Synthetic vs. Real Gemstones: Know Before You Buy

Updated April 28, 2021
Jeweller inspecting replica diamonds

According to the Gemological Institute of America, any gemstone whether created in nature or in a lab can be classified as "real" if it contains identical mineral makeup. This means that synthetic gemstones are able to be classified and sold as 'real' but not as 'natural.' To be labeled natural, a stone must be produced by nature. Learn the differences between lab-created and natural gemstones to make better buying decisions, even when sellers might try to trip you up by labeling both types as 'real.'

What Makes a Gemstone Real?

Despite their glittering appearances, jewelry can be deceiving; it's quite difficult for many people to know off the bat if they're looking at a natural, lab-created, or simulated gemstone. In fact, many don't even know that there's a difference in these distinctions. Take a look at what the different types of designations there are to describe a gemstone's origins.

Natural

When gemstones are created in nature, they contain specific types of mineral makeup, which gives them their color, clarity, and appearance. These natural gemstones are always classified as "real" gems - there is no dispute about their origins or their mineral makeup. Additionally, the common practice of heat-treating natural stones to enhance their color doesn't alter their natural distinction.

Lab Created/Synthetic

Some gemstones can be created in a lab to have identical mineral makeup as the ones found in nature. These "lab-created" or "synthetic" gemstones can be called real if their mineral make up is identical to those found in nature.

Simulated

If a lab-created gemstone contains other materials, however, such as spinel being passed off as a ruby, the gemstone is not considered real and is usually called 'simulated' rather than "synthetic" by the seller. Simulated gemstones may also include natural gems passed off as others, such as cubic zirconia being passed off as a diamond.

Comparing Synthetic and Natural Gemstones

With nearly identical mineral makeup, most synthetic and natural gemstones are fairly indistinguishable to the naked eye.

Gemologist inspecting diamonds using loupe

Clarity

The biggest difference between the two is that the synthetic gemstone is usually of better clarity, with fewer inclusions and often better color. This is because the process of making the gem is controlled; minerals that cause inclusions or color differences in the stones are not introduced, which makes synthetic stones appear to be more "perfect" than their natural counterparts. While a natural gem may need to be heat treated to bring out its color, a synthetic version can be grown to have the desired color on demand.

Popularity

Despite the fact that all lab-created gemstones are typically flawless, popular culture still prefers natural gemstones over the lab-crafted variety, simply due to the fact that the natural stones are "rare" and therefore considered more valuable. This keeps the cost of some lab-created gems low in comparison to natural stones.

Cost Differences

It's important to be prepared when you're looking to invest in an expensive good, so you definitely want to understand the differences in costs between the various types of gemstones out there. Synthetic and natural gemstones, while similarly priced, aren't interchangeable and you don't want to pay too much for either one.

Gemstones

If a gemstone, such as rubies or sapphires, is easy to create in a lab, then they can be produced fairly cheaply, which makes a synthetic or lab-grown ruby or sapphire much less expensive than the real thing. However, accounting for carat weight means that there are synthetic stones which will cost you a few thousand dollars, such as this loose lab-created emerald from Brilliant Earth, which is currently priced at $1,400. Yet, here's a great cost comparison between synthetic and natural stones. This natural ruby from Gem Select is just over a carat and sells for about $725, while this lab-created ruby of about the same dimensions sells at Esslinger.com for about $68.

Diamonds

When it comes to diamonds - which are difficult to grow, cut, and produce - there may be very little cost difference - or a significant difference - between a synthetic diamond and a natural diamond because diamonds are graded on many different factors (color, cut, clarity and carat). There can be a 30 percent reduction in price for a synthetic versus a naturally grown diamond of the exact same specifications. However, lab-created diamonds compared with natural diamonds that have less brilliant clarity or that contain flaws will actually sell for more. For example, this good quality lab-created diamonds at Brilliant Earth start at $375, while similarly sized but higher clarity diamonds from Whiteflash sell for around $675.

Jeweller inspecting replica diamonds

Tips for Identifying the Differences

Not every seller is going to either know what type of gemstone they have or is going to be honest about their wares, especially if they're not affiliated with a jewelry retailer of some kind. That being said, there are a few things you can look for on your own when you're assessing a gemstone to determine if it has synthetic or natural origins:

  • Quality - Synthetic gemstones are often devoid of any imperfections like inclusions or color variations, so if you find a gemstone that seems to be too perfect (particularly if it's not extremely highly priced), chances are it was created in a lab.
  • Color - Look at the gemstone under a magnifying tool and see if there're areas of opacity or color concentration; most current gemstones are color treated no matter if they're natural or synthetic, but natural antique or vintage stones won't have the same application and can show color variation.
  • Price - Even if the seller claims not to know the stone's origins, you can generally determine whether it's natural or synthetic based on the price; large carat natural stones cost a lot of money, and if you find a multi-carat listing for only a few hundred dollars, then it's probably a synthetic stone.

Know What You're Purchasing

Understand that if you are purchasing a gemstone labeled as synthetic or lab-created, that you are purchasing a quality gemstone with the same mineral makeup as the type found in nature. If you are looking for a less expensive alternative, then a simulated stone may be the way to go.

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Synthetic vs. Real Gemstones: Know Before You Buy