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Lifecycle of a Gemstone

Updated: Aug 14, 2023

Ever wondered what that gemstone was up to before it turned up round your neck? This post will stop you wondering. Today I’m going to be telling you the story of the lifecycle of a gemstone. It’s not an overly long story, but it is a very long lifecycle. And it all starts with the birth of the gemstone.

You probably know already that natural gemstones are created through geological processes deep inside the earth’s crust. This could be because some molten rock has cooled, or the mineral composition of something in the earth’s crust has changed, or because minerals from water have been deposited somewhere. Now things in the earth’s crust don’t exactly happen at lightening speed, so some of these gemstones have been millions, or even billions of years in the making. Incredible heat, huge amounts of pressure, cold and upheaval. Let's just say it's a very difficult way to be born.

Most coloured gemstones are created between 3 and 25 miles below the earths’ surface, but diamonds play a little harder to get, and are created more than 125 miles below the surface. Oddly, the other gemstone that’s created that deep is peridot, the August birthstone. Not that we have to venture that far down to get to the diamonds, because usually volcanic activity brings them a lot closer to the surface. The world’s deepest diamond mine is the Jwaneng mine in Botswana, at a depth of 625 metres, which means it's less than half a mile deep.

I now understand why we use the term “discovery” instead of “finding” for gemstones. For the most part, gemstones appear to turn up almost as a happy accident, either as part of a large mining operation, or just through general nosiness and luck. Once a tiny bit has been discovered, more purposeful mining efforts are used in that area to find more.

So here's something strange - did you know that the process for mining diamonds is completely different from that for any coloured gemstone? Coloured gemstones are found in small clusters, and the findings can be unpredictable, and sometimes of little value. After all, nobody wants rubies or emeralds the size of a grain of sand. Because it’s so difficult to guess how much coloured gemstone you might get at a site, and how valuable it might be, largescale mining operations for coloured gemstones are rare. Instead, simple operations involving picks, dynamite and drills are used. If you're a fan of Poldark, you'll know exactly what I mean.

With diamonds it’s a whole different story. Diamonds are useful whatever their size. Only about 20% of diamonds by weight are used for jewellery. The rest, called bort, are used for various industrial applications such as cutting tools and abrasives. Turns out that the world’s hardest substance is more than just a pretty face. I have a good 20 or 30 jewellery tools that have diamond dust on them. So any money spent on diamond mining is going to be worth it one way or another, and big mining operations for diamonds are common.

The photo on the left below shows the little diamond wheel I use to add texture to many of my designs, like the earrings on the right. You can check out other designs here.

Okay, your gemstone has been formed, discovered and mined. What happens next? This came as a surprise to me. They get sorted and graded. Grading is based on clarity, size and quality. I always thought that this would happen after a gemstone was cut, because how do you know how to grade it unless you’ve cut it? But it turns out that looking at a gemstone carefully and grading it before it’s cut gives the gem cutter, known as a lapidary, more information on the best cut for the gemstone, and how to get the most value out of the rough gemstone..

And you guessed right. The next step in the gemstone’s lifecycle is cutting and polishing. What’s interesting about this is that the vast majority of gemstones aren’t cut anywhere near where they’re mined. Most of the world’s gemstones are now found in Brazil and Africa, and the vast majority are cut and polished in India and the far east. I’m still trying to figure out why. What I do know, is that if I order gemstones online instead of getting them in person , they're almost always posted to me from Jaipur in India.

Can you believe it’s taken ten paragraphs for folks like me to enter the scene and play a part in a gemstone’s lifecycle? It’s humbling to know what a small part the likes of us jewellery makers play in the proceedings. But yes, after cutting and polishing, jewellers set the gemstones into a casing, more properly called a setting and turn it into a piece of jewellery.

And here you are, the owner of that piece of gemstone jewellery after all that has happened before. But the story doesn’t have to end here. Will that piece of jewellery be a gift for someone special? Is it precious enough to be handed down generations? Is it lost or misplaced? Does it stay with you forever? This is where you get to write the next chapter in that gemstone’s story. Make it a page-turner.

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