Organic gemstones were once living organisms, or were formed by living organisms. They are gemstones that are derived from animals, plants or other organisms, often fossilized, and are organic in origin, formed from biological processes. Organic gemstones were very popular with the Victorians in the 19th century. Shells were carved to make cameos, coral was fashioned into beads, amber was made into beads, and jet was the preferred mourning gemstone. Ivory played more of a role in Art Nouveau jewelry era.
Organic gemstones differ from precious gemstones, in that the precious gemstones are a piece of a mineral which has been cut and polished. Diamonds come from the carbon mineral, rubies come from aluminum, sapphires from corundum, an aluminum oxide, and emeralds come from the beryl mineral.
Some of the most common organic gemstones are:
PEARLS A smooth, slightly iridescent, white or grayish rounded growth inside the shells of some mollusks. Pearls form as a reaction to the presence of a foreign particle, and consist of thin layers of mother-of-pearl that are deposited around the particle. The pearls of oysters are often valued as gems.
AMBER which is the fossilized resin of the pine tree, formed approximately 50 million years ago, has been used since prehistoric times for jewelry, amulets and religious objects. The most prized pieces contain inclusions of insects or plants or pyrites. The color varies from light yellow to dark brown. This stone resembles, and is named after, ambergris, a sweet smelling secretion of the sperm whale which was used as a stabilizer in perfume. Amber was the much preferred jewelry of the Victorian era and is considered a good luck stone.
AMMOLITE is the fossilized remains of ancient sea anemones. It is similar to the opal in appearance and often has a cracked or mottled surface. This cracking gives the stone the look of “dragon scales” or a stained glass window.
CORAL is the skeletal remains of marine animals that live in warm water and is commonly used to make figurines, cameos, carvings and beads. Gem-quality coral is related to the reef-forming corals, but the most valuable coral variety is found in the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and in coastal Japan. There are now restrictions imposed on coral harvesting because the reefs are degrading and there is a real danger for the corals.
IVORY is commonly thought to be from the elephant’s tusk, but these days it also comes from the teeth of the hippopotamus, walrus, wild boar and other mammals. Like bones, ivory consists mainly of calcium phosphate. Before the invention of plastics, ivory was important for cutlery handles, musical instruments, billiard balls and many other ornamental carved items. Ivory jewelry was popular during the Victorian period. Due to the rapid decline in the populations of the animals that produce it, the importation and sale of ivory is strictly banned, or severely restricted, in many countries.
JET is a shiny black stone and is formed from the remains of wood and is also called LIGNITE.
This stone became extremely popular as mourning jewelry after Queen Victoria wore it on the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861. This stone is considered as a gem for spiritual enlightenment. Jet is actually a bituminous coal and is extremely light. Long necklaces of jet beads were very popular during the 1920’s when women would wear multiple strands of jet beads stretching from the neckline to the wait. It is a very fragile, rare, and collectible gemstone.