Frontiers: What is Gemology?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

In an early October seminar delivered by Anu Manchanda, many of us were as taken aback as we were intrigued at that week’s peculiar choice of topic.

As an experienced instructor at the London branch of the oldest gemological institutions in the world1, Anu’s role at the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) is in teaching the practical study of gemstones—a blend of art, science and business. Although now a global nonprofit spanning the world from its headquarters in Carlsbad, California to Mumbai, Hong Kong and Johannesburg, the GIA’s humble beginnings lie in a preliminary course on gemology ran by Robert M. Shipley in 1930. In his relentless pursuit to transform the American jewelry industry and restore the public’s trust in the jewelry trade, gemology eventually became a recognised science in 1934. In the same year, the GIA also patented the triple aplanatic-lensed loupe—more commonly referred to by geologists as a hand lens!

Photo by Franco Antonio Giovanella on Unsplash

Into the 21st century, the GIA maintains a high standard as the world’s foremost authority on diamonds, coloured stones and pearls. To fulfill its three key objectives of education, research and protection of industry, the GIA has trained more than 350,000 professionals in the acquisition, design, manufacture, retail and appraisal of precious gemstones.

In the industry, all diamonds, coloured gemstones and pearls are assessed as they are procured in the field before further testing in laboratories. At least for diamonds and coloured stones, tools of the trade include refractometers, polariscopes and spectroscopes among others for assessing whether such gemstones are synthetic or natural. In addition, quality is also assessed through the 4Cs: cut, clarity, colour and carat weight. While the cut of a gemstone deals with the quality of its sparkle and brilliance, its clarity concerns itself with the presence of inclusions and blemishes. On the other hand, colour is assessed on a systematic D–Z scale for diamonds (D being colourless and of highest value2) whereas for coloured gemstones, colour is assessed by an optimal and uniform combination of hue, tone and saturation3. Lastly, carat weight—the more renowned quality of the 4Cs—assesses the weight of diamonds and coloured gemstones in metric carats, wherein 0.2g comprises the weight of one carat4.

The quality of pearls however, are assessed according to seven value factors: size, shape, colour, lustre, surface, nacre quality and matching.5 Most of these factors are self-explanatory, though such is not the case for nacre quality and matching. Briefly, saltwater and freshwater molluscs secrete an iridescent substance around irritants that enter them, such as minute organisms—this iridescent substance is known as nacre. Layer after layer of this nacre built around the irritant eventually forms a pearl. The quality of this nacre is assessed by the thickness of its layers around a pearl. On the other hand, matching relates to the uniformity of pearls in jewelry items such as strands and earrings.

Photo by TheAnnAnn on Pixabay

However, the glamour of the precious mineral industry often belies the underlying controversy of its sourcing, both in the annals of history and through modern capitalism in the present day. Alongside the GIA6, organisations like the Kimberley Process7 are committed to ensuring the well-regulated trade of diamonds and the transparency of its channels from rough to polish. Initiatives such as the GIA’s diamond beneficiation scheme in Botswana were developed for this very purpose8. Even so, the global diamond industry’s pursuit of high ethical standards remains laden with footfalls, especially concerning the the trade flow of conflict diamonds—rough diamonds used to finance wars against governments, more insidiously known as blood diamonds9. Some reasons for these footfalls are attributed to the exclusion of certain practices in the definition of a conflict diamond, such as environmental degradation, child labour, worker exploitation, state-sanctioned violence and the displacement of indigenous peoples.

While the sourcing of pearls is more easily resolved by eco-friendly practices10, the sourcing of coloured gemstones is substantially more contentious. By lacking the industry-wide transparency and strict regulations afforded to procuring diamonds, the lucrative billion-dollar industry of coloured gemstones has largely avoided close scrutiny—thereby concealing its more dishonest practices from its global consumers.

Photo by photosforyou on Pixabay

In the case of Madagascar, it is unregulated and underpaid human labour rather than machinery that extracts from the island’s multitude of treasures. From rose quartz, tourmaline and amethyst to citrine, labradorite and carnelian, Madagascar is home to a wealth of minerals. Yet despite its abundance in precious gemstones, Madagascar remains one of the poorest and most undernourished11 countries in the world, with 75% of the population living below the $1.90-a-day poverty line12. Gemstone mining is a relatively profitable source of income in the country, but the rock-bottom prices at which gemstones like rose quartz are sold to foreign companies hardly compensate for its extensive use of child labour and the deaths of its workers from frequent landslides and silicosis—the hardening of lung tissue by prolonged exposure to fine silica dust.

Much of these circumstances have remained due to the ongoing process of extortion since the colonial era of chattel slavery. Although the French had abolished slavery in Madagascar by 189613, slavery itself was not entirely eradicated. Rather, it had been repackaged into systems of labour exploitation for the production and export of millions of francs’ worth of goods every year since—much like the present day. More than a century later, the riches of this island still rarely benefit the Malagasy people.

Photo by Graphic Node on Unsplash

With the discovery of new mining sites every year, more and more of Madagascar’s rainforests are coming under threat of deforestation and human encroachment into protected areas. It is in these particular areas that many of the island’s endangered species reside, such as the ring-tailed lemur made famous by King Julien in Dreamworks’ 2005 film, Madagascar.

In the discussion that followed the seminar, the question of ethics was raised. Despite all efforts to reform, the mining and acquisition of gemstones continue to threaten not only endangered ecosystems all over the world, but also the livelihood of populations in the Global South.

To take this further, the exploitation of labour has always worked in active collusion with the plundering of precious gemstones during the colonial era. Centuries after the theft of stolen heritage items like the infamous Koh-i-Noor Diamond and the Great Star of Africa, why have their original owners yet to reclaim them? Why do those responsible for their theft still benefit from their ownership?

With these in mind, is it still ethical to purchase products that may have been the bitter fruits of exploitative labour? In a world of growing concerns around climate change and social justice, is there hope at all for the global gemstone trade to rectify its practices?

I sincerely hope so.


1 About GIA: A Tradition of Science and Education (2019)
Gemological Institute of America

2 GIA 4Cs Color (2019)
Gemological Institute of America

3 Colored Gemstone Value Factors (2018)
A. Gilbertson

4 GIA 4Cs Carat Weight (2019)
Gemological Institute of America

5 Pearl Quality 101 – How GIA Examines and Classifies Pearls (2019)
Gemological Institute of America

6 The GIA Diamond Origin Report: Diamond Traceability Based on Science (2019)
Gemological Institute of America

7 What is the Kimberley Process? (2019)
The Kimberley Process

8 Skill Implications of Botswana’s Diamond Beneficiation Industry (2014)
The World Bank

9 Why ALL Mined Diamonds Are Dirty Diamonds (2016)
C. Spagnoli Gabardi

10 Are Pearls Ethical? We Investigate (2019)
D. Ayres

11 Our World in Data: Hunger and Undernourishment (2019)
H. Ritchie, M, Roser

12 The World Bank in Madagascar (2019)
The World Bank

13 History of Madagascar (2019)

14 Sapphire mines that become forests (2017)
G. Flores Zavala

(Photo by Franco Antonio Giovanella on Unsplash)


Leave a reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Report this page

To report inappropriate content on this page, please use the form below. Upon receiving your report, we will be in touch as per the Take Down Policy of the service.

Please note that personal data collected through this form is used and stored for the purposes of processing this report and communication with you.

If you are unable to report a concern about content via this form please contact the Service Owner.

Please enter an email address you wish to be contacted on. Please describe the unacceptable content in sufficient detail to allow us to locate it, and why you consider it to be unacceptable.
By submitting this report, you accept that it is accurate and that fraudulent or nuisance complaints may result in action by the University.