Most gemstones, like diamonds, rubies and sapphires, are minerals with a crystalline structure. Yet there are some gems that have far more organic origins – gems nonetheless, but not technically gemstones. Organic gems come from life and are initiated through biological processes, whether flora or fauna. These biogenic beauties are prized for rarity and are typically softer than gemstones, with a demure elegance and quiet luxury all their own. Organic gems may refer to highly valued coral, ivory, ammolite and, most dear to Spey, the pearl. This is their story.
Amber is the hard, fossilized resin or sap of ancient pine trees – formed roughly 50 million years ago. Gathered from the shore or mined, amber was one of the earliest organic gems to be fashioned into jewelry and amulets. Today amber is often framed with gold or silver and fashioned as pendants or earrings. When finely polished, amber may range in color from pale straw to gold and russet. Most are first introduced to the organic gems in elementary science classes, as the sweet, sticky sap would trap and preserve insects, plants or pyrite for millennia.
Coral is a branching, skeletal structure composed of calcite or conchiolin. Think of coral as a tiny marine creature, or polyp, that extracts calcium from the sea to construct a home around it. Gathered in enormous colonies, corals “grow” as each successive generation builds on the foundation of the last. When sustainably farmed and harvested, coral may become figurines, cameos, carvings or beads. The organic gems range in color from blood red to fiery orange, or from blushing pink to cerulean. Most wild coral is protected; left untouched, corals form in time great reefs and crucial marine ecosystems.
Jet is a form of lignite, a precursor to coal, and is the product of ancient decaying wood preserved under extreme pressure. Jet leapt into fashion during the long reign of Queen Victoria, who took to wearing jewelry composed of these organic gems following the death of her husband, Prince Albert. Jet is velvety when cut, polished and faceted, and gives us the adjective “jet-black” for a color as near true black as possible. Cut into beads, jet is typically strung and knotted like pearls. The popularity of jet declined after the early decades of the twentieth century, but it is still sometimes used in rosaries or long strands.
Ivory is principally an amalgamation of calcium phosphate. Before the age of plastic, ivory was significant in the manufacture of cutlery handles, billiard balls, musical instruments, and a host of carved ornamental objects. While often associated with the elephant tusk, ivory may also be sourced from bone or teeth, the extraction of which from the environment has achieved unconscionable levels of destruction to wild populations of elephant, hippopotamus, rhino, walrus and other mammals. Spey in no way condones the trade of ivory and instead supports global actions for the seizure of ivory caches and the comprehensive market ban.
Pearl is unquestionably the most exquisite of organic gems, as well as being one of the most sustainable and earth-friendly gems. Composed of calcium carbonate, or nacre, pearls are formed when an irritant penetrates the shell of a mollusk and irritates the soft, internal tissue. To protect itself, the mollusk secretes concentric layer after layer of nacre around the intruder, forming in time the lustrous pearl. Pearl-bearing mollusks are found in both salt- and freshwaters, and variations among the species give rise to different colors and sizes of pearls. One of the admirable qualities of pearls is that they require no processing – pearls are ready to be mounted or strung as jewelry from the moment the oyster is opened.
Fancy adding the luster of organic gems to your wardrobe? Shop the Spey collection for exceptional pieces of pearl jewelry. The world’s your oyster.