Lab Created Gemstones vs. Natural Gemstones: What Are The Differences?
The name ‘synthetic stone’, with its connotations of fake-ness and mere imitation, is no more. In today’s gemstone industry, more and more consumers are showing their interest in sustainable alternatives to natural precious stones, and ‘lab-grown stone’ is the name of the game. If you’ve only heard of the term from your favourite jewellery brand or mentioned in relation to the heavy environmental toll of mining, but are unsure what it really means, let’s take a closer look at the differences between lab grown and natural gemstones that most impact buyers’ decisions.
What are natural gemstones?
Natural gemstones are stones that have grown over a long, long period of time deep under the surface of our planet. Different gems are made up of different elements reacting with each other when exposed to extremely high temperatures and pressure. Most gemstones form in the Earth’s crust, while a few form in a deeper layer called the mantle because they require even higher temperatures to crystallise.
What are lab created gemstones?
As lab grown gems have entered the scene, they’ve developed a misnomer, which is “simulated stones”. This has come to be recognised as an incorrect name because simulants are materials which pretend to be certain gemstones but have different chemical compositions (such as moissanite sold as diamond simulant or green glass sold as emerald simulant) while lab created stones like alexandrite, emeralds, and rubies are chemically identical to earth alexandrite, emeralds, and rubies.
Praised for being more environmentally-friendly than mined stones, created stones are made by imitating in a lab the extreme and highly specific conditions required for gemstones to form deep inside the belly of the Earth.
How are lab grown gemstones formed?
Different gemstones form in different ways, and this is reflected in the various technologies used to grow ethical gemstones.
The first process used to create synthetic gemstones in 1902, flame fusion involves melting powdered elements into a molten liquid which is dripped onto a rod that is slowly turning. This liquid hardens into a tear-shaped form with the particular crystal structure of a gem, depending on what elements were used.
The flux method involves dissolving the elements of a particular gemstone in a solvent called ‘flux’, and then allowing the solution to crystallize.
Also called the melt process, this technology involves putting a ‘seed’ crystal, which is simply a piece of the desired gem, into a crucible filled with melted nutrients. More crystals begin to form and attach onto the seed.
This is most commonly used to grow lab emeralds, which involves dissolving gemstone nutrients in water inside a machine that inflicts crushing pressure. As this solution cools, gem crystals grow.
The end result of all these processes is a gemstone that has the same chemical properties as one grown underground.
What are the differences between lab-grown and natural gemstones?
Just by looking at them, lab gems cannot be identified as different from natural gems. However, gemstones that grow in a controlled laboratory environment tend to contain fewer inclusions (imperfections such as trapped gas bubbles, trapped solids, or fractures/cleavage) so they are more consistently eye clear. This feature alone is not a defining characteristic, but one of multiple factors trained gemologists use to distinguish ‘man-made stones’.
High clarity gemstones which naturally form with fewer inclusions are rare and subsequently more expensive. To ‘hide’ flaws, mined gems with inclusions are often subjected to oiling or heating to fill scratches and enrich their hue.
Related to differing amounts of inclusions is durability. The durability of a gemstone is impacted by the mineral’s hardness, amount of cleavage, and internal resistance to fracturing. Take diamonds as an example: while being the hardest material known to man, they have four cleavage planes caused by weak atomic bonding, meaning they can fracture.
Inclusions can play a role in causing cleavage, with fissures or fractures sometimes forming in an area with multiple inclusions. As created gemstones tend to have few inclusions, they can be considered to be more durable than natural stones known to have certain inclusions.
Traditional gemstone mining comes with a host of anti-environmentally-friendly practices. These include water contamination, soil loss, and loss of habitat by local species. There’s also the social element of endangerment to human life. Industrial mine conditions can be hazardous to workers’ health.
Created stones are conflict-free because, depending on whether the lab uses clean energy sources, they have a lower carbon footprint and require less energy to form the same quantity of gemstones. And most important of all, they avoid the human rights and environmental degradation issues.
There are approximately 100 recognised gemstones found in the world, and their formation times vary greatly. The range of time is anywhere from hundreds of thousands of years to a couple billion years, and still isn’t known exactly by geologists.
The time it takes for lab grown gemstones to form, however, is an exact science. These ethical gemstones can be grown in a minimum of a few weeks to a maximum of 12 months. This gives created stones a unique quality: the ability to be produced on-call.
Cultivated gemstones are more affordable than natural gemstones due to the simple fact that they are less scarce. For instance, in the gem world, the reality that the supply of translucent, saturated Colombian emeralds in the world is limited is what makes them so sought-after.
In other words, the cost factor is determined by the availability of rare colours and varieties. Gems made in a lab can be tailored for mineral type, colour and size, something you cannot say about natural gems due to their rarity. For some, this scarcity is the main draw. For others, being able to have a large gem of preferred colour and type is highly attractive.
To sum up, lab grown gemstones differ from natural gemstones in that they are grown in laboratory environments, have fewer imperfections, may be less brittle, are more environmentally-friendly, can be grown in a matter of weeks or months compared to millions of years, and are more cost-effective.
Some consumers may be put off by the lack of rarity of lab gemstones and potential for lower resale value. However, when these drawbacks are put up against the benefits of lab-grown stones, which include better clarity, affordability, sustainability, and the unmatched power to access desired stone varieties and colours, it’s clear that created gemstones have a strong draw for the next generation of precious stone buyers. Get in touch to learn more about sourcing lab created coloured gemstones for yourself or your business.