There are roughly 200 varieties of natural gemstones known in the world today. Alongside precious gems (diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds) are numerous semi-precious stones, some of which are so uncommon that their value outstrips many of the world’s priciest jewels. Here are a few of the rarest from around the world.
Tanzanite is a beautiful blue variety of the mineral zoisite and found only in a small area near the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. The stone was not discovered in commercial quantities until the 1960s, and since then its popularity has grown tremendously, thanks largely to the efforts of Tiffany & Co. Heat-treating tanzanite at very high temperatures can improve the blue coloration, so most gems on the market have been treated in this way—but any tanzanite that has not been heat-treated and has a strong blue color naturally will be of a much higher value. Because it is only found in one location in a finite quantity, the value of tanzanite will likely soar over time.
2. Black Opal
Opals are usually a creamy-white color and are made special by the rainbow-colored inclusions that reflect light. Black opals are much rarer because almost all of them are found in mines in the Lightning Ridge area of New South Wales in Australia. The darker their background color and brighter the inclusions, the more valuable the stone. One of the most valuable black opals of all time is the Aurora Australis, which was uncovered in Lightning Ridge in 1938. The 180-carat opal is especially admired due to its large size and intense harlequin coloration. In 2005 it was valued at AUS $1,000,000, or about $763,000 U.S.
Larimar is a very rare blue variety of the mineral pectolite and is found in only one small area of the Dominican Republic. This turquoise stone’s name was created by Miguel Méndez, who brought the stone to prominence in 1974—he took the first part of his daughter’s name, Larissa, and combined it with the Spanish word for sea, mar, to create the portmanteau larimar. Locals had known of the existence of the stone for generations, because small examples had washed up on the seashore, but it was not until the 1970s that sufficient quantities were found in the ground to open a mine.
4. Paraiba Tourmaline
Tourmalines are common in many colors across Brazil, but the Paraiba tourmalines are the only stones with a bright turquoise hue, thanks to their copper content. The very rare gems were discovered in 1987 by determined miner Heitor Dimas Barbosa, who had been driven by a belief that something special lurked under the hills of the Brazilian state of Paraiba. After years of fruitless digging, he finally unearthed a tourmaline of unrivaled neon blue that set the gem market alight. The extremely rare stone (only one is mined for every 10,000 diamonds) then became intensely sought-after. In 2003 very similar turquoise-colored tourmalines were found at mines in the mountains of Nigeria and Mozambique, although some say they are not quite as striking as the Paraiba tourmaline.
Grandidierite was first described in 1902 by French mineralogist Alfred Lacroix, who found it in Madagascar and named it in honor of the French explorer Alfred Grandidier, an expert on the island’s natural history. This extremely rare blue-green mineral has been found in a number of places around the world, but so far only Madagascar and Sri Lanka have produced any gem-quality stones, and they are still extremely scarce. The majority of the known stones are translucent, but the most rare (and therefore most valuable) example ever found was transparent. In fact, the stone was initially assumed to be another rare gem, serendibite, because grandidierite of that color and transparency had yet to be seen. The gem was only identified as grandidierite after expert analysis and was subsequently sold for an undisclosed sum. It’s safe to assume that if a gem of similar quality were to be unearthed, its scarcity alone would ensure it fetched an extremely high price.
The amazing color-changing stone alexandrite was discovered in 1830 in the Ural Mountains in Russia and named after Tsar Alexander II. A variety of chrysoberyl, the stone’s remarkable color-shifting capability makes it especially sought-after: In sunlight the stone looks blue-green, but under incandescent light it becomes red-purple. The degree of color change varies from stone to stone, with some only showing marginal change, but the most valuable are clear stones that demonstrate complete color change.
Although some large examples of the stone have been found (the Smithsonian houses the world’s largest known cut sample of alexandrite at 65.08 carats), the majority are under one carat. This means that the value of a gem under a carat may only be $15,000, but a stone larger than one carat might fetch as much as $70,000 per carat.
Benitoite is mined only in one small area of California near the San Benito River (hence the name), but the mine closed for commercial mining in 2006, making this gemstone even more scarce. The gem was first identified around 1907 by geologist George Louderback and has a deep-blue color that shows especially interesting qualities when caught under UV light, when it fluoresces. The gem was named the official state gemstone of California in 1985 in recognition of the fact that, despite it being found in trace quantities in Arkansas as well as Japan and Australia, California is the only place where it can feasibly be mined. Due to the rarity of discovering a good quality benitoite of a reasonable size, it can fetch huge prices on the open market—a well-cut benitoite stone at over two carats can fetch more than $10,000 a carat.
Painite was discovered by British gemologist Arthur Charles Davy Pain in 1951 and recognized as a new mineral in 1957. For many years only one specimen of the dark red crystal was in existence, housed at the British Museum in London, making it the world’s rarest gemstone. Later on other specimens were discovered, although by 2004 there were still fewer than two dozen known painite gems. However, in recent years a couple of mines in Myanmar have begun to produce some painite, and there are now said to be over 1000 stones known. The scarcity of this gem has made it extremely valuable and just one carat can fetch more than $60,000.
9. Red Beryl
Red beryl, also known as bixbite or red emerald, is so rare that the Utah Geological Survey estimates a single such gem is uncovered for every 150,000 gem-quality diamonds. Pure beryl is colorless and only gains its bright hues from impurities in the rock: chromium and vanadium give beryl a green color resulting in an emerald; iron provides a blue or yellow tint creating aquamarine and golden beryl; and manganese adds the deep-red color to create red beryl. Red beryl is only found in Utah, New Mexico, and Mexico, and the majority of examples found are just a few millimeters in length, too small to be cut and faceted for use. Those that have been cut are generally less than a carat in weight, and a red beryl of two or three carats would be considered exceptional.
Austrian-Irish gemologist Edward Charles Richard Taaffe bought a box of cut stones from a jeweler in Dublin in the 1940s, thinking he had purchased a collection of spinels. But on closer inspection, he noted that one of the pale mauve gems was not reacting to the light in the same way as the rest of the spinels, so he sent it off to be analyzed. The results revealed that he had discovered a hitherto unknown gemstone—dubbed “taaffeite”—which was a serendipitous but frustrating situation, since he had discovered a cut gem and had no idea where the mineral naturally occurred.
Fortunately, once the new stone had been announced, many other collectors re-examined their own spinel collections and a number of other samples were uncovered. Finally, the source of the stone was tracked down to Sri Lanka, although a handful have also been found in Tanzania and China. It is thought that less than 50 examples of taaffeite exist—many of which are housed in geological and private collections, making this gemstone so rare the general public is unlikely to ever encounter it.
A version of this story was published in 2016; it has been updated for 2023.