By the mid-nineteenth century gemstones were widely acknowledged to fit into two hierarchical categories, ‘precious’ and ‘semiprecious’ stones. Included in the first category were only diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and sometimes pearls, while the rest of the hundreds of other gem varieties in the world were relegated to the second, lesser group. Though when viewing them through modern eyes it seems self-evident that the semiprecious stones are just as estimable as their five elite brethren, it was not until a few pioneering jewellers and gemmologists promoted the attributes of the semiprecious stones that they were given a second look by the world.
One of the first people to promote semiprecious stones was George Frederick Kunz (1856-1932), the famous American gemmological prodigy. In 1879 Kunz was hired as Chief Gemmologist by Tiffany & Company in New York, making him very likely the first person to be hired by a jewellery company expressly for his gemmological expertise. Foremost a scholar of gemmology, Kunz was interested in all stones, not just those which had the highest monetary value. Soon after his hire Tiffany catalogues reveal a dramatic diversification in the variety of gemstones sold. Together Kunz and Tiffany further promoted semiprecious stones on the international level in the World Expositions, including the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris and the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago of 1893, where they won a series of grand prizes for both their gem specimen displays and their gem set jewellery. Around the same time, on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, a London jeweller had similar ideas with regards to gemstones. In the 1880’s Carlo Giuliano (1831-1895), a London jeweller of Neapolitan origin, began to integrate semiprecious stones into his jewellery, according to the man himself, in an effort to prize colour and design over intrinsic value of materials. Discoveries of new gem varieties and sources also spurred on the vogue for these unusual gemstones.
By the end of the nineteenth century ‘precious’ and ‘semiprecious’ gems were fast becoming antiquated concepts, and gemstones of every variety began to be accepted and appreciated for their inherent beauty. Throughout the following century many of the important jewellery houses adopted this more inclusive philosophy of design, including Cartier, Bulgari, and Seaman Schepps, until, as is the case today, it became common practice. Just one look at the astonishing rainbow of colours made available by the use of ‘semi-precious’ stones and one wonders how their beauties were ever suppressed.