By Dr Richard Taylor, lecturer in Gemmology at Birmingham City University’s School of Jewellery.

Gemmology is the study of gemstones and has been a separate academic endeavour to mineralogy, a more widely recognised and closely related subject, for over 100 years.

Gemstones have been recorded for over 2,000 years in human history as being both sort after and precious, being described as the subject of commercial trading, barter and wealth acquisition. It is therefore not surprising that the importance of identification and differentiation between the ‘real’ and the ‘fake’ has also been important for nearly as long.

This is illustrated by Pliny the Elder (AD 23 – AD 79) who described the heating of gemstones to artificially improve their colour and perceived value, and additionally the manufacture of fake stones.

Jumping forward to the 20th century the number and extent of man-made (synthetic), fake (imitation), and treated material that is developed and offered has grown exponentially. For some gemstones, fakes, imitation and treated alternatives are fraudulently offered alongside the natural material. In addition, technological advances facilitate the development of new treatments and synthetic material that is an increasing ongoing challenge to the gemmologist.

Gem treatment is not all bad, the treatment of poor quality material to improve the recovery rate for gem quality material from a gem resource is environmentally beneficial and a sustainable policy. Treatments must be identified and disclosed to the buyer to ensure both the buyer and seller are making informed choices. The gemmologist effectively becomes the gate keeper and protector of the market and the end consumer. In this role it is essential for gemmology research to stay ahead of all the technological advances and developments in the treatments of gemstones.

The research activity at Birmingham City University’s gemmology department is designed to be at the forefront of this research. We are committed to explore both existing and new and emerging gem materials, and treatments. We also investigate at a more fundamental level how and why particular gem treatments work. The mechanism for the cause of colour in gemstones is not a trivial mechanism and to understand any colour improving treatment it is important to have a clear and robust model of the colour causing mechanism and how it may be modified.

Dr Taylor lectures in gemmology and leads the gemmology research efforts at Birmingham City University’s School of Jewellery. He is also an honorary research fellow at the University of St Andrews and a distinguished visiting Professor at the China University of Geosciences Wuhan.

Find out more about the School of Jewellery.

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