Gem Nomenclature • The Name Game

1 May 1994
By Richard Hughes
Gem Nomenclature • The Name Game

The issue of gemological nomenclature is one that has been hotly debated for decades, because an attractive name is a crucial part of marketing and selling gemstones. In this article from 1994, Richard Hughes takes a stab at the subject.

Gem Nomenclature • The Name Game

Note: This article was written for the Bill Hicks Memorial Issue of the Australian Gemmologist


Father calls me William, sister calls me Will, Mother calls me Willie, but the fellers call me Bill! Eugene Field [1850–1895]

BILL HICKS WAS a friend. I never had the pleasure of meeting him in the flesh, but still feel as though I knew him intimately. Bill and I corresponded on a number of occasions. It was during this correspondence that I grew to love his acerbic comments, strategically timed so that, whenever I would misspell a word or two, I would hear from Bill.

In my writing career, I have collected more rejection slips than Imelda Marcos has shoes. But none from Bill Hicks. Bill was one of those rare birds who always seemed to get it. Even more important, he always gave other people a chance do likewise. The only thing he ever scrapped from an article of mine was a sarcastic reference to George Bush's memory (it's okay, Bill, he ain't president no more).

At this point, I suppose I should talk about what a great guy Bill was and, above all, that he will be sorely missed. Somehow, I can't. Because I have this postcard on my desk of George Bush performing an act which, in the American vernacular, is termed 'flipping the bird.' I know that Bill is still out there somewhere, someplace, and that he has a big smile on his face. He's giving me a similar gesture, laughing, because he just discovered a spelling error in my article.

The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names. Chinese Proverb

Sometimes it seems that wisdom in the gem business is in short supply. Take a two-carat Thai ruby of good quality. Say it sells for $5000. In contrast, the garnet of identical appearance sells for about $10. The difference? As far as the consumer is concerned, it's the name.

With gems, the name is so important. Thus you could be forgiven if you think that this industry has an airtight method for determining just what those names are. Such is not the case. Gemology has made tremendous strides over the past century; Kunz, Bauer, Anderson, Webster, Sinkankas, Eppler, Shipley, Gübelin, Koivula and others have given us much, but the area of nomenclature remains untouched.

Disraeli aside, the truth is that the problem with gem nomenclature stems from a lack of accepted definitions. When we say ruby, what are we talking about? How about garnet? What is it? Whilst a gem species name (corundum and beryl are gem species) is generally used in a consistent way, when it comes to varieties (ruby and blue sapphire are corundum varieties; emerald and aquamarine are beryl varieties) the simple fact is that, according to current practices, you can call your stones whatever you want. Truth be told, there is absolutely nothing stopping a gem dealer or jeweler from taking a red corundum (ruby) and selling it as a suckite. No, that's not true; the only thing really stopping this is bad taste.

Could someone get away with this? It depends on who they are. In 1967, a stunning blue gemstone was discovered. Displaying a color only dreamed about in sapphire, it was first thought to be an entirely new mineral species. But lo and behold, the gem was a transparent blue zoisite (an epidote group mineral species hitherto known only for ornamental green and pink varieties).

Among the first to import this material into the USA was New York dealer, Julio Tanjeloff. No problem, until the famous New York jeweler Tiffany & Co. got sight of it. When Tiffany received a piece, one of their executives suggested that it be called "Tanzanite." [1] His reasoning was razor sharp: "What woman would buy a zoisite?" spoke he. Thus the transparent blue zoisite was foisted upon an unwary public as tanzanite, on the basis of executive whim.

Our story does not end here. This unilateral action by Tiffany enraged Julio Tanjeloff to such a degree that he decided to fight whim with whimsy. Tanjeloff took out large advertisements in various national publications for the new gem material – TANJELOFFITE! Yeah! Go get 'em Julio. And Julio did make a go of it, but 'twas not enough. He was eventually forced to concede defeat, due to his lack of clout, industry wise and especially wallet wise. Thus blue zoisite is today traded by one and all as tanzanite. Nice try, but no cigar for Mr. Tanjeloff.

A person with a bad name is already half hanged. Proverb

Tanzanite was not the first time Tiffany got involved with naming gems, nor was it to be the last. The firm had a long history in the name game. Tiffany gemologist-extraordinaire, G.F. Kunz, named pink beryl morganite after one of the firm's best clients, banker J.P. Morgan. And Kunz himself "consented" to have pink spodumene named kunzite in his honor. [2] When Kunz found a rare Brazilian milky blue-white diamond that phosphoresced he named it tiffanyite after the founder, Charles L. Tiffany. Much later, after the tanzanite debacle, Tiffany again entered the name game. A transparent green grossular was discovered in Kenya's Tsavo National Park in 1968 and was duly dubbed tsavorite by Tiffany.

The above begs the question of just who is Tiffany to be deciding what we call a gemstone? Well, Tiffany & Co. is a very large and well-known jewelry firm, one that has tremendous clout both in the US and abroad. But in their defense I must point out that Tiffany was just doing what people and firms have always done in the gem trade – they called it what they liked. In Tiffany's case, because they were a big and powerful company, it stuck.

So there we have the problem: gem names are often chosen in an arbitrary and capricious manner. What's the solution? For starters, one would hope that guidelines could be set up. Like what sort of things gem names will be based upon. Will we name a gem after the place it was first found (tanzanite), its appearance (rubellite, because it looks like ruby), its finder (painite, after A.C.D. Pain), a famous person (liddicoatite, after R.T. Liddicoat of the GIA), a company (tiffanyite) or perhaps just after the way the person was feeling when they discovered it (mirabilite, because the finder was surprised to find it)?

In the past, gem names have been chosen by the person or persons who've made the discovery. Nothing wrong with that, as long as the name has some semblance of sanity. But sanity and logic seldom orbit the gem planet when choosing names. We've been saddled with such things as lazulite and lazurite (two different minerals, both typically blue); hessite (a species) and hessonite (orange variety of grossular garnet); and bixbyite (a species) and bixbite (red variety of beryl), which are both found in Utah and both named after the same man.

In 1991, it was announced to one and all that a new gem had been discovered. "Hooray!" cried we. Tis not every day that the planet brings forth a new treasure. "What, pray tell, could it consist of?" It's green, the color of emerald. "Marvelous!" we shouted with mounting excitement. Where's it from? Tanzania? "Right On!" And what's it called? "Güblinite!"  Güblinite?…. oh… really… yes… why that's… uh… interesting…… So what's it really called? Yes, I see… mineralogists call it green zoisite… hmm… that's… uh… interesting. So what did Eduard Gübelin himself have to say?… He despises the name, too? Hmm… that's… uh… interesting… [3]

The people who make no roads are ruled out from intelligent participation in the world's brotherhood. Michael Fairless (Margaret Fairless Barber)

Two organizations working on building roads are the International Mineralogical Association (IMA) and the International Colored Gemstone Association (ICA). To clear up the mineral name mess, the IMA has set up a Commission of New Minerals and New Mineral Names (CNMMN) to decide on the suitability of names for both new and existing minerals. Those who believe they've found something new submit the data to the commission, where it is ruled upon. If it is truly a new mineral, then the finders' proposed name is accepted. But if it's merely a new variety of an already-named mineral, or if the proposed name would create confusion, it's not allowed.

What this has meant to mineralogy is that some well-known names have been declared discredited and their use is discouraged. This has certainly caused grief among those members of the mineralogical community who were associated with those names and minerals, but overall mineralogists have bit the bullet; they have accepted this system because its advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. No longer is the influence of a single person or company the deciding factor. Instead the name is determined by an independent panel, based on clearly defined criteria.

Some discredited names that gemologists might recognize are listed below:

Approved Name Discredited Name
Almandine garnet Almandite garnet
Spessartine garnet Spessartite garnet
Grossular garnet, green Tsavorite or tsavolite
Zoisite, blue/violet Tanzanite
Cordierite Iolite

One type of name not allowed by the IMA is a variety name [4], because a variety based on color is infinitely variable (as one color shades into another). Accepting variety names means clearly defining where one variety ends and the next begins. Precisely this problem has bedeviled the gem industry.

The ICA is also working, albeit less successfully than the IMA, to get the name-monkey off our collective back. For that they do deserve credit. 1989's congress had them discussing whether or not pink sapphire is a ruby (it was agreed it was). 1991 saw debate on just how red a corundum had to be to be a ruby (undecided) and whether red beryl could be called red emerald (this idea of Dallas emerald dealer, Ray Zajicek, was not looked fondly upon by the great bejeweled masses). At the current geological pace, the whole mess should be straightened out about the time that California reaches Alaska.

When Demosthenes was asked what was the first part of oratory, he answered 'Action'; and which was the second, he replied: 'Action'; and which was the third, he still answered 'Action.' Plutarch [A.D. 46

One would expect that the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) would also have a vested interest in working towards an accepted system of gemological nomenclature. But it seems that no matter how we rub the great American genie of gemology, we will not soon see them working in this area. Witness the Winter 1992 issue of Gems & Gemology (G&G), in which Richard Liddicoat declared that:

Attempting to establish the makeup of an all-powerful nomenclature board to serve the gemological community would require more diplomacy than the United Nations…

Isn't the establishment of such a board precisely what the IMA has done for minerals? Duhhhhhh, I forget, them mineral guys gots edercational degrees. Us gem folks couldn' never cum up wit sumthin so dag-berned clever like them. Guest we jus' better git on back to the farm, huh?

The same issue of Gems & Gemology also contained opinions contrary to those of the GIA. The letter written by Oregon sunstone miner, Christopher L. Johnston, contains some of the most lucid musings on gem names ever put to paper; W. Wm. Hanneman also weighed in with this on gem nomenclature:

The GIA has always prided itself on being a recognized leader in the field of gemology and is fully aware that, through G&G, it is indeed the de facto arbiter of gem terminology in the US. Now the world, through the pleas of Dr. Gübelin, is asking the GIA to act responsibly. If G&G does not wish to become part of the solution, then it must be prepared to be recognized as part (if not most) of the problem.

What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. William Shakespeare

Is the value of a gem intrinsic, divorced from its name? Or, in the world of gems, is mettle merely a matter of moniker? To answer this question we must know what names are truly recognizable by the public. Certainly it is true that most gem names familiar to lay people are not the same as the accepted mineral name. As Ray Zajicek has repeatedly pointed out, you'll face an uphill battle trying to sell someone red corundum. But sell a ruby and all falls into place.

So what are we to do? Do we eliminate all special variety names, even those like ruby and emerald, to make our life at trade meetings a bit easier? Or do we set about the daunting task of clearly defining each and every gem variety? [5]

I propose a third option. How many varieties does the average consumer recognize? Five? Ten? Twenty? My guess is less than ten, and probably closer to five. We have ruby, sapphire, emerald and a helluva lot of maybes, like aquamarine, amethyst, citrine and… and… and… and… agate. Get serious. How many varieties does the general consumer know about? Not rock hounds and gem collectors, but average consumer.

Despite what Campbell Bridges [6] may wish, most people don't even think about a tsavorite until they've got a few emeralds under their belt (and on their fingers and around their necks and through their ear lobes). So what are we talking about? We're talking about defining less than five gem varieties – and ditching the rest – for the common good. Yes, that does mean enduring the wrath of those who own a piece of the tanzanite mine and it does mean pissing off those who do a lot of business in sunstone and we'll catch hell from those whose main thang is rhodolite and look out for them that are major traders in rubellite… and… and… think about it! Who in god's name really knows what a rubellite is? Or a rhodolite?

Here's the deal. If you can find more than 5% of the gem-buying public that knows precisely what a rhodolite is, then I will spend the rest of my days eating nothing but mine-run lots of that particular gemological abstraction. And if Ray Zajicek and the rest of the gem trade decide that all gem beryls should be called emerald (green emerald, red emerald, blue emerald, etc.), well it's A-OK with me bro, because at least the gem-buying public knows what an emerald is and they usually have a fairly good picture of red. But they do not know WHAT THE %#@& a rhodolite is! I rest my case.


The following represent my own ideas on what nomenclature is acceptable. I came upon the following definitions the hard way, because trade definitions are so lacking. A trade name like "pigeon's blood" ruby is "interesting," but who has really seen the blood of this obscure Burmese bird. (And what if the bird's anemic? Don't ask.) Group/species names are better-defined, because they are used by mineralogists (who tend to think more about logic, rather than sales potential). Since trade names have no rhyme or reason, I dumped them.

Acceptable Names

Group: Two or more species related by chemical composition and/or crystal structure.
Example: garnet [pyrope = Mg3Al2(SiO4)3; almandine = Fe3Al2(SiO4)3; spessartine = Mn3Al2(SiO4)3]
Species: A crystalline material having a defined composition (which may vary within limits). Examples: corundum, beryl, etc. Organic gems (pearl, coral), mineraloids (glass, opal) and rocks (lapis lazuli) are considered gem species, although they are not true minerals.
Variety: I consider two possible differences between varieties of the same species. They are color (red, blue, etc.) and/or phenomena (star, cat's eye, etc.). Do not try to read quality into variety names; they are for identification only. The only special variety names (trade names) to be defined and used are ruby, sapphire (blue only) and emerald.

Unacceptable Names

Trade Name: An ill-defined variety name, such as amethyst, Cr-tourmaline, tanzanite, etc. Formerly, gemologists defined varieties by coloring agent, origin or transparency. I consider trade names unacceptable because even an established name like emerald is defined in a myriad of ways, depending on the depth of green and coloring agent (or perceived coloring agent).

R S end dingbat


  1. Especially from a company with a name like Tiffffannnnyyy," addeth I. [ return to article ]
  2. Exactly why Tiffany & Co. considered zoisite less palatable than kunzite escapes me. Kunzite sounds like something that one would immediately try to wipe off one's shoe if stepped on. 'Eeech! You just stepped on some kunzite!' [ return to article ]
  3. If anyone in gemology deserves a gem named after him, it is Eduard Gübelin. Unfortunately, new gem species are in short supply. Since Gübelinite is unlikely to be confused with any other current gem species, let us hope that a truly new species will be discovered that can be named after him. [ return to article ]
  4. Ruby is a variety; corundum is the species.return to article ]
  5. There are well over 200 gem varieties. [ return to article ]
  6. Campbell Bridges has been largely responsible for bringing green grossular to the attention of the gem-buying public. [ return to article ]

Further reading

  • Dunn, P.J. (1988) Protocols for scientists on the deposition of investigated mineral specimens. Mineralogical Record, Vol. 19, No. 5, Sept.–Oct., p. 91.
  • Dunn, P.J. (1991) The discreditation of mineral species. Mineralogical Record, Vol. 22, March-April, pp. 91–93.
  • Liddicoat, R.T. (1992) What did you say the name was? Gems & Gemology, Vol. 28, No. 4, p. 219 (see also letters), p. 220, 3 pp.
  • Nickel, E.H. and Mandrino, J.A. (1987) Procedures involving the IMA Commission on New Minerals and New Mineral Names and guidelines on mineral nomenclature. American Mineralogist, Vol. 72, pp. 1031–1042.
  • Zara, Louis (n.d., ca. early 1970s) Tanjeloffite and blue zoisite. Mineral Digest, Vol. 2, pp. 20–33.

Author's Afterword

"The Name Game" was written for the Bill Hicks Memorial Issue of the Australian Gemmologist (1994, Vol. 18, No. 10, May, pp. 311–315) and was an attempt to bring some measure of sanity and reason to the neglected area of gem nomenclature. Guess what? Today nomenclature is still neglected. Oh well.

About the Author

Richard W. Hughes is one of the world’s foremost experts on ruby and sapphire. The author of several books and over 170 articles, his writings and photographs have appeared in a diverse range of publications, and he has received numerous industry awards. Co-winner of the 2004 Edward J. Gübelin Most Valuable Article Award from Gems & Gemology magazine, the following year he was awarded a Richard T. Liddicoat Journalism Award from the American Gem Society. In 2010, he received the Antonio C. Bonanno Award for Excellence in Gemology from the Accredited Gemologists Association. The Association Française de Gemmologie (AFG) in 2013 named Richard as one of the fifty most important figures that have shaped the history of gems since antiquity. In 2016, Richard was awarded a visiting professorship at Shanghai's Tongji University. 2017 saw the publication of Richard's Ruby & Sapphire: A Gemologist's Guide, arguably the most complete book ever published on a single gem species and the culmination of nearly four decades of work in gemology.

A Reader Response

26 March, 2000


Was perusing your website with pleasure and got into the name game bit, which is something that I have a keen interest in, and always have. There is a great subject for a forum even though discussing this issue is like pissing in the wind because almost no one cares about it in the least, including the professionals.

Hope to get back to you more than once on this subject because it interests (amuses) me. Just now, unfortunately, I have no time to really get into it. On the tanzanite front, Julio Tangeloff notwithstanding, it was really Martin Ehrmann who imported most of the original material and was working with Tiffany & Co. in their effort to monopolize the production (a naïve objective). Due to their investment, it made great sense to push their choice of a name for the stone and I cannot see how they can be faulted for favoring tanzanite. It had much better commercial possibilities, as you noted.

A slight clarification on the workings of the IMA names commission, if you will. They actually rule on two submissions by the describers of hoped-to-be new mineral species. They vote on the uniqueness of the material; that is, does it qualify as a new species? They also vote on the choice of name. They can approve the species status, but reject the name, in which case the author or authors must submit a different name candidate.

On names that have been rejected, surely you can find better examples that grossularite and almandine. Many worthy people have had minerals proposed to honor them, but rejected because of the earlier use of the name, even if as a variety only, or because the name is too similar to one already in use.

By the way, one of the things that really annoys me is tacking on the term garnet when citing a garnet group species, as in grossular garnet! Can you tell me why this is universal among the gem community yet it is not done with the tourmalines (liddicoatite tourmaline) or the spinels (spinel spinel), or even when referring to varietal names as in corundum (ruby corundum)? This is terribly inconsistent. Why just the garnets? And, by the way, the most common error one sees in the garnet group is spessartite, when the IMA approved name is spessartine. There was even an entire case at the Tucson Show filled with spessartine that the dealer mislabeled spessartite. Beautiful, but you would think that someone who specializes in a particular gem would want to get its name right.

A fun subject, even if a total waste of effort. More later!

Kindest regards,
John White

RWH Adds a Few Notes

Ah, I've found the other human who is interested in gem nomenclature. Welcome.

Just a few notes. Regarding the appending of names, I believe garnet is used since most of the public has heard of garnet, but has no clue what an almandine is.

Spinel spinel is not used because it is redundant (no one would expect the spinel species to be anything other than a member of the spinel group). Tourmaline is used in lieu of the species, because most gemologists and jewelers have no means of determining species in that group.

I've actually modified my views on gem nomenclature since the above article's publication, and today am far more accepting of trade names, so long as they are not confusing or deceptive. I would prefer not to see names like "alexandrite-like sapphire," but can get along with malaya garnet.

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