How Do Gemstones Get Their Color?

Gemstones are strange in many ways. Some don’t change color even in different lighting while others will radiate in the sun. Some gemstones look better when they’re flawless while others require flaws to show their beauty. It’s no wonder that humans have been fascinated by them, using them as status symbols and shows of power since time immemorial.

One strange thing about gemstones is that we conveniently have gemstones of just about every single color on the spectrum. So how is there so much variation in color?

Light Refraction

As humans, we can perceive red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. Add in black, which is the saturation of colors, and we get the lineup of the most common gemstone colors.

A lot of gemstones, surprisingly, are colorless. Their “color” is purely a result of the way that they refract light, while others reflect light based on the natural impurities they have. Peridot, as an example, absorbs light only at a certain wavelength and then exudes that light. The wavelength it absorbs is perfectly in tune to lime green, which is why peridot is so consistently colored. We refer to gemstones like this as “idiochromatic”.

The other side of the coin is “allochromatic”, which means that the gemstone reflects light as a result of the traces and impurities inside of it. Lapis Lazuli has a ton of sulfur in it and that sulfur defines its color (depending on how much there is and how it’s distributed).

Can Color Be Added?

If we’re talking fake gemstones then sure, but the real things are much harder to work with. Adding or changing the color of gemstones would involve changing the way light reflects, so you’d essentially have to change the gemstone’s entire molecular makeup. Alternatively, if we somehow discovered to add more of the elements that cause the light refraction, such as manganese or iron, then we could potentially change the color. In short, there’s no known way to alter the color of a gemstone.

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