BEAUTY, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. People have used this phrase to justify their preference for any number of things, but it’s particularly apt to explain society’s fascination and obsession with precious metals and gemstones.
Despite their value throughout human history, there’s nothing about them that we can’t live without. Our blood is not made up of gold, our bones aren’t made of diamonds and we don’t need rubies or sapphires for our brains to function.
On their own these things are worthless. The value we put on them is our own. Once you take away an economy that thrives on gemstone demand, a handful of diamonds isn’t in any way necessary to a person than a handful of rice.
Yet our attraction and desire for these hard-to-find glittery chunks of metal and rock has powered global trade, drove the expansion (or colonisation) of civilisations and shaped the world as it is today.
But for a business that relies heavily on desire, greed is not far behind. Counterfeits are a constant threat. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but buyers must also be certain that they’re not being cheated of the correct kind of beauty.
Gold and precious metals are a story for another day, but gemstones are the forte of Tan Ser Yuen. He is an Australian-trained gemmologist at Asia Gemological Laboratory, a company based in Penang that checks on the authenticity of gemstones, jade and pearls.
In its raw form, gems look like regular pebbles — perhaps a little more colourful and harder to crack. Cutting and polishing will bring out the shine and lustre out of the stones, after which they can be used to make jewellery.
But you can’t judge a piece of stone or a shiny object just by looking at it. So Tan and his colleagues use special equipment to check the inside of the stone to identify what it is. Once this is done, AGL will issue a certificate of authenticity.
“Gems are differentiated based on their physical properties, such as the refracting index and crystal formation,” says Tan. “With a refractometer, we can determine the stone’s refractive index and we’ll roughly know what it is. It’s like the stone’s identity card.
“We also check it under the microscope for inclusion, which is a particular trait that gives the gemstone its character, as well as its crystal formation. In synthetic gems, the crystals are arranged in a pattern but natural crystals are random.”
Identification can take from 10 minutes to a few hours, and AGL gets many enquiries from the public who want to know whether the gemstone they own is genuine. AGL will not put a price on the item, but a certificate of authenticity is known to increase the stone’s market value.
What else can add up to the price of a gemstone? Apart from its beauty and size, its rarity is also a factor, hence the classification of precious and semi-precious stones. But this is something of a geographical lottery when you consider gemstone formation is the result of events that happened millions of years ago.
Says Tan: “Gemstones vary due to geological differences, and they are formed in different geological environments with different temperatures, pressure or chemicals. I’ve never heard of gemstones being found in Malaysia as it does not have the right geological environment.
Meanwhile, a trace element inside the crystal structure can give it a particular colour, making it more valuable. For example, the basic chemical component of corundum is aluminium oxide, which is colourless.
But chromium gives it a red colour and the piece becomes a ruby. Sapphire is a corundum variety as well, and elements of iron, titanium or copper can cause it to occur in blue, yellow, green and other colours.
Gemstones are also classified by hardness and toughness. The former is a scale of how the stone is able to scratch something else, while the latter looks at how it can resist breaking and chipping.
“Different minerals have different hardness levels,” says Tan. “The higher it is on the hardness scale, the more durable the stone and it can be worn daily. Stones with a low hardness will scratch easily and they’re also difficult to cut into gemstones.
“The hardest gemstone is of course, the diamond. It’s 10 on the scale. The lowest rating of 1 is talc. Garnet is about 7.5 to 8, same as tourmaline. Ruby and sapphire is 9 while jade is 6.5, so jade isn’t hard but it is tough,” Tan explains.
Tan adds that while diamonds can scratch other stones, it can break when hit at the right place. Toughness is also different for each gem because it depends on the crystal structure.
AGL’s exhibition at the recent Malaysia International Jewellery Fair in Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre also highlights rare mineral pieces from around the world that have not been cut into jewellery.
Instead the gems are left as they occur naturally, leading to some interesting interpretation about its shapes. There is a purple agate from Indonesia that looks like a bunch of grapes while a double standing malachite is akin to either bamboo or the Twin Towers.
A glassy-looking elestial quartz reminds me of grass jelly. It’s also special because it produces a sound when knocked — something that doesn’t happen with other minerals. Those who believe in the healing properties of crystals call it angel’s charm and believe it to bring good luck.
“A cut stone looks the same and it doesn’t have a story,” says Tan. “But here, the structures are unique. They are not shaped. A pyrite is a common mineral but we have a cubic-shaped piece combined with quartz and fluorite, and that makes it valuable.”
Meanwhile, some minerals might look beautiful and striking, but they’re not safe to use as jewellery. Tan points to a block of realgar in red and black. People who work with realgar, also known as ruby of arsenic, must wash their hands after handling it.
Another dangerous mineral piece is cinnabar. It contains mercury, which we now know is cancer-causing and poisonous. But cinnabar was ingested by past Chinese emperors in the belief that it would lead to long life. Safe to say, such use has been discontinued.
In addition to their aesthetic use as jewellery, gemstones are also associated with superstition. Many different cultures in all parts of the world believe that certain stones give prosperity and protect from evil and misfortune.
One example is amethyst, which is believed to have mystical healing properties and can purify a space of negative energy. Others say it brings wisdom, and they’d wear amethyst charms on exam days.
Whether you believe in superstition or not, that’s another factor into how we put a price on gemstones.