molecule model - gemological formulasmolecule model - gemological formulas

Understanding Gemological Formulas

Gemological formulas identify the chemical composition of gems and minerals. Learn what the symbols, numbers, and parentheses mean.

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The chemical composition of a mineral is a primary aspect of its definition as a species. That composition can be expressed in a chemical formula that identifies the elements and proportionate number of atoms in a molecule or chemical compound of that mineral. Gemological formulas are chemical formulas of minerals and other materials of interest in the world of jewelry and gem collecting. For example, quartz has a chemical formula of SiO2, one atom of silicon to two atoms of oxygen.
quartz - gemological formulas
Quartz crystals, Huaron, Peru. Photo by Didier Descouens. Licensed under CC By-SA 3.0.

Substitutions in Gemological Formulas

Many gemological formulas contain elements grouped in parentheses with commas, for example (Fe, Mg). This indicates that either iron (Fe) or magnesium (Mg), or both, may occupy a specific position in the crystal structure. The element listed first within a parenthesis is the one present in a greater amount on the structural site. In some cases this determines the species!

For example, amblygonite is (Li, Na) Al (PO4) (F, OH).

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This article is also a part of our Professional Gemologist Certification Course, in the unit An Introduction to Gemology.

amblygonite crystal
Elements within parentheses in gemological formulas may occupy the same position in the crystal structure of a gemstone. These elements are listed in descending order according to the amounts present at that position. Amblygonite crystal, 6.3 x 3.0 x 2.6 cm, Linopolis, Livino das Laranjeiras, Minas Gerais, Brazil. © Rob Lavinsky, Used with permission.

However, if the formula reads (Li, Na) Al (PO4) (OH, F), we have a new species, montebrasite, in which hydroxyl (OH) exceeds fluorine (F).

Faceted montebrasite
Faceted montebrasites, Brazil. Photo by Enrique Zimbres. Gem cutting by Afonso Marques. Licensed under CC By-SA 3.0.

Furthermore, if the formula is (Na, Li) Al (PO4) (OH, F), then sodium (Na) exceeds lithium (Li). Thus, we class the mineral as yet another species, natromontebrasite.* Obviously, the degree of complexity associated with solid solutions can be very great. Any substitution of elements on a crystallographic structural site may (or may not) have an effect on physical properties.


Impurities can also affect properties. A good example is beryl, Be3Al2Si6O18. Beryl often contains elements such as iron (Fe), manganese (Mn), chromium (Cr), vanadium (V), and cesium (Cs). Since these elements are usually present in such small quantities, they're not written into the gemological formula. However, there are exceptions. For example, when Cr is present in a beryl sample (giving it the rich green color we know as emerald), gemologists know to substitute Cr for aluminum (Al) in the formula.

emerald - gemological formulas
2.24-ct Colombian emerald. © Bear Williams, Stone Group Labs. Used with permission.

A detailed knowledge of chemical substitutions and color changes in crystals requires a much greater sophistication in crystal chemical principles than I can expound here.

* Editor's note: As of 2006, the International Mineralogical Association (IMA) no longer considers natromontebrasite a mineral species. It is now considered a mixture of amblygonite, lacroixite, and wardite.

molecule model - gemological formulas

Joel E. Arem, Ph.D., FGA

Dr. Joel E. Arem has more than 60 years of experience in the world of gems and minerals. After obtaining his Ph.D. in Mineralogy from Harvard University, he has published numerous books that are still among the most widely used references and guidebooks on crystals, gems and minerals in the world.

Co-founder and President of numerous organizations, Dr. Arem has enjoyed a lifelong career in mineralogy and gemology. He has been a Smithsonian scientist and Curator, a consultant to many well-known companies and institutions, and a prolific author and speaker. Although his main activities have been as a gem cutter and dealer, his focus has always been education.

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