Our Hot Take on Synthetic Vs Natural Gemstones
Calling all gem geeks and gemology nerds, here is our 411 on whether you should buy a synthetic or natural gem. This debate over gemstone buying has been ebbed and flowed between the two, with leaders in both natural gemstone mining and lab-grown gemstone industries fighting like cats and dogs over whether their choice is better. Of course as an antique jewellery company we primarily buy and sell pre-existing gemstones and materials, which are far more likely to be of natural origins. Nevertheless, most recently, new natural gemstones have come under the microscope for both environmental and ethical concerns, which is why millennials and Generation Z are opting for synthetic gems over natural. But what do you think? If you aren’t sure let's dig up all of the details about synthetic vs natural gemstones.
What is a Synthetic Gemstone?
Also known as cultured, cultivated and lab-grown, when applied to gemstones “synthetic” definitely doesn’t mean “fake”. Synthetic gemstones were first crafted in 1885, with the exact same chemical composition and characteristics as natural gemstones. This is where a combination of elements, heat and pressure is used to replicate the conditions in which a natural gemstone is formulated.
Synthetic gemstones are often crafted to the "ultimate" gemstone ideals like exceptional clarity, colour and size, and are sold at a far more affordable price for the mass-market. To gemstone snobs, this reduces the exclusivity of the gem, but for the growing market of millennials, synthetic gemstones have become far more attractive in price and ethics than a natural gemstone.
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The most commonly crafted synthetic gemstones are the four giants, Diamonds, Sapphires, Rubies and Emeralds. But, it isn’t uncommon to find synthetic semi precious gemstones like synthetic Opal or synthetic Aquamarine, especially because they are also always in demand.
One of the reasons as to why synthetic gems could receive an unfavourable reputation, is because they get confused with simulant gemstones. Simulant gemstones are gemstones that are usually made from glass or plastic and are designed to look like the gemstone they are trying to emulate, whereas synthetic or the more favoured marketing term “lab-grown” are real true gems. Today, simulant gemstones are most often found in costume or fashion jewellery.
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One of the most common synthetic gemstones are cultured Pearls. Cultured Pearls originate on oyster farms, where an irritating sediment is placed within an Oyster shell and this is where the Pearl develops. Cultured Pearls are designed to have the perfectly spherical shape, which is why they are sought after in smart and sophisticated dress.
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What is a Natural Gemstone?
Natural gemstones are ones that have formed over millions of years and found deep within the Earth’s crust. Natural precious gemstones are extremely hard to find today, which is why they are so expensive.
Despite a gemstone being of natural origins, this doesn’t mean that they won’t be subjected to gemstone treatments. These treatments are designed to change the colour of gemstone, get rid of inclusions, fill in fractures and improve the durability. In the United States, it is a legal requirement under the Federal Trades Commission to disclose any treatment procedures when selling a gemstone.
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Here are the most common treatments:
- Bleaching (often followed by impregnation) = to improve the uniformity of porous gemstones.
- Surface coating = adds a colouring agent “film” to the surface or back of the gemstone.
- Dyes = Changes colour of porous gemstones
- Fracture or cavity fillings = fills gemstone cavities with glass, resin, wax or oil, sometimes referred to as oil treated with Emeralds.
- Heat = alters colour and clarity through high focused heat. One of the most common and well-known treatments across all gemstones.
- High Pressure & High Temp = A mixture of both high pressure and high temperature controlled treatments on Diamonds to remove brown and yellow tones.
- Impregnation = Only used within opaque gemstones, this fills the gemstone with polymer, wax or plastic to help improve its durability.
- Irradiation = Use of artificial irradiation to change the colour. Often followed by a heat treatment.
- Laser Drilling = Only used on Diamonds due to their strength. A high beam focused laser light is “drilled” through the Diamond to reach dark carbon spot inclusions.
- Lattice diffusion = Another colour-changing treatment where certain elements are penetrated into a gemstones atomic lattice. This is most common on Rubies and Sapphires.
Gemstone treatments are also used upon synthetic gemstones, but this is likely to have been used just after or during the gemstone being made. Synthetic gems can be crafted to the exact requirements that a person wants and needs which is why treatments are far more common in enhancing a natural gemstone’s beauty.
In natural gemstones, there is also the category of organic and inorganic gems. Organic gemstones are those that are produced by living organisms, such as Pearl, Amber, Ivory, and Coral, whereas, inorganic gemstones are those that are formed as minerals and and under natural conditions like Diamonds, Sapphires, Amethysts and everything else in between!
Should I buy a synthetic gemstone or a natural gemstone?
Now, here is the nitty gritty part, should you buy a synthetic gemstone or natural gemstone? As can be expected, there are pros and cons to buying either, especially new gems straight from the market. To make this a little simpler for yourself, here is our trusted buying guide to synthetic and natural gemstones.
There is no difference in quality
This is one of the main points you should take away from this article, that there is no difference in the literal quality of a gemstone if it is synthetic or if it is natural. Both natural and synthetic gems will have the defining characteristics and elemental structures to make it officially the gemstone, meaning that you don’t need to worry about durability, cracks or wearability.
In the gemstone world, “quality” has become far more subjective. For example, people may perceive that natural gemstones are of a higher quality because they are rare and have been borne naturally into this world. As it is often the rule that if something is natural it is therefore more inherently better. However, due to gemstone judgements of clarity, colour and cut, this may mean that synthetic gemstones rank higher than natural gemstones as synthetic gems generally will have greater colour and clarity.
However, there is also another way we judge the quality of a piece - price. Synthetic gemstones are far more affordable than natural gemstones, which is why people may also perceive them to be of poorer quality, when actually this is not the case. This naturally leads us onto our next point:
Money, Money, Money
Sometimes you just need to be realistic about how much you earn and what you can likely afford, with synthetic gemstones, you are getting more bang for your buck! In many ways, synthetic gemstones are making gems far more affordable for those on lower incomes and democratising gems for the masses. Of course, for many, they view the inherent value of the gemstone within its exclusivity and rarity, as gemstones are an emotional purchase rather than one of need.
In natural and synthetic gemstones, the same pricing rule applies for colour, clarity and carat, with even high carat, saturated colour, and phenomenal clarity synthetic gems reaching the thousands. One of the leading synthetic gemstone companies is called Brilliant Earth, which offers premium prices for premium synthetic gems. For instance, a lab created 1ct pink Diamond ranges between £4000 to £6000 on their website and a 9mm cushion cut Emerald (around 2 carats) costs £5000. These premium prices are because they are larger carats and are notable sought after colours. But, if you compare these same gemstone types to the natural, it still does fair as cheaper. For instance, a 2.5 carat natural Zambian Emerald is just under £10000, and a 1ct natural pink Diamond can be 10x the price of a synthetic. So, if you do want a premium gemstone, you can expect to pay premium prices regardless of whether it is synthetic or natural.
In some cases, gem experts have said that buying synthetic gemstones as purely investment value pieces is not a good idea. This is because, if you did plan on reselling the gem in future you would get much less than what you paid. Because of a natural gemstone’s scarcity, it will always remain at a higher value.
The ethics and environmental concerns
One of the main reasons people choose between synthetic and natural gemstones is for the environmental and ethical concerns. It is no secret that there has been increasing consideration around sustainable buying and ethical sourcing, with the focus increasingly shifting towards the luxury market. Surely, if you are paying lots of money, then it must be sustainable right?
This where it really gets meaty, as there are opposing opinions on both sides as to whether one is more environmentally friendly or ethical as the other. In truth, there is no clear winner. Synthetic jewellery companies haven’t backed up their claims that they are the most eco-friendly, and Diamond mines are continuously linked to human rights abuses and environmental degradation. As you can expect, simply just doing some small research on this topic opens a huge can of worms, so we can completely understand why people feel confused and exasperated.
So, from our extensive research here are the facts we uncovered:
- A pool of leading Diamond mining companies commissioned a report from Trucost to investigate how environmentally friendly natural Diamonds are to synthetic Diamonds. The report stated a surprising fact, that per carat weight, natural Diamonds produced 160kgs of C02, whereas synthetic Diamonds produced a whopping 511kg of C02. However, this report did not take into account the amount of machinery, energy and consequently C02 natural mining uses. But, as it mainly focused on the huge amount of energy to produce just one synthetic Diamond it has been called into question by others in the Diamond industry. Was this report just crafted to slander synthetic Diamonds, or did it have true intentions?
- The US Federal Trades Commission have warned customers about buying synthetic Diamonds purely over environmental reasons because of unsubstantiated claims that these companies are the "ultimate eco-friendly option".
- On the other hand, mined Diamonds use far more water to produce, with 126 gallons per carat, whereas synthetic is 18 gallons of water per carat.
- The report by Trucost has also been called false by other companies, who state that mined Diamonds use 538.5 million joules per carat (that is a lot of energy), than 250 million joules per carat for synthetic.
- Not to mention, in regards to harsh chemicals like sulphur dioxide and carbon, mined Diamonds also show up unfavourably, emitting 30 pounds of sulphur dioxide and 125 pounds of carbon, whereas synthetic Diamonds release 0 Sulphur Dioxide and only 6 pounds of Carbon.
- And, it gets even worse, Diamond mines whether that is open pit mining, underground diamond morning or offshore marine Diamond mining, not only use huge amounts of energy and water, but they also damage the natural landscape often beyond repair, with unregulated mines leaking harmful chemicals like mercury into waterways.
- However, as stated above, synthetic Diamonds aren't completely out of the woods! Synthetic Diamonds are also equally under the microscope as they are largely produced in the USA and China, two countries that are notable for their huge energy consumption and carbon footprint.
Although the eco-friendly conversations around synthetic and natural gemstones are very murky, it appears that as far as we are aware, synthetic gemstones do appear to offer a more ethical version. The natural Diamond industry suffered a major blow during the 1990s to 2000s. During this time civil wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, The Ivory Coast, Angola and Guinea created what is known as the “Blood Diamond” trade. This is effectively where rebel groups and governments would fund fighting through the sale of Diamonds. These Diamonds were sourced through forced labour, unsafe conditions, child labour and were conflicting with all human rights underneath the sun.
To be fair to Diamond companies like De Beers, they have taken the appropriate steps to reduce these issues, such as working underneath the World Diamond Council, creating the Kimberly Process and also creating their “GemFair” initiative in 2018. There are of course, opinions that these steps aren’t enough, that natural Diamond tracing is still not transparent and the term “conflict free” is never strictly defined. For a Diamond to be Kimberly Process certified, it means that it cannot have funded a “rebel war”, but with Artisan & Small Scale mines still largely being part of the trade, (these mines are known for their institutionalised violence and environmental risks), it is still very rocky ground. Not to mention, the way that Diamonds are sold, as lots rather than individuals, is very archaic, meaning that not KPS certified Diamonds can be smuggled into lots of KPS certified Diamonds.
On the other hand, the natural Diamond trade brings in a huge amount of GDP to these developing countries. For instance, in Botswana, De Beers generated 4 Billion to the local economy in 2014, and it is no secret that due to our demand for Diamonds, these mines generate thousands of jobs and income to local families. Due to this, these large companies ascertain that the ethics of the natural Diamond industry are always under close inspection. I guess we will just have to wait for future statistics and revelations for us to more of an executive decision.
Do eco-friendly and ethical gemstones exist?
As you see above, there is no clear winner as to whether synthetic gemstones are better than natural gemstones and vice versa, especially within the contentious competition of eco and ethical credentials. But, with the growing market of the millennials and generation Z, buying habits are changing. People want to buy investment pieces that look great, but also don’t compromise mother earth. With the information above, it could naturally seem overwhelming, that surely there must be the ultimate eco friendly and ethical gemstone out there? In our opinion, this is where vintage and antique gems tick all of the boxes.
First and foremost, antique gems before 1885 are predominantly going to be natural and earth mined gems, but because they were originally mined hundreds of years ago, they are, at this current moment, causing no more damage to the environment. So if you really want a natural gemstone, but you don’t want to take the risk of whether they are actually “conflict-free” then an antique Diamond ring is exactly what you should be looking for.
In synthetic gemstone history, the first synthetic gems were not created until 1885, and even then, the first synthetic Emeralds were not made until 1932. So it is likely that most vintage gems and Art Deco gems are of natural origins. Not to mention, with antique and vintage gems, you will also most likely have the chance at nabbing old cut gemstones like old mine cut, old European cut and rose cut. These romantic gemstones cuts are well-revered and super collectible, making them worthy every single penny. You also get the priviledge of owning a piece of history, which is why for us, antique and vintage jewels are the creme de la creme, cementing the synthetic vs natural gemstone debate once and for all!