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The John Atencio Jewelry Glossary The John Atencio Jewelry Glossary
Glossary › Organic Gemstones

Glossary: Organic Gemstones

Beautiful and intriguing, organic gemstones originate from once-living organisms through natural processes. Unlike inorganic gems formed by geological means, organic gems retain biological signatures from ancient life. Their connections with nature impart distinctive beauty, especially when incorporated into creative organic gemstone jewelry. Read on to learn about their formation, history, and modern relevance in fine jewelry.

What are Organic Gems?

Organic gems form from formerly living creatures like plants, animals, or marine life. Biological processes produce the minerals, resins, shells, and skeletal parts that transform into gems over long periods of time. Common organic gems include amber, pearl, coral, and jet.

Organic gems often have distinguishing features that stem from their plant, animal, or marine origins. This includes visible cellular or skeletal structures, original organics encased within, and distinct chemical signatures. These hallmarks reveal the stones’ ancient life stories and give them compelling intrigue that can significantly enhance a well-crafted jewelry piece. 

Unique Properties

Many organic gems feel warmer and appear more lustrous than inorganic stones due to their softer, layered crystal structure. Because they develop from living organisms, these stones also produce signature inclusions, patterns, and optical effects. 

Microscopic examination can sometimes reveal minute insect fossils and cellular details fossilized within. Some also have iridescent effects stemming from amino acids. Whatever the case, organic gems come with visible histories that generate lasting intrigue.

Enduring Allure

Human societies have utilized organic gems for over 75,000 years, predating the invention of jewelry itself. People wore bone, tusk, horn, shell, pearl, and wood artifacts as amulets imbued with protective powers. They were also worn as symbols of status, wealth, and privilege in many different ancient societies across the world. 

Royals and aristocrats flaunted pearls, coral, and amber. On the other hand, dark-colored Victorian jet jewelry was worn to signal mourning, while amber teething necklaces have long been used to soothe crying babies. These days, organic gems are found in all sorts of contemporary designs, celebrating their natural elegance as wearable works of art.

Formation Factors

It takes specific conditions and long durations for organic materials to transform into gems. Pressurized tree resins gradually solidify into amber, trapping debris from the organism’s life. Pearl formation, on the other hand, requires a mollusk constantly coating an irritant in nacre. 

Fossilization replaces tissue with rock-like minerals while perfectly preserving an organism’s original form. Reef accretion is required to construct successive generations of coral polyps.

Source Materials

Countless living organisms have the ability to produce prime gem ingredients, including resins, silicas, carbonates, bones, shells, and more. Key precursor materials include:

  • Plant resins – amber
  • Mollusks nacreous layers – pearl, mother of pearl
  • Crustacean & coral remains – limestone, flint
  • Cellulose-rich vegetation – petrified wood
  • Mineral-rich water deposits

Specific climates and ecologies are also required to produce lifeforms capable of transitioning into organic gems. Amber thrives in resinous trees, including rich regions like pine-dominated Northern forests or legume-laden tropics. Coral reefs favor shallow, sunlit, aerated equatorial waters. Fossilization usually concentrates alongside once densely vegetated temperate forests, sediment-rich swamplands, and havens for aquatic life. 

Gem Types

There are many different types of organic gemstones, and each comes with unique traits. Some of the most common and popular options include:

Petrified Wood

Fossilization perfectly preserves ancient wood’s cellular details, bark, rings, and rays. Opalization adds luminosity, while agatization imparts quartz crystals.


Fossilized golden resin can entomb insects, plants, and animals. Amber gems can also have patterns, fractures, and rare colors that enthrall jewelry buyers. 


Both freshwater pearls and saltwater pearls come from creatures known as mollusks, which are organisms that have soft bodies, hard shells, and no backbones. A pearl forms over time when the mollusk coats a tiny irritant with layer after layer of nacre, also known as Mother of Pearl.


A semi-translucent to opaque gemstone, coral is composed of calcium carbonate with small traces of carotene deposited by tiny sea creatures living in massive colonies.


This iridescent gem comes from fossil ammonites, extinct marine mollusks with opalescent mother-of-pearl shells, which have become favorites of collectors.

Rare & Uncommon Gems

There are also several rare organic gems in addition to the previously mentioned stones. Some intriguing examples include:

  • Jet: Fossilized coal used in jewelry, once called black amber
  • Copal: Young amber with partially polymerized resins
  • Fossilized palm wood: Distinct vascular structure
  • Petrified dinosaur bone: Reptilian ancestry patterns
  • Pearls: Natural black and golden South Sea pearls

Ethics & Responsibility

When shopping for organic stones, modern customers seek assurances that gems are ethically and sustainably sourced. Pearl oyster farming is one example of sustainable sourcing. Limitations on coral and ivory also help aid preservation and regeneration. 

When buying organic gemstone jewelry, it’s important to shop at a reputable designer, such as John Atencio, who is committed to sustainable, ethical sourcing practices.

Health & Wellness

Historically, crystal healers believed organic gems held restorative energies and self-improvement powers. Coral was believed to calm emotions, while amber necklaces were used to reduce arthritis, headaches, and joint pains through homeopathic effects. While these effects are unproven, many people continue to wear organic gemstones for their perceived therapeutic effects. 

Incorporating Organic Gemstones into Your Look

A legend in jewelry design, John Atencio crafts unique jewelry pieces using sustainable organic gems and inlays. Shop online or visit one of our convenient locations, where our knowledgeable jewelry consultants can hep guide you to the perfect jewelry piece.