When Is a Gemstone Not a Gemstone?

Jun 18, 2012

When it's a pearl, amber, or coral!

Beads, cabochons and jewelry-making components made of these materials are generally classified as gemstones, but there are some important differences between a true gemstone and a pearl, amber, or coral. Pearls, amber, and coral are all natural materials,  but these natural jewelry-making components are the result of three different biological processes. (And one of them is actually the hardened remains of a living marine animal!)

Freshwater pearls come in a dazzling array of colors and shapes.

Pearls Pearls are one of my favorite natural beads for jewelry making, and are most often classified as gemstones. Pearls are created when a tiny grain of sand or other irritant finds its way into an oyster or other hard-shelled mollusk. In order to protect itself, the mollusk begins coating the irritant with layers of luminescent nacre. Eventually, the pearl becomes large enough that it can be harvested and removed from the inside of the shell.

Pearls are classified as semi-precious gemstones in jewelry, and some of the finest examples of natural freshwater pearls can cost as much as precious gemstones such as emeralds, rubies, and sapphires! The largest known naturally-occurring pearl was discovered in the Philippines in 1934 in a clam, and weighed in at an astounding fourteen pounds! But because it was from a clam, and not a mollusk that secretes nacre, it didn't have the luster of a gem-quality pearl.

I surrounded this ceramic cabochon by Marsha Hedricks with tiny amber gemstone beads.
Amber Amber is the fossilized tree resin that flowed from ancient trees, millions of years ago. Although amber does not have the same chemical or crystalline structure as a mineral, it is also classified as a semi-precious gemstone. Baltic amber, in particular, is prized throughout the world for its variety of colors, which can range anywhere from a milky honey colored stone to a deep, dark, transparent green.

If you are shopping for amber, be on the lookout for bonded amber. This type of amber gemstone is actually composed of smaller pieces of amber that have been stuck together using a binding agent. Bonded amber costs significantly less than natural amber, so always ask what treatments your amber beads have undergone before making a purchase.

Amber that has whole insects or plants encased within it is particularly sought after, but a word of caution: if you find a piece of amber with a large insect inside of it, expect to pay top dollar for such a sample. If the price is too good to be true, it probably is.

Coral beads have been prized for centuries by cultures throughout the world.

Coral In recent years, there has been some concern and controversy regarding the harvesting of coral for use in jewelry. Coral is actually the dried, hardened remains of sea coral, a living organism that is vital to our oceans. The expansive coral reefs found throughout the world's oceans are the home to many important marine life that make up the food chain. When the coral dies or is over harvested, these marine animals and fish have no habitat, and the entire ocean ecosystem suffers.

But coral has also been prized as a gemstone by humans for centuries. Genuine coral jewelry and beads have been found in the ancient Egyptian tombs, and the ancient Romans prized coral for its perceived ability to protect the wearer from physical harm.

Genuine red coral, the type most prized for beads and jewelry, is incredibly rare. If you find it, expect to pay a premium for it. Most coral used in today's beads and jewelry making components is actually white coral that has been dyed red or pink. When using these coral beads in your jewelry making projects, the dye from these beads can run and stain clothing, so make sure you avoid exposing them to water when worn.

Do you love using natural gemstones in your beadweaving projects? Check out the 2009 Beadwork magazine collection on CD! You'll get all six issues from 2009 on a single, searchable CD. Each issue of Beadwork magazine is exactly as it was printed, but in digital format. Shelve your print magazines and look up your favorite beading projects, including twenty-four amazing Designer of the Year projects, on the CD! Get your copy of the 2009 Beadwork magazine collection on CD, and make room for more gemstone beads.

What's gemstone bead is your favorite to work with? Are you smitten (like me) with freshwater pearls? Or maybe you prefer an earthier gemstone like agate. Leave a comment and share your favorite gemstones here on the Beading Daily blog!

Bead Happy,


Featured Product

Coral Confluence

Availability: In Stock
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Mix up your materials! Use various types of coral beads and chain to create an unexpected necklace that will give your jewelry box some fun you've been looking for.


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diri wrote
on Jun 18, 2012 3:05 PM

There is a city in Italy (Alghero I think) where coral is one of the main resources in economy. They have this guidelines of where, when and how much they can take as not to create an imbalance.  

That's just me spreading randomness, sorry for language mistakes - I'm not a native English speaker.


Paula@26 wrote
on Jun 18, 2012 8:16 PM

A bead shop here assured me that their coral was sustainably harvested, but when I asked the coral expert at our government marine science institute, he said he was not aware of any sustainable coral harvesting anywhere in the world.  The corals I was looking at were from species that are very slow growing, and it is hard to see how they could be made sustainable.  

You wouldn't consider (I hope) using whale products in your jewellery, and just because coral aren't mammals and don't sing is no reason to treat them less well.  We have alternatives, let's use them.


New Zealand

Russ Nobbs wrote
on Jun 19, 2012 12:29 AM

A few comments:

You say "Most coral used in today's beads and jewelry making components is actually white coral that has been dyed red or pink. When using these coral beads in your jewelry making projects, the dye from these beads can run and stain clothing, so make sure you avoid exposing them to water when worn."

The commonly available dyed coral is  bamboo coral from the South China Sea. It is available in large quantities and is supposedly fast growing. It is naturally tan with black joints that give it the descriptive name of Bamboo coral. See en.wikipedia.org/.../File:2_isidella_skeleton_500.jpg for a picture. Before dyeing it is usually bleached. The bleached material is also sold as is.

The large volume of dyed bamboo coral and the relatively low prices for it suggest it is relatively plentiful. I've been assured by several Taiwanese and Chinese coral producers that the bamboo coral is not endangered and that it rows quickly. I can't confirm this opinion outside of the dyed coral industry.

There are 2 methods of dying bamboo coral. Cheaper faster water dyed coral often bleeds and fades when worn. Water dye is used on larger pieces that often show the black joint material. The oil dye process takes longer, does not bleed but is usually only available in small round and oval beads without any black spots.

Torre del Greco near Naples, Italy and Alghero are areas where coral is worked but in much more limited quantities and at much higher prices than in the past.  

More common than bonded amber is entirely man made imitation amber made from various plastic resins. Copal is a naturally occurring resin but it is not amber, nor is it ancient. Most  old "African amber" is phenolic plastic, prized in Africa as well as by collectors in the US.

Mndat.org and the free online Rings & Things gem index include a lot of material about imitations of genuine materials. www.rings-things.com/.../index.htm

on Jun 19, 2012 3:36 AM

Well I do like coral, I don't use much because ion concerned about where it comes from.

My favorite "gemstones" are pearls, especially natural color freshwater pearls. I also love mother of pearl too and I'm now combining both in new jewelry making MoP flowers of various sizes acid combine them with various pearls for necklaces. I'm looking to branch out into bracelets and earrings too. These flowers can be accented with more pearls, Swarovski crystals or gemstones.

Because I have to confess, I do love colored fine semi-precious gemstones such as blue topaz, amethyst, citrine, etc.


-<a href="www.jewelrybyjaynemarie.etsy.com" title = "JewelryByJaynemarie">JewelryByJaynemarie</a>

1965tulip wrote
on Jun 23, 2012 8:06 AM

I had the luck to buy some old stock from a jeweller who hade made in the past some Dutch coral necklaces. The colors are perfect but I like also the cabs from grey or pink coral.

on Jun 23, 2012 8:28 AM

Pearls, Pearls, Pearls - they're my absolute favorite to work with!

CrochetAJ wrote
on Jun 23, 2012 9:19 AM

Pearls are a great feature in almost any piece of jewelry, whether you add just a couple of 10mm pearls to a mix of other beads or use a whole strand by itself. There are so many shapes and colors to choose from these days - the sky is the limit!

I love the look of coral but hesitate to purchase it anymore, since it symbolizes the raping of our endangered reefs. Lately, I've replaced the real thing by taking red polymer clay, making pieces that look like coral branches and then antiquing it with black and brown acrylic paint. When I get compliments on my coral piece I always smile, laugh and tell the admirer that it's all imitation, made from clay. They are usually even more impressed.

on Jun 23, 2012 12:24 PM

I love pearls, but I am addicted to Picasso Jasper and the various other Jaspers and Agates.  Apparently a lot of people agree with me because I always get a lot of compliments and questions any time I wear it.