Gem laboratories use the word “synthetic” to refer to gemstones created by man but still share the same physical and chemical properties of the corresponding natural gemstone. An example would be blue synthetic Sapphire. It has a hardness of 9, a refractive index of 1.76 and all the other physical properties are the same as natural Sapphire. It is blue Corundum created by man instead of nature. The same gem laboratory would use the word “imitation” to refer to a gemstone that has different physical properties than the natural counterpart but visually looks similar. An example would be Cubic Zirconia. It looks very similar to Diamond but its physical properties are completely different. Unfortunately those are not the definitions used by most gem dealers and retailers. That has lead to much confusion over the years. Let’s clear it up.
We all need to be conscious of the difference between “synthetic” and “imitation”. When a supplier offers a synthetic, do not be afraid to ask for more information. You will often discover that what they are referring to as a “synthetic” is actually an “imitation”. However, keep in mind that neither “synthetic” nor “imitation” is bad. It just is what it is! Later we’ll discuss many common situations you may encounter and discuss them.
Before we get too far along let’s talk about some other terms that have developed to alleviate the confusion regarding the word “synthetic”. “Lab grown” and “created” are used to define a synthetic gemstone and are less misused by the industry so you can be more confident of what you are getting when these terms are used. “Cultured” is used almost exclusively for Pearls so we’ll skip it for this discussion.
Now let’s take some common examples and discuss them.
ALEXANDRITE: If you want an alternative to one of the rarest gems on earth, you have a lot of choices. Some are natural, some are synthetic and some are imitation. 1) Synthetic Alexandrite is physically and chemically the same as natural Alexandrite. It is the most desirable but also the most expensive of the man-made alternatives for Alexandrite. If the price is below $20/ct it is extremely unlikely what you are being offered is synthetic Alexandrite. They are more likely selling synthetic Corundum. 2) Synthetic Corundum is lab grown Sapphire created to imitate the color change effect of Alexandrite. This should be called “color change synthetic Sapphire” and is an imitation Alexandrite. This is a great material however. It has the hardness and durability of Sapphire, a decent color change effect that imitates Alexandrite quite well, and is inexpensive. 3) Color Change Garnet can sometimes be found with a color change that is extremely similar to Alexandrite. It is quite rare but not so much as to demand the same price as natural Alexandrite. Although this is a natural gem, it would have to be considered an imitation Alexandrite. 4) Other man-made gems are sold as Alexandrite alternatives. These include CZ and glass but are not good imitations and are easily identified visually.
DIAMOND: We talked a little about this in last month’s newsletter so we’ll keep it simple this time. Just remember that the only truly synthetic Diamond is the one that has all the same physical characteristics as natural Diamond. Moissanite, Cubic Zirconia, etc are all imitations with varying levels of similarities. The more similarities, the more valuable.
SAPPHIRE: Lab grown Sapphire or synthetic Sapphire can be produced in nearly every color of the rainbow. We discussed earlier the use of a color change variety of synthetic Sapphire that is used as an excellent Alexandrite alternative. If you need a low cost alternative to blue, yellow, pink or red (Ruby) Corundum, the synthetics are excellent. Be aware that a common alternative for blue Sapphire is a synthetic blue Spinel and is often called “synthetic Sapphire”. It is not a synthetic Sapphire, it is a synthetic Spinel that is created to imitate the color of Sapphire.
AMETHYST: there are many different Quartz synthetics in the market. The odd thing about these alternatives is that the usual economic benefit is not very significant with them. Lab grown Amethyst or Citrine is not much less expensive than the natural counterpart especially in smaller sizes. So until you get to large gems with premium color going with a created alternative doesn’t pay. It’s a good thing too because much of the synthetic Amethyst and Citrine is extremely difficult to distinguish from the natural.
EMERALD: this is probably the most imitated gem in the market. There is good synthetic Emerald in the market but it is not cheap. Imitations include glass and CZ, but most are poor substitutes and even the general public has nearly eliminated the use of these as imitations. Many synthetic green gems are popular and sell well but simply as a beautiful green gem, not to replace an Emerald. The issue with Emerald today is where to draw the line between synthetic and natural when in most cases a combination of materials is being used to enhance the original. More on this in a future article.
SPINEL: Now here is an interesting scenario: A synthetic that is basically only used as an imitation. The reason for this is that natural Spinel is so unpredictable in color and shade that there’s no stereotype to imitate. The only sector of the Spinel market that has any significant presence is the Burma red and there is no practical synthetic alternative for red.
TANZANITE, TOURMALINE, AQUAMARINE, BIXBITE: These are just some of the many gems that for all practical purposes have only imitation options, no synthetics. That’s not to say that the lab rats are not working on it. In fact, they may have already succeeded in creating these gems, just not at a significant cost savings. Be aware of imitations however because some are quite good.
The bottom line is that you should be aware of the possibility of term misuse. Synthetics and imitations both have a place in the jewelry industry. Just make sure you know what you’re buying and disclose what you are selling.