What are biogenic gemstones?

Buttons made of mother-of-pearl, a biogenic precious gem.

Biogenic gemstones are gemstones of biological origin, created through natural biological processes rather than geological processes. Depending on the stone in question, some biogenic gemstones are fully biogenic, while others involve a mixture of natural and geological processes: gem-quality fossils, for example, are biogenic, but also mineral in nature. The value of biogenic gemstones varies considerably depending on the gem and quality.

Coral is a biogenic precious gem.

Some well-known examples of biogenic gemstones include: pearl, coral, mother-of-pearl, and ivory. These precious materials are formed by a variety of organisms for a variety of purposes. Mother-of-pearl, for example, is formed from the deposition of layers of a material called nacre, used to expand the shells of some marine molluscs, while ivory is a type of tooth present in elephants and rhinos, among others.

Biogenic gemstones, like pearls, have biological origins.

Other biogenic gemstones, such as amber and amolith, consist of fossilized remains of natural materials. In the case of amber, the material is sap, which can also trap insects and other inclusions that make the resulting gem more biologically interesting. Ammolite is made from the remains of fossilized ammonites, marine molluscs that swam in the oceans millions of years ago. Some people refer to fossilized gemstones as minerals rather than biogenic gemstones, since geological processes are involved in their formation.

The appearance of biogenic gemstones varies widely, as you can see from the examples above. Some biogenic gemstones are translucent with specks and inclusions, such as amber, while others are solid, such as ivory. Colors can vary significantly, as can hardness. Some biogenic gemstones are extremely fragile and must be handled with care and placed carefully to ensure they do not crack, cloud or break, while others are tough enough to be used as billiard balls.

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When evaluating the quality of biogenic gemstones, people should look for things like clarity, cut, and color, just like diamonds, and they should also check for obvious cracks, flaking, or other signs of damage. In the case of set gemstones, the setting must be firm and stable, and in the case of fragile gemstones, it must be protected or the gems must be capped in hard crystal to reduce the risk of loss or damage. There are also some ethical issues involved with biogenic gemstones, with ivory, for example, being particularly ethically challenging due to widespread poaching of elephants for their ivory. There are no certification programs to confirm the origins of biogenic gemstones for concerned consumers, which can make ethical purchasing difficult, and some people shy away from controversial gemstones like coral and ivory for this reason.

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