Synthetic and Simulant Gems
These two terms refer to quite different things, and the distinction is important.
- Synthetics are real gems. (They are made in a lab.)
- Simulants are imitation gems.
Synthetic means "put together." A synthetic (or laboratory-grown) gem is made from the same raw materials as the natural gem. It is optically and chemically identical to the natural gem, but it came from a lab.
The drive for synthetics began when industrial diamonds were needed during World War II. It took years to develop industrial-grade diamonds, and years more to be able to manufacture stones of gem quality. Producing the early gem-quality diamonds was more expensive than mining for natural diamonds. Improved technology brought down the price of synthetic diamonds.
When a gem made of non-natural material is offered for sale, it is the seller's responsibility to inform the buyer that it is not a natural gemstone. This disclosure must be made at all levels of jewelry sales, including producers of the non-natural materials, manufacturers and wholesalers of jewelry containing non-natural materials, retailers, including sales over the counter, catalog showrooms, mail order firms, television or other media sales programs, and advertisers. The Federal Trade Commission requires this disclosure, and failure to identify a non-natural material is an unfair trade practice.
Some jewelers carry synthetic gems, others refuse to sell them. Synthetic gems cost only a fraction of the price of natural gems.
For further discussion, see Gems from the Lab.
Synthesized gem material also has a place in the world beyond gemstone jewelry. Colorless synthetic sapphire makes the best watch crystal, because it can be scratched only by corundum (ruby and sapphire) or diamond.
Manufacturers of synthetic diamond are also aiming to revolutionize the microprocessing industry by producing cheap, flawless, synthetic diamond to replace silicon in computer chips.
Simulants are imitation gems, fabricated from such materials as glass, ceramic or plastic. Some common simulants are CZ (cubic zirconium), YAG (yttrium aluminum garnet) GGG (gadolinium gallium garnet), strontium titanate, and synthetic rutile.
A simulant may resemble the appearance of the gem it is mimicking, but it cannot duplicate the true gem's characteristic properties. A gemologist looking through a microscope can easily distinguish a real gem from a simulant.
One of the newest diamond simulants is Moissanite.
Shopping Considerations and Caveats
- Synthetic gems can cost less than 10% of the price of their natural counterparts. If you are buying a natural gem (and paying the price of a natural gem), be sure to get in writing that the gem is natural. If the gem you buy is synthetic, it should be so identified on your appraisal and sales papers.
- A simulant is in no sense a gemstone and is not suitable for fine jewelry.