Synthetic Vs Natural Gems: Which Is More Ethical?

 

In the last five years or so, we’ve seen an explosion in popularity of synthetic gemstones. Large international jewelers are adopting it, influencers are raving about it, and the idea that synthetic gemstones are cheap replicas of the original, found only on sub-par jewelry seems to be but a distant memory. Many proponents of synthetic gemstones argue that it is more sustainable and ethical compared to natural gemstones, and are just as beautiful. But is that really true?

Here we discuss the age-old debate of synthetic vs. natural gemstones and why here at Gemdaia, we believe that au naturel is simply the way to go.

 

In this article we break down:

1. What are synthetic gemstones

2. The key differences between synthetic and natural gemstones

3.  Brief history of synthetic gemstones

4. What about gemstone simulants?

5. The allure of natural gemstones 

6. The value of natural and synthetic gemstones

7. Why synthetic gemstones are not as ethical as they seem

8. Conclusion 

1. What Are Synthetic Gemstones?

The word synthetic evolved from the Greek sunthetikos based on suntithenai, which means to ‘place together’. And placing together is an apt way to describe what exactly are synthetic gemstones? Synthetic gemstones are gemstones that were placed together and grown by humans in a laboratory instead of in nature. There are many different ways synthetic gems can be synthesized or put together. Depending on the chemical process used to grow these gems, their price can fluctuate greatly.

2. The Key Differences Between Synthetic and Natural Gemstones

The key difference between synthetic gemstones and natural gemstones is the fact that one was created in nature by the earth over millions of years, and the other was grown by humans in a laboratory over the course of a few days to a year.

What’s interesting, and shocking even, is that technically, synthetic gemstones are still gemstones and not fakes. A synthetic Ruby is still technically a Ruby because its chemical composition and chemical structure is the same as a natural Ruby. The same goes for synthetic Emeralds or Sapphires.

One way to tell if a gemstone is synthetic is when it looks too perfect. Natural gemstones that formed in the earth over millions of years almost always have certain imperfections, color zoning, or inclusions in the stone. Since synthetic gemstones are grown under controlled conditions, the manufacturer can ensure that it has the most beautiful color and clarity. Compared to most natural gemstones, synthetic gemstones are most likely to have rich and vivid colors and be inclusion free.

It becomes a bit trickier with top quality natural gemstones, especially after they’ve been cut and polished. Take Diamonds for example. Two beautiful Diamonds of the same quality, one synthetic and one natural, when placed side by side, would be indiscernible to the untrained eye. Even professionals need special tools such as a microscope to identify the two!

3. Brief History of Synthetic Gemstones

Synthetic gems have actually been around for quite some time. The history of synthetic gemstones can actually be traced back to the late 1800s.

The first commercially successful synthetic gems were created using a method called Flame Fusion. Ruby became the first gem to be created in this method by the French chemist Auguste Verneuil. In 1902, Verneuil announced his invention for synthesizing the beautiful gem. Flame Fusion, or the Verneuil Method, involves dropping powdered chemicals through a high temperature flame, where it melts and drips onto a rotating base to produce a synthetic crystal. It remains the least expensive and most common method to produce synthetic Rubies, Sapphires and Spinels today.

Another way of growing synthetic gemstones is through a process called Flux Growth introduced in the mid 20th century. The gemstones are grown in a Flux solution containing chemicals specific to the gemstone being grown. As the chemical solution steadily cools, synthetic crystals start to form. The Flux Method requires more time and investment as the equipment is very expensive, and the process is more time consuming compared to other ways of growing synthetic gemstones. However, the results of Flux grown synthetic gems are far superior in quality.

4. What of Gemstone Simulants?

As mentioned earlier, synthetic gemstones are chemically identical to their natural counterparts and are therefore not considered fake. Gemstone simulants on the other hand are used to imitate the color, shape, or appearance of a natural gemstone, and have no actual chemical similarity to whatever they’re simulating. Simulants can be made of plastic, glass, resin, or another gemstone that imitates a more valuable and rare gem.

The most popular examples of gemstone simulants are Cubic Zirconias or Moissanites, which are often used in jewelry to simulate Diamonds. Colored and faceted glass is used to simulate colored gemstones like Rubies and Sapphires.

Like synthetic gemstones, gemstone simulants have been around for centuries, from the popular glass pastes found in jewelry of the 1700s  – 1800s, to the Cubic Zirconia used in costume jewelry today.

5. The Allure of Natural Gemstones

Natural gemstones are minerals that are valued for their rarity and beauty. Over the millenia, gemstones have captivated human imagination and were used for decorative or divination purposes. What distinguishes natural gemstones are the fact that they were formed in the earth over millions or even billions of years. Each gemstone is unique and each requires a set of special circumstances to be able to form. Part of the allure of natural gemstones comes from owning something that can never be replaced, because there will only ever be one of any gemstone out there. 

6. The Value of Natural vs Synthetic Gemstones

While the significantly discounted price tag of a synthetic gem can be very enticing, it is essentially worthless the moment it leaves the jewelry shop. Unlike natural gemstones, which are sought after not only for their beauty but also their rarity, synthetic gemstones can be created on demand. A beautiful, large vivid blue Diamond would have required specific chemicals and conditions to be present underground over billions of years to form. Whereas one can easily order a synthetic Diamond with specifications on the size and color online and have it delivered within a month or so, cut, polished, and set on jewelry for a fraction of the price of the natural gem. However, if both pieces were appraised, one would have been a spectacular investment whereas the other would retain little of its original cost. The rarity of a gemstone is what makes it popular and valuable to collectors, and manmade synthetics lack the rarity of a natural gemstone.

As a buyer, it is important to know whether the stone you are purchasing is a natural or a synthetic gemstone. Both natural and synthetic gemstones can be evaluated by reputable labs such as the GIA, to be certain of your gemstones’ origins, always ask for a certification from a reputable gem lab, and do some market research on the latest pricings before your purchase. When a beautiful gemstone comes with a deal that looks too good to be true, it probably is.

7. Why Synthetic Gemstones Are Not That Ethical

As the market evolves and the new generation of consumers demand more sustainable practices, synthetic gemstones have become highly popular. Some argue that synthetic gemstones are more ethical and sustainable because they don’t bear the environmental consequences from mining, or the poor labor practices of mines. However, whether synthetic gemstones are truly more ethical is debatable. The process of synthesizing gemstones in labs requires significant amounts of resources. Manufacturing the equipment alone requires raw materials, which are mined from the earth in arguably worse conditions than gemstones. The sheer amount of electricity required to simulate the high pressure and high temperature conditions under which natural gemstones are formed is another problem that’s rarely discussed.

While it is undeniable that there exist natural gemstones mined under unethical conditions, there are hundreds of artisanal miners who mine for gems on a small scale that is more environmentally conscious. Mining is the primary source of income for artisanal miners who support their community by dealing the gems they find. By supporting these artisanal miners instead of opting for synthetic gemstones, consumers are directly supporting the local communities that have often been negatively affected by large scale, unethical mining. There will always be demand for natural gemstones regardless of their provenance, thus, if there is increased consumer demand for gems mined by artisanal miners, it will shift the market in a more positive direction.

Conclusion

Consumers increasingly want to have peace of mind when investing in an important piece of jewelry. While synthetic gemstones are marketed as the more sustainable alternative to natural gemstones, whether synthetics are truly more ethical is debatable. From an economical viewpoint, natural gemstones undoubtedly hold and appreciate in value overtime. The origin of natural gemstones is of the utmost importance when purchasing a conflict free stone. At Gemdaia we believe in the value of natural, artisanally-mined gemstones that are not only beautiful and unique, but also come from reputable and conflict free sources. We aim to provide high quality mine-to-market stones that are ethically mined to mark your life’s milestones.

Follow this link to learn more about our bespoke process, or browse our collection of beautiful gemstones, all individually certified, guaranteeing its provenance.

For more interesting gemstone education checkout our Gemstone Guides and our blog.

 

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