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Gem stone Properties

Physical, Chemical and Optical Properties

All gemstones can be classified as either:

  1. Amorphous
  2. Crystalline

Amorphous gemstones are characterized by:

  1. No orderly internal atomic structure.
  2. No naturally-occurring characteristic shape.
  3. Products of rapid cooling.
  4. Physical properties constant in all directions.


  • Glass
  • Amber
  • Jet
  • Opal


Crystalline gemstones are characterized by:

  1. Definite & regular internal atomic structure.
  2. Geometrical external forms.
  3. Directional properties.
  4. Products of slow cooling.
  5. Identical in all crystals of a given species.

All crystalline gemstones can be classified into the following crystal systems:

  1. Cubic
  2. Tetragonal
  3. Hexagonal
  4. Trigonal
  5. Orthorhombic
  6. Monoclinic
  7. Triclinic

The identification of gemstones relies on their unique physical, chemical and optical properties. These include:

Specific Gravity

The weight of a gemstone in air compared to the weight of an equal volume of pure water at 4 degrees Celsius.

Formula: Weight in Air
Weight in Air - Weight in Water
(Apparent loss of weight in water)

Example: If a gemstone weighs 8 carats in air and 6 carats in water the "Specific Gravity" is said to be 4.00 or 4 times its volume.

1 cc at 4 degrees Celsius = 1 gram.


The tendency of a crystalline substance to split parallel to certain definite directions (when force is applied) producing more or less smooth surfaces. It is strictly a directional property and can only occur in crystalline substances. It is due to weaknesses in the orderly placement of the atoms within a crystal. Similar to a grain of wood.


  • Diamond
  • Fluorspar
  • Kunzite
  • Topaz
  • Calcite


The ability to resist scratching or abrasion when a pointed fragment from another mineral is drawn across its surface with insufficient force to cause cleavage. The Moh's Hardness scale is commonly used to measure the hardness of gemstones using ten minerals with a pre-determined hardness. Gemstones with higher numbers have the ability to scratch gemstones with a lower number.

Moh's Hardness Scale

  1. Talc
  2. Gypsum
  3. Calcite
  4. Fluorspar
  5. Apatite
  6. Feldspar
  7. Quartz
  8. Topaz
  9. Corundum
  10. Diamond (140 to 1,000 times harder than corundum)


Resistance to crushing or breakage (Jadeite)


Describes a break or chip, other than cleavage, on the surface. Occurs in all materials in any directions.

  1. Conchoidal - shell-like, concentric rings (Glass)
  2. Splintery - long splintery fibres
  3. Uneven - broken or uneven surfaces
  4. Even - producing flat surfaces that are not noticeably irregular


The bending of light when it passes from a rarer medium (Air) into a denser medium (Gemstone)

Single Refraction (Isotropic)

Light passing through a substance is bent from its original path but emerges as a single ray. Only occurs in gem minerals belonging to the "Cubic" crystal system and "Amorphous" material.

Double Refraction (Anisotropic or Birefringent)

Light passing through a substance is split into two rays, which travel at different velocities causing differing amounts of refraction. Occurs in gem minerals belonging to all other crystal systems.

Example: The doubling of the back facets as seen in Zircon.


The freedom in which light is transmitted through a substance.

  1. Transparent: object appears clear and distinct.
  2. Semi-transparent: blurred.
  3. Translucent: light transmitted but no object seen.
  4. Semi-translucent: light only transmitted through the edges.
  5. Opaque: no light allowed to pass.


The brilliancy of a stone in reflected light, determined by the amount of incident light reflected from its surface (surface reflection)

  1. Metallic - Pyrite.
  2. Adamantine - Diamond.
  3. Vitreous - Quartz, Ruby, Sapphire.
  4. Resinous - Amber, Some Garnets.
  5. Waxy - Turquoise.
  6. Pearly - Moonstone.
  7. Silky - Tigers-Eye Quartz.


A shimmering effect due to light reflected from a position inside the stone.


Sheen Examples
Chatoyancy: best seen in stones cut en-cabochon. Wavy band of light that is seen to pass across the stone at right angles to the direction of the fibres.
  • Tigers-Eye Quartz
  • Cats-Eye Chrysoberyl
Asterism: best seen in stones cut en-cabochon. Star-like effect caused by the reflection of light from fibres or fibrous cavities crossing at 60 degree angles (6-rayed star) or 90 degree angles (4-rayed star).
  • Ruby
  • Sapphire
  • Garnet
  • Diopside
Labradorescence: Name given to the iridescence seen in Labradorite.
  • Labradorite
Interference of Light: When a ray of light falls upon a thin transparent medium, some of the light is reflected, whilst the remainder is refracted (within the denser medium) and is subsequently reflected back along a different path parallel to the first. Because the refracted ray travels a greater distance and slows down within the denser medium, it may become "Out of Step" with the first. This can cause the refracted ray to "Interfere" with the first causing possible cancellation or intensify the first if it is "In phase". The colour effects caused by this phenomena are termed Iridescence.  
Opalescence: Reflection of a milky or pearly light reflected from the interior of a gemstone or mineral.  
Schiller: Name given to another form of iridescence seen in Moonstone caused by thin laminated plates or layers within the stone.
  • Moonstone
Play of Colour: Iridescence due to interference of light striking against thin films within the stone that have differing "R.I's" to the rest of the surrounding mass.  
Fluorescence: The production of visible light by exposure to invisible radiations.