Identifying Gems Using the Hardness Test

How to apply the hardness test on gems and precious stones using a file to scratch the surface of the gem

Having now an idea of what hardness means and how it is expressed, we must next inquire how one may make use of it in identifying unknown gems.

How to Apply the Hardness Test. In the first place, it is necessary to caution the beginner against damaging a fine gem by attempting to test its hardness in any but the most careful manner. The time-honored file test is really a hardness test and serves nicely to distinguish genuine gems, of hardness 7 or above, from glass imitations. A well-hardened steel file is of not quite hardness 7, and glass of various types while varying somewhat averages between 5 and 6. Hence, glass imitations are easily attacked by a file. To make the file test use only a very fine file and apply it with a light but firm pressure lengthwise along the girdle (edge) of the unset stone. If damage results it will then be almost unnoticeable. Learn to know the feel of the file as it takes hold of a substance softer than itself. Also learn the sound. If applied to a hard stone a file will slip on it, as a skate slips on ice. It will not take hold as upon a softer substance.

If the stone is set, press a sharp corner of a broken-ended file gently against a back facet, preferably high up toward the girdle, where any damage will not be visible from the front, and move the file very slightly along the surface, noting by the feel whether or not it takes hold and also looking with a lens to see if a scratch has been made. Do not mistake a line of steel, left on a slightly rough surface, for a true scratch. Frequently on an unpolished girdle of real gem material the file will leave a streak of steel. Similarly when using test minerals in accordance with what follows do not mistake a streak of powder from the yielding test material, for a true scratch in the material being tested. The safe way is to wipe the spot thus removing any powder. A true scratch will, of course, persist.

A doublet, being usually constructed of a garnet top and a glass back, may resist a file at the girdle if the garnet top covers the stone to the girdle, as is sometimes the case, especially in the smaller sizes. In this case the back must be tested.

One should never pass a file rudely across the corners or edges of the facets on any stone that may be genuine, as such treatment really amounts to a series of light hammer blows, and the brittleness of most gem stones would cause them to yield, irrespective of their hardness. It should be remembered that some genuine stones are softer than a file, so that it will not do to reject as worthless any material that is attacked by a file. Lapis lazuli (5), sphene (5), opal (6), moonstone (6), amazonite (6), turquoise (6), peridot (6 1/2), demantoid garnet (6 1/2) (the "olivine" of the trade), and jade (nephrite) (6 1/2), are all more or less attacked by a file.


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