Synthetic Gemstones vs. Natural Gemstones
Once, synthetic diamonds were just used for industrial purposes. Now, they are a contender to be your wedding ring. In 2021, economists valued the synthetic diamond market at $14 billion and growing. While most of that is still industrial use, 1 percent of jewelry diamonds are synthetic.
Yes, both synthetic and natural gemstones are real gemstones by all measurement standards. No, that does not mean they are the same thing. Synthetics are almost too good to be true, while natural stones hold defects that tell a story.
Differences between synthetic and natural gemstones
People have made jewel-quality synthetic diamonds since the 1950s. Cultured pearls and man-made rubies, sapphires, and emeralds have been around a little longer. These substitutes cost a fraction of the price of the natural stones they substitute for. Comparing these stones is a worthwhile exercise.
Synthetic diamonds are real, just created in a lab. You can label them as real diamonds. They have all the characteristics of a diamond:
- Specific gravity
- Refractive index
By any measurement, synthetic gemstones are the stones they claim to be.
1. Mined vs. lab-made
Diamonds are extremely rare and come from only a few places. Africa, Russia, Australia, and Canada lead the pack of diamond producing countries. While you can sieve for diamonds in some waterways, they mine most diamonds. These mines are large and use a lot of labor. All this makes natural diamonds extremely expensive, especially at large carat sizes.
People make synthetic diamonds with high technology, but much less cost and bother. Most gem-quality stones are created by chemical vapor deposition (CVD). In this method, a tiny seed diamond sits in a vacuum chamber. They subject the chamber to very high heat and insert gases which deposit their carbon on the diamond. They must frequently stop the process to remove graphite, another carbon that forms. This can take days or weeks, depending on the size of the stone produced. They can create dozens of stones at the same time with this method. Other types of stones use different procedures.
2. Natural stones have more inclusions
Inclusions are small areas inside of a gemstone that look different. Over the long time it takes a gemstone to grow, the gemstone occasionally encounters different chemicals. Inclusions can be crystals, minerals, liquid or gas bubbles, or fractures. These inclusions tell the story of the gem. Sometimes they are blemishes. Sometimes they make the gem more valuable by adding to its beauty and rarity.
Synthetic emeralds are in high demand because they lack the many inclusions that natural emeralds are famous for. A synthetic emerald will glow a perfect green, looking like the stones found in crown jewels. Gardens, the nickname for these many inclusions, dull the gleam of many natural stones.
3. Synthetic stones are more brilliant and perfect-looking
Synthetic stones, lacking inclusions, look perfect to the untrained eye. (To a trained eye, they look too perfect.) This means that a buyer can get more gemstones for the money they want to spend and have a “perfect diamond” in their price range.
Synthetic colored stones have found a market based on their perfection and rock-bottom prices. Their perfection can win the consumer’s choice against other low-cost jewelry options.
4. Natural stones are rarer and more valuable
Technically, there is no limit to the number of synthetic stones that we can make. The number of factories, machines, and workers limits the number of synthetic stones made. If we made more factories, we would make more synthetic stones. Natural stones have a hard limit. Miners dig up only a limited number of gem-quality stones each year. When they run out in the ground, we have no more. You never know when that particular ruby or sapphire will be the last one the earth has produced.
Natural diamonds are tied to the wedding market. A few diamonds sell for other jewelry, but not much. This creates a market where, with relatively few gems mined, supply and demand balance, keeping prices high. Other stones can see more market variation, but the groups that control production release stones to the market slowly to maintain prices.
5. Synthetic stones cost less
Synthetic stones, while having the same chemical composition and physical characteristics, are different. They operate in their own markets. While there is a healthy and growing demand for them, it is much lower than for natural stones and prices are lower, too.
This lower price is an aid in reaching new markets, such as those who could not have purchased diamonds before because of their cost. Another market is those who bought cubic zirconia or moissanite.
Who buys synthetic diamonds and why?
The small and growing market for synthetic gemstones focuses on a couple of groups of people. These demographics are people – worldwide – who are not in the top 2 percent of income earners, and younger people.
People with less money
The top group of people who buy synthetic diamonds are those for whom the cost matters. This group includes low-income people who might afford a diamond for the first time, and moderate-income people who may buy a larger diamond than they believed. Synthetic diamonds still cost a lot to make, but other stones, sapphires, rubies, emeralds, and spinels can be made for very low costs. An interesting note, colored diamonds, extra rare in nature, cost less to make than regular diamonds.
The diamond and gem market can expand into countries where it never existed before. At the new, lower prices, people find synthetics affordable. The gem industry is finding ways they can incorporate gems into their lives.
Millennials and younger people
Millennials like synthetic gemstones. The cost is one top reason they like synthetics. Younger people, with less money, want to buy gems like their parents did. They saw their parents buy homes, cars, and jewelry when they were younger. Young people today cannot afford those purchases. Synthetic gemstones fit right in.
Another big reason for Millennials is the environment, and particularly climate change. Diamond mines have a huge footprint on the land and use a lot of carbon-based fuels. While the exact numbers are uncertain, synthetic diamonds have a much smaller impact on the environment. However, the labs still use a fair amount of greenhouse gas.
The major dispute about environmental harm is between synthetic and natural diamonds. The Diamond Foundry is one maker of synthetic diamonds. They released documents showing minimal environmental effects compared to mining. Meanwhile, the Diamond Producers’ Association had a report created showing the diamond industry as an overall creator of both economic and environmental benefits.
Other environmental problems caused by gem mining include water pollution, which hurts both people and animals. Damage to land areas and seabeds, which are dredged for diamonds, leaving nothing in the scoop’s wake. Natural stones are a dwindling resource and will run out one day. Add in that some diamonds come from conflict areas and fund child soldiers, and natural diamonds don’t look so nice to millennials. These younger people are more likely to give synthetics a serious look.
How to differentiate between natural and synthetic gemstones
If you are shopping at a regulated jewelry store in the US, they clearly label their natural and synthetic diamonds. But what if you bought a gemstone at a street fair, or in another country? What if the bargain was a little too good? Here are the ways you can tell if your stone is natural or synthetic.
In the US, the FTC requires synthetic gemstones come with a certificate that say they are synthetic from a certified gemstone laboratory. Several companies inscribe their diamonds microscopically, so a jeweler can tell that they are from a lab.
You can hire a gemologist from the Gemological Institute of America (G.I.A.). They have developed special equipment that can tell even tough cases apart. They have training in telling the difference and can tackle the harder cases.
Synthetic or lab-created stones come with several different names:
Cultured is mainly used for pearls. Simulated means that the gem contains natural gems passed off as others, such as cubic zirconia for a diamond.) Imitation means they made it of glass or plastic. Also, look out for gem enhancements and treatments. These improve the value of natural gems.
Can a jeweler tell if a gemstone is lab created?
Most of the time, yes. Especially with the larger stones. It gets more difficult with smaller stones. If you gave a jeweler a bag of small stones, mixed synthetic and natural, they could not tell them apart. (Although they might sort a few.)
The basic test a jeweler would put the diamonds would be to first look for a certificate. If that was lost, they would talk to you about the price you paid for it. Following that, they would move on to a microscope, examining color and quality. A natural gem is more likely to have an uneven color and more imperfections. If, after that, the stone is still undetermined, the jeweler would have to look more in depth. This entails looking into the crystal shape and direction of growth to see patterns that tell whether it came out of a lab or the earth.
Are lab-created gemstones worth anything?
Yes. They have a value, but that value is currently hard to determine. The resale market for synthetic gems, however, has not yet developed. This makes it difficult to set a price for them. Even natural diamonds get little on the resale market unless they are the ornate jewelry the crowned heads of Europe and the richest of the rich wear. Synthetic gems cost much less than natural ones, so any prices the used gem market sets once it gets going will be low.
Today, some jewelers will buy back synthetic gems with their certificates. Work by specific jewelry designers may hold more value because of the designs and their rarity. In the future, real gems will run out. When that happens, who knows what will happen with the prices of used synthetic gems?
The pros and cons of synthetic and natural gemstones
Holds more value
More perfect and colorful
Better for the environment
Synthetic and natural gemstones: Which one should I choose?
Choose the one that makes you happiest without breaking the bank. For engagement rings, most people want a new stone for a new relationship, but that doesn’t say synthetic or natural. Neither one holds a high resale value (but natural holds more). For a colored stone, synthetic can save you a lot of money and get you a more brilliant stone.
Synthetic and natural gemstones are both real gemstones, but they are very different products on the market. Natural gemstones are rare and found through mining and other hard work. Synthetics took a lot of inventing and takes a lot of technology today. If you don’t know which you have bought, take it to a gemologist, who can tell the difference. Remember, the value of the stone lies in the happiness it brings.