What Is Gemology?

Gemology is the science of studying, cutting, and valuing precious stones, but the essence of gemology is in identifying the gemstones. One who works in the field of gemology is called a gemologist, and jewelers and goldsmiths also may be gemologists.

Some collectors and investors may be interested only in gems' monetary value, but to distinguish one gemstone from another, they will need to seek out a gemologist. Gemologists examine gemstones—both discovered raw and synthesized in the laboratory—using microscopes, computerized tools, and other grading instruments.

In financial services, there are no investment-grade gemstones... only investment-grade bonds.

Key Takeaways

  • Gemology is the science of identifying gemstones. 
  • The field of gemology contains professionals like appraisers, goldsmiths, jewelers, lapidaries, and scientists.
  • Investing in gemstones may be risky, but the precious metals sector can be less speculative for inexperienced investors.

Understanding Gemology

At its heart, gemology is about identifying gems. Gemologists identify a gemstone by its specific characteristics and properties, such as cut, color, quality, and clarity. Some rubies and garnets, for example, are impossible to distinguish by their appearance, but their underlying physical properties differ considerably. Many people are familiar with a group of criteria that is used in gemology to identify diamonds—the 4Cs of color, clarity, cut, and carat.

A Deeper Look at Gemology and its Professionals

In addition to gemologists, the field of gemology contains numerous other professionals, including appraisers, jewelers, lapidaries, metalworkers, and scientists.

Gemologists may become certified as professional appraisers, whose expertise is useful in many other industries, including jewelry sales and investing. Jewelers need to understand gemology to answer their customers’ questions and identify any gems brought to them. Goldsmiths and other metalworkers need specific knowledge about the physical characteristics of gems to create appropriate settings. For example, a setting that would be ideal for a diamond could damage an opal, and the amount of pressure used to set the prongs on a garnet could break a stone of tanzanite.

Lapidaries, or gem cutters, also need special knowledge, as appropriate cutting and polishing techniques vary from gem to gem. What would work well for one gemstone would be a waste of time or even disastrous for another gem. Scientists with degrees in geology, chemistry, and even physics make up the smallest group of gemologists, although they are very influential. Scientists add to gemology's knowledge base by developing new testing techniques and researching new gemstones.

Gemstones as Investments

When returns in the stock market decline, aggressive investors often seek out alternatives that may hold more promise of increasing returns on invested capital (ROIC) than traditional investment types. Or, some investors might want to consider tangible assets simply as a way to diversify their holdings even during good market conditions. Investing in gemstones—in particular, those that are rare or of exceptional quality—likely would at least retain, and probably increase in value.

However, unlike other types of investments, gemstones may not be as easily liquidated if you have an urgent need for cash. This drawback is especially founded for rare, precious stones and jewelry that would appeal to elite buyers only. Gemstone investing can seem exciting to those who want to make quick returns, but it is highly speculative and should only be undertaken by experienced professionals. Investing in the precious metals sector, however, is different because there are standards as well as specific investment vehicles for them in the financial markets.

The term "investment-grade" is often tossed around by those who want to sell gems or try to convince other people to invest in them. However, this practice is frowned upon in financial services because there are no formal standards for what constitutes investment-grade gemstones, as there are for investment-grade bonds, for example.

Careers in Gemology

With advances in gemstone synthesis, gemology has become an important field of study. A credential in gemology can offer numerous career paths:

  • Appraiser. Evaluate gemstones, antique and contemporary jewelry, and fine watches. Write detailed descriptions and determine valuation.
  • Auction Specialist. Oversee buying and selling during the lively process of auctioning privately owned one-of-a-kind jewelry.
  • Bench Jeweler. Manufacture and repair fine jewelry using craftsmanship skills and expert techniques.
  • Buyer. Monitor industry and consumer trends and seek out gems and finished jewelry pieces to sell profitably.
  • Designer. Create unique jewelry designs using precious gemstones.
  • Lab and Research Professional. Investigate new gem finds, treatment processes, and detection methods in the field and laboratory.
  • Retailer. A career in the fast-paced environment of retail jewelry sales can be rewarding, exciting, and lucrative. 
  • Wholesaler. Import and sell diamonds, colored stones, cultured pearls, finished jewelry, and watches from locations around the world.