For a new collector, gemstones are confusing and mistakes can be costly. Synthetic gemstones are sometimes passed to the unwary for natural gem prices, but they also serve a valuable place in the jewelry industry.
If you’re wanting to learn about synthetic gems you’re in the right place! Let’s forge ahead so that you can learn everything there is about these fascinating, man-made crystals.
What Are Synthetic Gemstones?
Synthetic gemstones are distinct from simulants and fake gemstones. A synthetic gem is one that’s been created and crystallized by man before being cut.
Synthetic gemstones are chemically the same as natural stones. A synthetic emerald is a green beryl for instance, and a synthetic ruby is red corundum.
These gemstones are grown in laboratories or manufacturing plants, depending on the scale of the operation. Synthetic varieties of corundum, beryl, and diamond are all readily available for those wishing to go down that road.
For the most part, synthetic gemstones will have very high clarity and deep coloration. They stand out in a way that natural gemstones find hard to match, but some find the effect gaudy.
Real emeralds, for instance, have so many inclusions that the French word jardin, or garden, is used to describe their interior. High clarity, natural emeralds have astronomical costs, but a similar synthetic stone will be much cheaper.
The most commonly seen synthetics include the following mineral groups:
The most common gemstones, such as emeralds and sapphires, are readily available. You may need to dig deeper to find synthetic variants of more exotic stones like differently colored beryl or color-changing sapphire.
One rare gemstone that’s commonly found when looking at lab-created stones is alexandrite. It can be found as both a simulant and a synthetic stone. In the latter case, it will be chemically identical to the chrysoberyl alexandrite found in nature, but simulants are often made with color-change corundum and even spinel.
The bottom line is that a synthetic or lab-created gemstone is a real gemstone, but it lacks the added value that nature gives them.
Simulant stones are those that are “look-alikes” instead of being the same mineral. Simulants are often made of a different mineral than the actual stone, cubic zirconia is the classic example.
CZs are dirt cheap and available in a huge range of colors if you know where to look.
Simulants are often usually sold openly. One of my personal favorites is the four-color glass that’s sold as simulated zultanite. Zultanite is a rare form of diaspore which goes through beautiful color changes depending on the light source. It’s not available in any appreciable quantity at reasonable prices, but the simulant does a good job capturing the same effect.
A more common example of a legitimate simulant is moissanite. It’s almost identical to a diamond in looks and hardness but ends up being much cheaper for the end buyer.
Simulants are distinct from fake gemstones, but they’re still used to deceive naive buyers on occasion.
Fake gemstones are what we call the bottom-end scams, where you’re not even getting a decent mineral in exchange for your money.
The most common way for a gemstone to be faked is just colored glass. To the layman, it may look like exactly what they want to buy, but it doesn’t take advanced tools to figure it out. A 10X loupe will reveal small bubbles inside the “stone” which is a clear indication that its glass.
Most high-value gemstones have fakes being passed around, but it usually follows whichever stone is trending. At the moment moldavite is extremely popular, and fakes are everywhere for those who don’t know what to look for.
How Can I Tell If a Gemstone is Synthetic?
The first indication that you have a lab-created stone on your hands is simply the price. All cost a fraction of what you’d expect from a natural stone. Since most of them are high-clarity with great color saturation they always look like a deal.
For the layman, there are only a couple of ways to distinguish a lab-created stone from a real one.
The easiest one is simply quality. The majority of synthetic gemstones are very high quality. They have the kind of clarity and coloration that would be legendary in a natural stone. Rubies may be a deep blood red without a hint of inclusions, aquamarines take on a bright blue rarely found in nature, emeralds entirely lack a jardin.
If you didn’t pay an extraordinary cost for a high-quality stone, you’re inevitably looking at a synthetic. It also depends on the mineral family since some are harder to create than others. Beryl, like emeralds, is among the more expensive synthetic stones while corundum-based stones like rubies and sapphires are often cheaper.
They’re still not cheap in most cases, but they’re much more affordable. Still, cost is the best guideline to begin judging with unless you have gemology training and the attendant tools.
So, look at the following:
- Color- Very bright colors can indicate that a stone is fake. This may take a trained eye for those unfamiliar with natural gemstones, most expect real stones to have deeply saturated colors but perfect shades are rare in nature.
- Clarity- The biggest giveaway for most precious stones is clarity. Very, very few natural gemstones have perfect clarity, especially when we’re talking about colored stones. High clarity in an emerald that wasn’t in the five figures range, for instance, would indicate a synthetic stone.
- Size- It’s very rare to find large gemstones in nature. Something as “small” as a 1.5-carat ruby is considered large, and larger gemstones command very high prices. If you find that perfect large ruby or sapphire and the cost is reasonable you’re looking at a synthetic stone.
For most people, this is going to be a bit of an educated guess. The chances of running across a rare, large, high-quality specimen being sold for a price that’s considered a deal is a pipe dream.
Any further than that and you’ll need a lab to verify.
Speaking of which, synthetic stones are sometimes sold with phony certificates. If you don’t recognize the lab on the certificate then you should research it, there are plenty of lists of reputable labs online that can help.
I’ve bought stones for projects that were clearly synthetic but being sold as natural. If the price is right and I know what it is, then there are no real problems since I won’t misrepresent the stone down the line. Scammers still abound, and it can be a very disappointing experience for someone new to buying gemstones.
Some surprisingly dedicated fraudsters will also produce gems that look more natural by intentionally adding impurities. This can be unfortunate for the buyer, since often they go for the same price as the much-more-expensive natural stones.
Identifying Lab-Created Diamonds
Diamonds are a whole different ball game. As the hardest substance on earth and one of the most valued gemstones, the rush to sell lab-created diamonds as real is a big problem. People specialize their entire career simply in identifying and selling these stones.
The problem is that lab-created diamonds are almost indistinguishable from high-quality diamonds.
If you’re questioning a diamond you can check the girdle of the gemstone for a serial number or other markings. Many manufacturers of lab-created diamonds mark them to keep sellers honest.
That, naturally, doesn’t help much. The diamond trade is even more cutthroat than the rest of the gemstone trade, and identifying lab-created diamonds at home without a marking is impossible. Full stop. You will not be able to identify a lab-created diamond at home.
You may be able to separate moissanite from a diamond at home, but even that is a bit tricky. You’ll need specialized equipment to know with 100% certainty, but it requires less than identifying a lab-created diamond.
How Are Synthetic Gemstones Made?
There are a lot of different methods for growing the crystals which are faceted into lab-created gemstones.
Each method is a tricky little bit of engineering, but the truth is that synthetic gemstones have been with us since the 1800s, with Geneva rubies showing up around 1885.
The following methods are all used by different companies to create gemstones:
- Flame Fusion- The first method used. A large, blowtorch-like apparatus melts corundum and coloring agents to create synthetic gemstones. These are allowed to cool and crystallize on a rod with seed crystals of corundum.
- Crystal Pulling- The initial material is melted in a furnace before a seed crystal is placed in the solution. As it’s pulled out it creates a long rod of remarkably pure crystals and it’s more often used for laser diodes than jewelry.
- Flux Growth- Gemstone material is added to a pot with another chemical that lowers its melting point. The material is then used with crystalline seeds to create the gemstone. This method is used for quite a few lab-created stones, and the end-stage can be done in quite a few ways.
The creation of synthetic gemstones is a bit of an art in-and-of-itself. There are still limits on production, mostly when it comes to size. Diamonds, for instance, can’t be grown in a large enough size to hit the big market where only natural material can be found.
Methods change all the time and are constantly evolving. Both the chemical composition and crystalline structures of the gemstones find themselves becoming closer and closer to the real thing.
Why Buy Synthetic Gemstones?
If you’re a purist collector, I don’t think you’ll be persuaded to use or purchase man-made stones anytime soon.
But if you’re on the fence, let’s talk about a few of the advantages that come with synthetic stones.
- Ethical Reasons- While conditions have improved, a lot of precious stones are still mined in dangerous conditions with exploited labor. Gemstones often fund conflict in less developed countries as well, which is a bit upsetting when you realize where your money is going.
- Color Matching- Color is a huge part of design, and gemstones are usually what provide color to a piece of jewelry. Natural stones are highly variable and a jeweler may spend a surprising amount of time looking over a group of gemstones to find the right ones for their vision. Synthetic stones can be bought in many sizes and shapes while retaining a uniform color, making production runs a lot easier.
- Price- The biggest reason to use lab-created stones is price. They’re much cheaper. Even emerald, which is one of the more expensive lab-created stones, costs only a third of what a natural stone of equivalent price costs.
- They Look Great- While some find them gaudy, to many people synthetic gemstones live up to how they imagined rubies and emeralds and sapphires to look. Affordable natural specimens can be great, but they’ll rarely live up to the vision of a truly flawless gem.
Synthetic gemstones are a touchy subject. Many collectors don’t like them, some jewelers turn their noses up at them, and they’re often used to scam the unwary.
But the truth is that they offer a lot of advantages for the buyer and people who create jewelry using them. They should always be labeled as synthetic stones, of course.
If you take nothing else away, just remember that synthetic gemstones are real gemstones, they just come from a lab instead of the ground.