Gem Species and Gem Varieties

What is a Gem Species?

A species is a type of mineral. A few gems, like amber and pearls, have their origins in the vegetable kingdom. However, most gems are minerals (in fact, over 140 minerals have been utilized as gemstones).

Minerals are defined by two factors;

  1. their chemical make-up, and
  2. their crystal habit.

For example, Beryl is a gem species.  The chemical make up of Beryl is Be3Al2Si6O18. That means there are 3 beryllium atoms, 2 aluminum, 6 silicon, and 18 oxygen atoms in each molecule of Beryl. Now, combine the chemistry with a hexagonal crystal structure and you have the definition of Beryl.

These two elements, chemical make-up and crystal habit, must be looked at together to define a gem species. Why? The best example is to compare diamond and graphite. Diamonds are the hardest substance on earth. Graphite is the stuff pencil leads are made from. It is quite soft. Both graphite and diamond feature identical chemical make-up. They are composed of just one kind of atom, carbon. You have to consider how those atoms align with each other to show how they differ.

Other examples of gem species;

What is a Gem Variety?

A variety is a mineral with special coloring or features. Most of our gem minerals are colorless in their pure state. However, few are found completely pure. Trace minerals find their way into the crystals as they form. These trace minerals lend color to the crystals.

A good example is the gem species corundum. It is colorless in its pure state, but add a bit of iron and titanium and you have a blue sapphire. If, instead, you add a bit of chromium you have a red ruby.

Corundum is a mineral species. Rubies and sapphires are varieties of corundum. They have the same chemistry and crystal structure as all other corundum, which is why they belong to the same species. It is useful to distinguish those members of a species with unique characteristics (like color or optical characteristics) as varieties, because those characteristics are what make rubies and blue sapphires are special.

Another good example is the beryl family. Pure beryl is called goshenite. It is colorless and not very interesting. However, if you add a bit of iron, it turns blue and becomes aquamarine. Now it is valuable and highly sought after. If, instead of iron, you added a bit of chromium to the beryl, it becomes an emerald. That is even more valuable.  We talk about this more in our article about what makes some gems less common than others.

It is not just color that gives us varieties. Sometimes a special feature will also create a variety. Chatoyancy (the sheen of a cat’s eye gem) is a good example.

Cat's Eye Gem
Cat’s Eye Gem – Features Chatoyancy Phenomenon

The term “cat’s eye” by itself refers to the chatoyant variety of chrysoberyl. Other minerals need their name added. We have cat’s eye moonstone, cat’s eye tourmaline, etc. These are varieties of moonstone and tourmaline.

Star Sapphire Gem - Features Asterism
Star Sapphire Gem – Features Asterism

Star stones are much like cat’s eyes, except they have 4 or 6 rays of light flashing across their surface. The most common ones are star sapphire and star garnet. Star stones are special varieties of their species.

A few gems exhibit a color change phenomena. That is where the color of the gem changes when you go from daylight to artificial light. The best know color change gem is alexandrite. It is a variety of chrysoberyl. There are also color change garnets, sapphires, tourmalines, and more.

So, a species is a type of mineral. A variety is a mineral with special coloring or features.

Gemologist Quiz

  1. Which two qualities define a mineral?
  2. What makes a variety?
  3. Name three special features might you find in a gemstone?

Gemologist Quiz Answers

(1) Which two qualities define a mineral?

The answer is chemical make-up and crystal habit.

(2) What makes a variety?

A variety is a mineral with special coloring, like an emerald being a variety of beryl, or special features.

(3) Name three special features you might find in a gemstone?

A gem might show a cat’s eye or a star. Those are two special features. One example of a rare and valuable feature is a color change.

About the author
Donald Clark, CSM IMG
Donald Clark, CSM founded the International Gem Society in 1998. Donald started in the gem and jewelry industry in 1976. He received his formal gemology training from the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) and the American Society of Gemcutters (ASG). The letters "CSM" after his name stood for Certified Supreme Master Gemcutter, a designation of Wykoff's ASG which has often been referred to as the doctorate of gem cutting. The American Society of Gemcutters only had 54 people reach this level. Along with dozens of articles for leading trade magazines, Donald authored the book "Modern Faceting, the Easy Way."
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