Gemstone | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Canada's first DIAMOND mine - the Ekati mine near Lac de Gras, NWT - began production in 1998. Most of the diamond production is exported, but a small percentage is reserved for cutting in Canada.
Grossular garnet from Asbestos, Québec (courtesy NMNS).
Lazurite, also called lapis lazuli, from Baffin Island, NWT (courtesy Geological Survey of Canada).


 Gemstone refers to MINERAL, rock or organic material used for personal adornment or for decorative purposes. A gem is the cut and polished finished product. Most gemstones are minerals; about 100 of the 3800 mineral species known have gem varieties, but only about 25 are commonly marketed. The essential attributes of gemstones are beauty, derived from colour, brilliance, pattern, texture or light-reflecting qualities; durability, eg, sufficient hardness to resist abrasion, breakage or decomposition; and rarity, a quality that enhances their desirability and value. Gem diamond possesses these attributes to an exceptional degree, surpassing all known gemstones.

Canada's Diamonds

Canada's first DIAMOND mine - the Ekati mine near Lac de Gras, NWT - began production in 1998. Most of the diamond production is exported, but a small percentage is reserved for cutting in Canada. Some of the first Ekati diamonds were cut by a cutting firm in Victoria, BC, yielding fine brilliant cut stones up to one carat weight. A second mine, the Diavik, was completed 35 km southeast of the Ekati mine in 2002. When both mines are at full production they will produce about 10% of the world's diamonds. Diamond exploration in Nunavut has been encouraging.

Historical Use

Nephrite jade was used extensively by NATIVE PEOPLES of British Columbia's northwest coast as early as 3000 years ago. The INUIT of ELLESMERE ISLAND 500-700 years ago chipped, shaped and drilled nodules of amber to form round and oval beads. They selected the clearer, gem-grade material, believed to have weathered from Tertiary COAL beds (65-1.65 million years old) along the shore of Hazen Lake, where amber is still found today.

The Inuit also fashioned ivory into beads and artifacts. Ivory was used for tools earlier (7500 years ago) by the Maritime ARCHAIC peoples in coastal LABRADOR. The first gemstone exported from Canada is believed to be amethyst from Nova Scotia. Crystals were presented to Henri IV of France by Sieur de Monts when he was governor of Acadia, and one became part of the French crown jewels.

Modern Use

Modern use of Canada's gemstones began in the 19th century. As geological explorations disclosed gemstone occurrences, amateur lapidaries cut or carved and then polished the rough material, releasing its beauty and transforming it for gem or ornamental use. While lacking deposits of traditional gemstones (eg, diamond, ruby, emerald, sapphire), Canada can claim a varied assortment of lesser known but appealing gemstones. Their intrinsic value is relatively low but, in the hands of an expert artisan or creative designer-jeweller, their inherent beauty can be captured and their value enhanced.


Extraction of Canada's gemstones is both hobby-oriented and a commercial enterprise; commercial MINING solely for gem material is small scale, often a one-person operation, and sporadic, responding to a fluctuating demand. The largest and most important commercial operations are for nephrite jade recovered from alluvial boulders and bedrock deposits. Production in recent years came from the Mount Sidney Williams, Mount Ogden, Cry Lake and Dease Lake areas of BC and from the Frances Lake area in the Yukon Territory. Most of the jade was exported to cutting centres in East Asia. Canada is the world's leading producer of nephrite jade.

Smaller commercial operations are conducted intermittently for amethyst near THUNDER BAY; sodalite and rose quartz near Bancroft, Ont; labradorite on Tabor Island, the adjacent islands and coastal Labrador; amazonite (microcline) near Eganville, Ont, and Lac St-Jean, Qué; rhodonite at various locations in BC; and opal in the Okanagan, BC. The output is exported to suppliers in the US and to cutting centres in East Asia and Europe. A small proportion is distributed domestically to amateur lapidaries and to some of 200-odd mineral/lapidary dealers in Canada. The exported material often returns to suppliers and retailers as unmounted cut stones and beads, jewellery or ornamental objects, their origin recognized only by geologists or connoisseurs of Canadian gemstones.

One gemstone, ammolite, from LETHBRIDGE, Alta, is an exception in that it is extracted and processed into jewellery-ready stones in an integrated operation. Canada's newest gemstone, it was introduced in the late 1970s and is derived from the iridescent shell of the Cretaceous (144.2-65 million years ago) ammonite fossil Cephalopoda ammonoidea. The finished stone, an opal-like mosaic of brilliant colours, is sold mainly to manufacturers and jewellers in Japan, Canada and the US. It is also known by the trade names "calcentine" and "korite."

Domestic use of commercial gemstone production is by hobbyists or custom lapidaries and designer-jewellers. Techniques used for cutting, shaping and polishing the rough material are essentially the same as those that have been in use the world over for about 500 years. Transparent gemstones are faceted, eg, cut with flat faces (facets) as in a diamond; translucent and opaque material is cut in the cabochon style, with domed top and flat base. Nongem-grade material is carved into sculptures and ornaments (seeINUIT ART).

 Noncommercial extraction is done, either individually or in lapidary club excursions, by the amateur lapidaries who process their own material. They select raw materials from outcropping rocks or from old pits and mines. In some cases, as in the Cassiar ASBESTOS mine in BC, the Jeffrey asbestos mine in ASBESTOS, Qué, and the Geco base-metal mine in MANITOUWADGE, Ont, interested miners or geologists rescued the gemstones (nephrite jade, hessonite garnet and iolite, respectively) from large-scale mining operations. These gemstones are regarded as collectors' stones. From Yukon placer operations, the larger GOLD nuggets are set aside for use in JEWELLERY.

 The most common and popular gemstones are quartz, agate and jasper, from locations in BC, Alberta, Manitoba, the Lake Superior region, Gaspé and the BAY OF FUNDY; amethyst from Nova Scotia; and petrified wood from BC and Alberta. Less common collectors' gemstones include Alberta amber, British Columbia idocrase, Ontario feldspars (perthite and the moonstone-like peristerite), Québec scapolite, Newfoundland xonotlite and ivory, and soapstone and lapis lazuli from the territories.

These collectors' stones are generally seen as unmounted cut stones, set in jewellery or as carvings at craft shows or gem and mineral shows staged annually by some of the 100 lapidary and mineral clubs in Canada. Jewellery and sculptures fashioned by Native peoples are often sold through cooperatives.

Canada's traditional gemstone industry has been modest in terms of variety and production, supporting domestic lapidary interests and a tourist industry. This situation changed dramatically with the recent production of gem diamonds in the Northwest Territories. With more diamond mines slated for production in the next few years, Canada is expected to rank among the top diamond producers in the world.

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