Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Colored Gemstone Beads

Do you use colored gemstone beads in your jewelry? Have you ever wondered what the gemstone bead ratings actually mean? Do you know the difference between an A graded gemstone bead and one with a B or C rating? Why are some beads classed as AAA or A+?

Look no further! Over the last four weeks we have been discussing the criteria on which fine high-end colored gemstones are assessed, and this week we turn our attention to beads and explore the characteristics of the different grades of colored gemstone beads.

Beads From left: B Grade Natural Peridot, C Grade Dyed & Heated Carnelian, A Grade Natural Lapis Lazuli

The first thing to say is that - as with cut colored gemstones - there is no universally acknowledged system for grading colored gemstone beads. Occasionally suppliers will use the same systems as for assessing the cut stones (see last week's article). However most use a scale of grades from A to C, where an A rated bead is the highest quality, and C is lowest.

Some suppliers such as The Curious Gem will generally only sell high quality A rated gemstone beads, so they use codes like AA and AAA to indicate relative quality within a grade. Other suppliers may use + or - to describe the relative superiority of beads within a particular grade. Yet other suppliers, such as Fire Mountain Gems, allocate grades from A through F to their colored gemstone beads, although E and F are rarely used.

Beads From left: C Grade Heated Citrine, B Grade Natural Aventurine, B Grade Heated Tanzanite


Because of the varying standards it can be really difficult to compare like with like, but as always price is a very good indicator of quality. When comparing bead prices between suppliers, the most important things to look for are the same as with cut colored gemstones - Three Cs - that is the color, the clarity and the cut of the beads.

Don't forget that the rarity of the gemstones themselves, and the skill of the cutter, both play a significant role in determining the price. High quality, expertly cut beads with good color and clarity are much more desirable - and will always be more expensive - than lower quality beads. All things being equal, carat weight will play a part in the price, so larger beads with the same rating will cost more than smaller ones.

Beads From left: A Grade Enhanced TurquoiseA Grade Natural MalachiteB Grade Heated Yellow Sapphire

Of course, there is a world of difference between the one-off, painstakingly hand-cut specimen gemstones we looked at last week, and the plethora of strands of colored gemstone beads we're talking about here. But then, there is a huge difference in price too! Jewelry designers will want to bear in mind that it's extremely unusual for the very best quality gemstones to be cut into beads, because they can fetch much higher prices as faceted gems destined for setting in fine jewelry. Yet while A graded colored gemstone beads may not be the same fabulous quality as priceless cut gemstones, they can still look gorgeous in your designs!

Machine Cut versus Hand Cut?

Machine cut gemstone beads will have more precise and uniform facets, and should be well polished and well drilled. Because of this they will be more sparkly and brilliant, and their color will appear to be better. By contrast, many gemstone beads are hand cut, with far fewer facets, and by their very nature they will not be absolutely uniform in shape and size. Their color is unlikely to be as radiant as machine cut beads, and they will not display as much brilliance. Similarly, the size and position of drill holes may vary.

Beads From left: B Grade Heated Sapphire, B Grade Oiled Emerald, C Grade Dyed Ruby

The following is a very general guideline to the grades applied to colored gemstone beads:

A Grade

A is usually the highest grade, given to high quality beads that are suitable for use in a wide range of very good quality jewelry designs. Depending on the gemstone, light inclusions may be present, but generally speaking a strand of A rated gemstone beads should display very good color and clarity, be very well cut and evenly drilled, and be uniform in color, shape and size. If you see an AA or A+ grade, this may mean that the color, clarity or cut is even better than usual, while AAA graded colored gemstone beads should be eye clean and as close to perfect as you can get.

B Grade

B rated gemstone beads should still be of good quality, and suitable for use in many jewelry designs, especially stringing applications. However, their color, clarity and cut will not be as good as A rated beads, and their lower price will reflect this. All the beads in a strand are likely to vary from one another in color, shape and size, and internal and external flaws will be visible. It is advisable to factor in a certain amount of wastage, as you may find the quality is such that you cannot use all of the beads, or they make break or ship when you attempt to string them.

C to F Grades

These are the lowest rating colored gemstone beads, and because they are much less desirable than the higher grades they will have the lowest price tag. They will have very obvious flaws, inclusions and surface imperfections, and are likely to be very variable in shape and size. Beads in this category will probably be poorly drilled, or drilled off center, and may be brittle. But depending on what you want to use them for, they may still be a good value purchase - just check the beads very carefully before buying and make sure that they are suitable for your intended jewelry project.

Beads From left: B Grade Irradiated Blue Topaz, A Grade Natural Labradorite, A Grade Natural Fluorite


It is important to choose your supplier carefully, and only buy from reputable and, ideally, qualified sources. Beware of internet sellers who describing their gemstone beads as AAA, AAA+, or AAAA as their claims may be subjective and not based on genuine assessment, and certificated gemstone dealers do not as a rule apply grades in this way. If in doubt, before reaching for your wallet, ask the supplier to show you their GIA (or equivalent) certificate of assessment for the beads.

Real or Fake?

If you're buying on the internet, don't be fooled into thinking you are getting a bargain, when you may be being ripped off! There are minimum manufacturing costs associated with the production of all gemstones, and you really do get what you pay for. And beware of fakes: in a random search on Etsy I spotted a strand of "AA grade" aquamarine beads on sale for $10. Think about the Three Cs for a moment - unless someone has made a typo, genuine AA quality natural aquamarines are going to be much more expensive than $10 a strand! Having said that, those $10 beads may be exactly what you're looking for - just don't expect them to be top quality gemstones.

Beads From left: B Grade Oiled Emerald, B Grade Natural Tourmaline, C Grade Heated Aquamarine

Gemstone or Glass?

I quite often see glass beads being misleadingly sold as gemstones, especially quartz. It is difficult to tell the two apart without a microscope, but genuine quartz has a very distinctive crystalline structure which is not present in glass. If you have a loupe, check to see if there are any perfectly round air bubbles. If so, it's glass not quartz. Also, a genuine quartz bead is harder than glass and will scratch glass easily. I was once advised to wear an old watch when buying gemstones, so you can run the quartz gently over the glass watch face. If it leaves a scratch mark, the bead is quartz. If not, it's glass. However, I wouldn't recommend doing this without the consent of the supplier - you might end up with more than a scratched watch face!!!!!

Finally, remember that if the price of a gemstone bead seems to good to be true, then it probably is!


Mollie Ann said...

Fabulous information and so very helpful! Strange how sometimes I think the lesser grades are just as pretty as some of the "better" gems. But don't mind me. I'm a rustic at heart! :)

Michele said...

Interesting post, and yes you do so a lot of people trying to sell gemstones misleadingly. True about price.

Brooke said...

Very informative, always more to learn about gems and jewelry;)Thank you!

SendingLoveGallery said...

great info!

Beadsme said...

I can't believe there s so much to know about gems.

Gloria Flynn - EarthEnergyGemstones said...

Learning about gemstones takes a lifetime! This was such an interesting article with great information!

Jean Sandell said...

Very informative!!!

LoveStoneArts said...

I really enjoyed learning more about gemstone beads. I also do not seek out the best of the best quality when buying pretty rocks with drilled holes. Scooby-doo!!

Jet Central said...

Awesome info!

Ribasus said...

Great post. And a somewhat controversial topic as well. One practically has to be a certified gemologist these days to really know. The best thing we can do is to buy from reputable dealers.