Perhaps you’ve noticed how often we use the word mineral when writing about gemstones. Given the importance of minerals to our life’s work – and your jewelry viewing and wearing pleasure – we thought it might be interesting to take a moment to explore what minerals are.
First, a few Myth Busters
Most people over the age of 45 or 50 think about minerals according the designations they learned in second grade, when they were taught that all things can be assigned to the animal, vegetable, or mineral kingdoms. This is an archaic use of the term, and younger generations may have heard this information from their parents, but are no longer taught that the world can be broken down into three kingdoms.
The word mineral is also misused in geology, where anything that is obtained from the ground for use by man is called a mineral. Coal, oil, gas, granite, and obsidian are often referred to as minerals because they are mined from the ground, but for various reasons are not minerals at all.
So what is a Mineral?
The scientific definition of a mineral is something that is:
- Naturally occurring (people did not make it).
- Inorganic (is not made by an organism, but instead, created in the earth).
- Solid (not liquid or gas at standard room temperature).
- Is made of narrowly defined chemical ingredients (for example, Corundum’s chemistry is expressed as AI2O3, which means it is made of 2 aluminum atoms and 3 oxygen atoms, whereas rocks are comprised of a mixture of minerals with a much broader chemical definition).
- Exhibits an ordered internal structure (the atoms are arranged in a systematic and repeating pattern).
There are approximately 4,000 known minerals. Many of these minerals are essential for plants to grow, are required for healthy bodies, and are used to make medicines. Minerals are also used to make the clothing we wear, the houses we live in, the cars we drive, and the roads we drive on. In fact, it is estimated that three trillion tons of mineral commodities are used to support the standard of living in the United States each year!
Are all Gemstones Minerals?
Actually, no. Amber is solidified tree resin and other fossilized organic matter, so it is not a mineral. Opal is actually a hydrated form of silica without a clearly defined shape or form, so it cannot be a mineral. Pearls are not minerals because they are formed by a living organism, and they do not have a distinctive crystal structure. Of course, anything that is created in a laboratory or made with synthetics is not a mineral, though minerals are probably part of the materials they are made of.
Thank Goodness for Minerals!
Minerals are not only essential to sustain life on this planet; the majority of gems are also minerals. Rubies, garnets, sapphires, emerald, aquamarine, citrine — all are minerals that can be cut, shaped and polished. So not only do minerals feed us, clothe us, provide beautiful landscapes and functional buildings; they are also responsible for giving us the incredibly beautiful gems we view in museums, collect in pouches and drawers, and wear as adornment in jewelry. No wonder so many of us naturally gravitate to the splendor of natural colored gemstones! They truly are the stuff of life.