It was a pair of padparadscha sapphires that first got me thinking. The beautiful colour, neither pink nor orange, but a gorgeous melange of the two, like a perfect sunrise…I coveted them. And then I saw that they weren’t ‘real’. And I felt a curious mixture of professional shame, slight embarrassment and a faint sense that I should not really like them. Because they were, you’ve guessed it, synthetic. By which I mean lab-grown. Created. Not real. And yet… I still liked them. And it made me wonder whether my snobbery was misplaced. I, like many people I’m sure, associate synthetic stones with cheap jewellery. I turn my nose up at it. It isn’t real. And yet, in order to be classed as a synthetic, a stone has to have the same crystal structure and chemical composition as its natural counterpart. The only thing that is different is that it is grown in a laboratory instead of being dug out of the ground. Without getting too technical, there are several processes for growing synthetics, and they divide into low cost-high volume, and high cost-low volume processes. It is the rapidly produced flame fusion and pulling processes that produce large, clean crystals with all the charm of a piece of coloured glass. Large pieces of emerald without inclusions do not look real. They are too good to be true and easily identified as synthetics. And they are cheap; a few dollars a carat. However, slow processes, where crystals are grown under carefully controlled conditions; flux or hydrothermal processes – processes that are hit and miss and you don’t know what you’re going to get until the crystal grows – these produce much more real looking stones. Nature isn’t perfect. In fact these are sometimes not so easy to tell apart from naturals. Hydrothermal emeralds tend to have very distinctive growth lines, but I remember for my GIA Gem ID exam – you know, the one with the 100% pass mark – I changed my answer on a ruby at the last minute. Thank goodness I did, because changing that answer meant I passed the exam! It was a ruby with fingerprints. Very natural looking fingerprints. But I decided at the last minute that the minute bit of yellow staining at one edge of the stone was a bit of flux residue, and I was right. Such slow-grown synthetics are not cheap stones; the sapphires I wanted were several hundred dollars – nothing like the price had they been real, but still, not the kind of money you’d throw away.
So why didn’t I buy them? For me, it comes down to authenticity and rarity. A ‘real’ sapphire, dug out of the ground, is unique. There is no stone like it. It maybe grew for thousands of years, or came up in the magma of a volcanic eruption. I know it’s real and I can be proud of it. It’s the same reason that I don’t buy knock-off designer handbags (apart from the fact it’s completely illegal of course!). I just think, what’s the point? Why not get something non-designer but beautiful and real. Instead of buying a fake sapphire, I’d rather have a beautiful piece of agate, or a gorgeous pearl, or something properly gemmy but cheaper, like an aquamarine, or tanzanite. That’s just me. I don’t buy them and I won’t ever sell them. I don’t think they’re bad, they just aren’t for me. So it was with interest that I saw that De Beers have launched a created diamond jewellery line; Lightbox. The news created an absolute bombshell within the industry with buyers and producers completely blind-sided. De Beers say that they are not trying to replace the existing diamond industry but create a new one. This might be a master-stroke – rather than turning up their noses and cutting themselves out of a potentially large and growing market. However, I’m not sure. I don’t see how they can promote either market without disparaging the other. Initial statements from meetings at the Las Vegas show report executives stating the that stones are suitable for “emotionally shallower occasions,” and that if you lost such jewelry at the beach “you wouldn’t be quite so concerned,”. Hmm, this doesn’t seem to have ‘PR coup’ written all over it. JCK news reckon they are trying to ‘steer into a skid’ – they can’t stop the car from heading in this direction, but they are trying to maintain control. And De Beers has always been about control. What do you think? Are you a fan of synthetics? Or do you favour the mystique and uniqueness of natural stones?