Are synthetic stones worse than natural?

Would you like to buy a colored stone, but you hesitate between a natural or synthetic stone? Here is everything you need to know before making your choice. To begin, we must understand the difference between natural, synthetic and imitation. 

Synthetic sapphire on white gold 14k. Special order by MCDécarie.

Natural stones come from the earth. 

It is under enormous pressure and a multitude of factors combined that was allowed the growth of crystals in nature. These gems bear the marks of growth and bear witness to their rich history, as they were created millions of years ago. Deposits of colored stones are generally discovered by chance; only diamond prospecting is financed by the private sector. The mines are excavated, often by hand, to find the precious crystals. Once sorted out and cut, only a fraction of the stones are of good quality. It is mainly their rarity that influences their price. The more prized and hard to find a gem, the higher its cost will be compared to its size and quality. Other stones, such as quartz, are found all over the world, which explains their more affordable price.

A tourmaline mine. Photo by Vincent Pardieu/GIA.

Synthetic stones are manufactured in laboratory. 

Hand-made crystals are an exact replica of their natural version, like a clone made from DNA. They have the same physical properties: same composition, same hardness, and same brilliance. They are sometimes very difficult to detect, even for professionals. So if you are afraid that your synthetic stone will be less beautiful or less durable, think again. Stones manufactured in laboratories generally have fewer inclusions and have the same resistance to shocks and scratches. They are scientifically equivalent to natural. Less valuable, they are more affordable and their environmental impact is significantly lower than natural ones. 

Synthetic rubies are created entirely in laboratories. Photo credit: GIA

Imitation can be natural or synthetic.

When we talk about imitation stones, we are referring to anything that looks like natural stone, without being a clone of it. Are the imitations as good as their natural version? That’s where it becomes a complex question, and it has to be answered on a case-by-case basis. 

Let’s take the example of aquamarine. Of a pale blue color, it is a relatively fragile stone, which resists poorly to shocks and scratches. An imitation that is used as a substitute is the synthetic spinel. Pale blue, slightly more saturated, synthetic spinel is more resistant to shocks and scratches, while its beauty is dazzling.  

On the other hand, an imitation can also be much less durable. This is the case of the glass that is used to imitate almost any colored stone. Not very resistant, it scratches quickly and is not a durable option.

An imitation can also be natural, like the red spinel that looks like a ruby. Formerly known as 'the ruby of the poor man', spinel is actually a stone of remarkable beauty, often clearer and with less impurities. Before 1783, all red stones were called rubies, so a natural spinel is found on the royal crown of England, at the time presented as a ruby.

Synthetic spinels are available in a variety of colors and are often used to imitate various color gems. Photo: GIA

So what’s best?

For a rare and unique stone, natural stones are an obvious choice. When available, the synthetic stones offer a very good value for money. More affordable, they are generally very beautiful and with less inclusions. They are certainly not less glittering and they have a much lower carbon footprint than the natural ones; it is an ecological choice.

Some stones do not have synthetic options, which makes them even more coveted. This is often where imitations are presented as more affordable options. Choose your imitation well and avoid fragile or less durable stones.

In the end, it is a personal decision that comes back to you, based on your needs and your values. The important thing is to make this choice with knowledge of the facts. Most of all, do not hesitate to ask all your questions about the stone you're about to choose. 

Natural aquamarine, tailor-made, on 18k white and yellow gold. Special order by MCDécarie.

-Marie-Claude Decarie, JewellerJewellery designer MCDécarie, Marie-Claude is the founder of the company MCDécarie joaillerie. Graduated from a DEC in jewelry in 2009, she perfected her education at the School of Gemmology in Montreal to deepen her knowledge of stones and diamonds.