Many people refer to gemstones as crystals, and when I started learning about gemmology I wasn’t quite sure what was meant by a crystal. During my Foundation course I learnt all about the seven crystal systems that describe how gems grow, and the different forms that they can take.

Essentially the term crystal describes a well formed, uncut gem. Crystalline gems have an ordered internal structure, and grow in a characteristic pattern which is related to their underlying chemical composition. The opposite of crystalline is amorphous. Amorphous gem materials have a much more random underlying structure, with no discernible pattern. Amorphous materials that many of us would recognise include glass, or organic materials such as amber. Some gemstones are commonly seen in their crystalline form such as quartz, which many gem enthusiasts will easily recognise. Others are seen far less commonly, and can be difficult to recognise. It is most common to find gems as fragments of crystals.

Gemmologists act as detectives, looking for areas of the fragment that may display some of the surface features of the crystal, and which can give them a clue with respect to its identity. It’s not always that easy, especially if the gem fragment doesn’t include part of the surface. Rather than being mined, many gems are found on the surface of the earth, having broken away from their host rock, and been washed down rivers. These gems may have had their surfaces worn away, giving them a smooth appearance like a pebble. The lack of crystal features in this scenario can make it much more difficult to identify a gem just by looking. Stay tuned to find out how else we can work out the identity of gems……

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