring those positive energies into their lives. Some gemstones are also associated with a specific calendar month and are known as birthstones. See our Gemstone Guide for a full month-by-month listing and identify the birthstone that relates to you or your loved ones.

How are gemstones formed?

Natural gemstones were formed over a billion years ago. In fact, the oldest known gemstone, which was discovered in Australia, is believed to be almost 4.4 billion years old. With the exception of pearls which are formed in water, gemstones were formed miles beneath the earth’s surface due to exceptionally high temperatures and intense pressure. Eruptions then forced them towards the surface and, when the molten rock eventually cooled, the gemstones were hidden in igneous rocks. Once mined, the stones are assessed to determine whether they meet the exacting standards of fine jewellery gems. They are then expertly cut and polished to reveal their scintillating sparkle and brilliance.

When shopping for gemstone jewellery, you may come across the term 'enhanced' or 'treated' gemstones. This process is often applied to 'natural' stones to improve their colour or appearance. For example, emeralds are often coated with oil to intensify their colour and protect their surface from becoming scratched. Heat treatment is another widespread practice that can be used to make gems more vibrant.

What's the difference between precious & semi-precious gemstones?

Precious gemstones are widely considered to be diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, and rubies, which have historically been the highest valued and most sought-after stones. Semi-precious stones are all other gems, including those popular in jewellery such as aquamarine, topaz, morganite, opal, and pearls. The terminology of precious and semi-precious is relatively new, first being used in the mid 19th century. Many believe the classification was based on the differing values at the time. Nowadays, when it comes down to what is the difference between precious and semi-precious gemstones, the classification holds little importance. The individual stone's unique qualities determine the value of each gemstone. So, whilst precious stones are still generally the most sought-after and costly per carat, some individual semi-precious stones are of higher quality and value.

If you’re considering investing in a piece of gemstone jewellery, you might be on the lookout for a gemstone necklace for example, we’d recommend not getting hung up on whether it’s a precious or semi-precious stone. Ultimately, all gemstones used in fine jewellery are carefully selected, exquisitely crafted, and incredibly beautiful. Which stone you choose should come down to personal preference and sentimental reasons such as the meaning of the stone.

As gemstones have different levels of durability, when choosing the right stone for you, it’s a good idea to consider your lifestyle and how frequently you plan to wear it. For example, diamonds, which are well known as being one of the hardest substances on earth, are a 10 on the Mohs scale, whereas pearls are a 3, so they will require more TLC. Doing some research on where your favourite stones sit on the Mohs Scale of Hardness is a good place to start.

How to identify gemstones

A 'natural' gemstone is one that was created by nature, whereas a 'synthetic’ or ‘created’ gemstone has been expertly made in a laboratory, and is sometimes also known as cultivated or human-made. Despite the difference in how they were formed, synthetic gemstones are real gemstones and are scientifically and chemically identical to their natural counterpart. The main difference is that synthetic stones are virtually perfect, whereas natural stones have small inclusions.

Many gemstones have such a striking and recognisable appearance that, when it comes to how to identify gemstones, you might be surprised to know that even expert gemologists will need to do some detective work to confirm a stone’s identity. Whilst colour does play a big part in narrowing down the pool of potentials, identification takes places under specialist equipment such as UV lights and microscopes. This allows experts to assess the stone’s unique characteristics and will also tell them whether the stone is natural or synthetic.

When shopping for fine jewellery, we always recommend purchasing from a respected jeweller, as this will give you peace of mind that your gemstone is of the quality stated.

How to clean gemstones

As with all jewellery, everyday wear and exposure to makeup and beauty products will eventually take their toll and dull the appearance of your gemstones. Luckily, restoring your jewellery to its brilliant best is a simple process for most gemstones.

Start by dissolving a little washing-up liquid in a bowl of water that is warm but nowhere near boiling. Leave your jewellery to soak for 20 minutes or so, then put the plug into the sink and gently rinse under running water. Any stubborn dirt or grime can be gently removed with a soft brush, such as a child’s toothbrush. Then, carefully dry the jewellery with a lint-free cloth. For more detailed advice on how to clean gemstones, including advice on cleaning softer stones like pearls, see our guide for how to clean and restore your jewellery.

Discover gemstone jewellery at Ernest Jones

At Ernest Jones, we are committed to only offering our customers beautiful, rare, and responsibly sourced gemstones of exceptional quality. Therefore, you can explore our full collection of gemstone jewellery with total peace of mind.

When it comes to gemstones, we are proud to bring you collections from some of the most renowned designers, such as the exquisite ranges from Le Vian and Vera Wang, as well as our own Ernest Jones Gemstone Collection. From unusual chocolate diamonds to classic sapphires and modern morganite, you’ll be sure to find the ideal piece to suit your taste and budget.

Gemstone jewellery is undeniably special and sentimental, so we know you’ll want to make sure you find the perfect design for you. If you have any questions about collections or certain stones, or you’d like a hand narrowing down your options, book a complimentary in-store or virtual appointment with one of our dedicated jewellery experts, who’ll be happy to help.