Throughout history you will find details and stories of gemstones thought to be one thing turning out to be quite the other, famous historical dupes and accidental misidentification. The world of gemmology is fascinating, linked inextricably to the jewellery trade where at the retail point the consumer must place their confidence in the jeweller. So undoubtably, there are words and phrases that appear, often misused that mislead and also cause confusion both within the trade and to the public. This is usually not deliberate, gemmology being quite a complicated and scientific area that even has the most experienced of trades scratching their heads. Synthetic gemstones Diving right into the ever mystifying word 'synthetic' and what the true definition of this is . Having studied with Gem-A, we use and take their definitions as the standard and who we look to when explaining and guiding our customers. The Gemmological association of Great Britain defines 'synthetic' as the following ; " To be called synthetic, an artificial gemstone must have a natural mineral counterpart of the same composition and structure." -The Gemmological Association Of Great Britain ( Foundation In Gemmology ) 2008 In gemmology terms this is telling us that a 'synthetic ruby' for example ( a lab grown gemstone ), has the exact same chemical composition as a 'natural ruby' . There is no difference at the atomic level and chemical make up of a ruby that has been grown in a lab to one that has been mined from the Earth's crust.
Image Source : Charlie Luxe Vintage 2022- The left is an antique enamel greek key pattern pendant with a single paste ruby ( glass ) to the centre, the right image depicts a Victorian flower crown ring with a central synthetic ruby gemstone surrounded by a halo of pearls. This is a really important distinction, the mention of identical chemical composition. You now know that when purchasing an item of jewellery with the gemstone described as 'synthetic', these gemstones should be the real deal but grown in a lab, and not an imitation. If the understanding is that a synthetic gemstone differs only from a natural gemstone in it's origin, which is reflected in the inclusions found within, sometimes the colour or appearance, and of course the pricing- what is a simulated gemstone?
Imitation and Simulated gemstones Confusingly, a simulated gemstone can use natural, synthetic (lab grown), and even artificial materials to achieve the outcome of imitating the desired gemstone. So for clarity and clear understanding Gem-A's definition of a simulated gemstone is as follows ; " Natural or artificial materials that are used to imitate the effect, colour and appearance of other gem materials without possessing their chemical and physical properties." -The Gemmological Association Of Great Britain ( Foundation In Gemmology ) 2008
Image Source ; Stock images, To the left is a truncated step cut red quartz gemstone imitating ruby, to the right is a round brilliant cut red glass gemstone imitating a ruby A good example to demonstrate what this means in real terms, is the use of glass that has been coloured red to imitate a ruby ( a paste ruby ) , or a natural quartz gemstone that has then been dyed red to give the appearance of a ruby, but is lacking the chemical composition that a ruby possesses.
The chemical composition is really important, it is what differentiates similarly coloured gemstones from each other, and it is also used to tell you that a synthetic gemstone is still the gemstone described. The chemical composition denotes the atomic structure and this is what gives you the different qualities of that gemstone such as lustre ( hardness, shinyness ), the inclusions seen within and the gemstone's toughness ; A glass ruby is no match for the real thing, less able to withstand scratching and hard knocks.
Image Source: Charlie Luxe Vintage sold archives. From left to right- A real natural opal gemstone, An opal doublet where a real slice of opal has been glued to a an artificial plastic matrix base, and a constructed opal gemstone consisting of slices of real opal glued to an artificial plastic matrix.
Within this category also exists composite materials and reconstructed materials. Something which you will have definitely been acquainted with, think of opal triplets and doublets where a thin slice of real opal is glued to or in-between other materials. The outcome of this construction is to achieve that look of a gorgeous real opal cabochon, without the price tag. Examples One of my favourite examples to help with my understanding between synthetic, imitation and simulant is " the Black Prince's Ruby" . The reason why this is such a great example is because it is one of the most famous dupes in history.
Image Source: Wikipedia, an image of the Black Prince's 'Ruby'. The spinel sits at the front of the Imperial crown. The 'ruby' gifted to Edward of woodstock in the 14th century has turned out to in fact be a red spinel. Weighing in at a whopping 170 carats, it was not until 1783 when spinels gained their own definitive name different from a ruby because of their chemical composition.
Image Source : Both from wikipedia, on the left sits a red spinel gemstone and on the right sits a red ruby gemstone. Both are unfashioned and in their crystal habit. Spinel's come in a huge range of colours both their natural and synthetic grown counterparts, they are quite notorious for deception and mistaken gemstone identity. Part of the problem lies with the geological occurence, because spinels grow in the same conditions as rubies. As we can see with this example, while the gemstones might look very similar, they are not because they differ chemically. Conclusion Just from a very small snippet of the gemmology world, you can see already the overlap between and why this causes so much confusion.
The term synthetic with no prior gem knowledge absolutely suggests a gemstone that isn't 'real', and is pretending to be something else. What we actually discover when we take the time to explain the distinction is that we can help our customers to understand and empower them to be educated when buying jewellery, armed with the knowledge that a synthetic ruby is still a ruby.