Crystal Clear

Written by Supernova

Nov 22, 2020

The History of gems

Our earth’s crust is home to millions of glowing, glittering gemstones. Right at this moment, you may be standing on a veritable treasure trove of awe-inspiring jewels. Most gemstones are formed between four and forty kilometres below the earth’s surface. There’s no need to get digging though, as modern chemistry has taught us that some of these gems can be recreated in laboratories. Gemstones can be divided into two basic categories: precious and semi-precious.

How Gemstones are Formed

Below the earth’s surface, you’d be able to find over 4 000 naturally occurring minerals! This dazzling array of minerals is formed when molten rock, or magma, cools and forms crystalline structures underground. These mineral formations are usually very small as they have to form in the tiniest cracks in the earth’s foundation, or sometimes even between layers of rock that are millions of years old. This means that some gems can only be found to be naturally occurring in certain parts of the world because of unique geological and climatic variables.

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Humans have cherished gems for centuries. Early people wore stone, feathers, and shells for jewellery. Stones that were the most durable became most prized, and those, of course, were gems.

Growing gemstones in labs

Gemstones are unique formations and combinations of chemical compounds, and with the right tools and ingredients scientists can replicate these natural wonders almost exactly. These synthetic gem compounds have been around since the 1800s and were developed more for their use in laser technology and microelectronics than fancy jewellery. Growing these synthetic gems is quite the process and can be rather time-consuming. But, growing them is a whole lot quicker than waiting thousands of years for the earth to form them!

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Painite is the rarest stone in the world! Until 2001, only three crystals were known to exist.


Many people believe in birthstones. Each month of the year is assigned a different gemstone which shows certain characteristics about people born in that month. Lists like this have occupied their space in world history for centuries. The oldest of these lists, the Ayurvedic birthstone list, can be traced back to 1500BC and relates to Ayurvedic Indian medical practices. Traditionally, the Indians wore their birthstones every day. They believed that the gems provided them with a unique set of physical and mental benefits.

January – Garnet | February – Amethyst | March – Aquamarine
April – Diamond | May – Emerald | June – Pearl
July – Ruby | August – Peridot | September – Sapphire
October – Opal | November – Topaz | December – Turquoise

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The most expensive gem in the world is the red diamond. Unlike other varieties of diamond, there are less than 30 red diamonds in the whole wide world. These blood red stones cost about R14 million per carat (which is 200 milligrams, that’s the weight of about 60 ants!).

Jade in China

In Chinese culture, jade is widely regarded as one of the most precious materials. Carved, ornamental jade was reserved for the wealthiest and most powerful individuals throughout the dynasties. Historically, jade has been referred to as ‘the stone of heaven’ because its powers connect heaven and earth.

Lapis Lazuli in Ancient Egypt

People have revered lapis lazuli gods for thousands of years, and this deep blue mineral can even be found in prehistoric tombs in Asia, Europe and Africa. In Ancient Egypt, this mysterious stone was deeply connected with ideas of power. Pharaohs loved lapis lazuli and judges wore emblems of the god of truth, Maat, made from this semi-precious rock. (Read more about this gem in issue 7.2 of Supernova.)

Ancient Amber

Amber is the softest gemstone and, believe it or not, is made of fossilised tree resin. This glowing yellow gem has been appreciated since Neolithic times. Sometimes ancient bugs and critters are preserved in an amber honey-like tomb. Have you ever seen tree sap coming out
of a tree with a bug stuck in it?

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Amber is actually a part of a tree’s immune system. When a tree was damaged it would release a sticky resin to help seal the wound.

The Cullinan Diamond

Our most famous local gem was excavated in January 1905, and is sometimes referred to as the ‘Star of Africa’. The nearly flawless massive stone was divided into nine major gemstones and 96 smaller stones. Because South Africa was a British colony, it is no surprise that many South African diamonds found themselves on their way to England and are even in the queen of England’s crown jewels. South Africa truly is a gem!

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Diamonds are not that rare. In fact, when compared to some other gemstones they are of the most common precious stones around, but this doesn’t stop people from spending a lot of money on them!

What about diamonds?

Diamonds are the only gemstones formed out of one pure element: carbon. They are the hardest natural substance on Earth. Diamonds can conduct both heat and electricity, making them as versatile as they are beautiful.

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To make sure the diamond reached its destination safely, the Cullinan diamond was sent to England in an unmarked postal box while a fake was escorted by detectives on a steamboat. Now that’s what you call a diversion!

From diamonds to crystals, amber to jade, gemstones come in all shapes, sizes and colours. For hundreds of years they have done a great job of grabbing our attention and will continue to do so for hundreds more.

Supernova Volume 8.4

This article first appeared in Supernova Volume 8.4
Words by Ashton Kirsten
Illustrations by Alexandra Paige-Green

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