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People everywhere, throughout history, have followed a natural instinct to collect things of beauty and value, and have used whatever gems they found locally from shells to sapphires to adorn themselves. Today, the whole range of the world's gems is available to those who can afford them. There are more gem-producing areas than ever before, new stones are on the market, and jewelry designs continue to evolve. But the inherent attraction of gems their beauty, durability, and rarity remains the same.



Gem materials were probably first used as much for their durability as their beauty. But beauty was not ignored. For example, the Stone Age obsidian axe below has been wrought to be attractive as well as practical, and ancient civilizations did fashion gems purely for adornment. Although most were primitive in design, some were highly intricate, with painted surfaces. Down the ages, gems have also been offered as prestigious gifts, and their portability and intrinsic value gave them a natural use as currency.


Quartz beads, once used as a form of currency.


The earliest collectors found gems with no more equipment than a stick or shovel, a basket, and a sharp eye. Similar Stone Age tools found in the Mogok area of Burma show that rubies have been mined there for thousands of years - and the same methods of panning the stream with wicker baskets are used today. Evidence of more organized early mining for example, abandoned mines and waste dumps  is found in the Urals of Russia, on the shores of the Mediterranean, in Cornwall, England, and in many other places worldwide.


OBSIDIAN AXE,  A natural volcanic glass, obsidian could be fashioned into a razor-sharp tool.


Very little jewelry made before the 18th century survives. The best examples are probably those of Ancient Egypt, much of it gold set with gems such as turquoise, lapis lazuli, and carnelian. It shows the great skill of the Egyptian goldsmiths: the gold refined, annealed, and soldered; the gems fashioned probably using silica sand, a technique also known to the Ancient Chinese. The Romans went on to develop the polished stone rather than the setting. The art of the goldsmith and lapidary survived in the Dark Ages, though in medieval  times gothic style was functional  mainly buckles, clasps, and rings. With the discovery of the Americas in the 15th century, European trade in gemstones expanded, and 16th- and 17th-century jewelers could use gems from all over the world. With the rise of an affluent merchant class, jewelry became more widely owned, and diamonds first became fashionable. In the 20th century, an increase in demand for affordable gems, and the scarcity of the most valuable, will doubtless continue the trend to use more varied gem species in jewelry.

MERMAN  In this typical 16th-century pendant, a pearl forms the torso, with diamonds and rubies set in gold around it.


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