CHAPTER 10 | CULTURED GEMSTONES, AN ETHICAL ALTERNATIVE

As I have already discussed at length, there are a lot of ethical issues surrounding the mining and the supply chain of diamonds, gemstones and the precious metals used in jewellery.

There is one alternative which people in general know very little about, largely because the jewellery industry tries very hard to keep it under wraps and dismiss or belittle it whenever it comes up for discussion. This is the scientific culturing of real diamonds and real gemstones in a laboratory. These stones are physically, chemically and optically identical to mined stones, impossible to tell apart from the best quality mined gems except with specialist equipment, and are less costly, in all ways. So, if the ethical issue doesn’t do it for you, there are other factors which might.

Read on - or Download Chapter 10 as a pdf to read at your leisure.

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SUMMARY

• Cultured gemstones and diamonds are real stones, have been around for a very long time, and can only be distinguished with high tech equipment

• The advantages are high quality, lower price ethical production and supply, as well as ready availability

• The jewellery trade has discouraged their use and this has created consumer prejudice

• They are not to be confused with simulants and imitations

• Buy only from a source you know provides the highest quality.

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CULTURED PEARLS

The best known cultured gems are cultured pearls. These are widely accepted and the best are quite costly, but culturing has made real pearls available to women all around the world who would otherwise have had to make do with glass and plastic imitations.

The process of creating cultured pearls was discovered in the early twentieth century by a British biologist and commercialised in Japan.The market for cultured pearls developed rapidly so that now 99 of pearls sold are cultured and grown in Japan and China.

Natural and cultured pearls can only really be distinguished by X-ray which can reveal the introduced nucleus. This is because cultured pearls are otherwise formed by exactly the same processes as wild pearls.

The large scale production of cultured pearls has removed the risk from the industry, reduced costs considerably and made high quality real pearl jewellery available to many more people.

A WELL-KEPT SECRET - CULTURED GEMSTONES

I began with cultured pearls because of the many parallels with cultured gemstones and the fact that these pearls are universally accepted and known.

What is not so widely known is that cultured gemstones, grown in a laboratory over a period of three to twelve months or more, and similarly difficult to distinguish from the ‘wild’ variety, have been available since the 1930s. As well as addressing many of the ethical issues surrounding the gemstone supply chain, they also tackle some of the same issues of quality, cost and availability as did the introduction of cultured pearls. The mystery is why they have not taken off in the same way commercially.

I believe that this is largely the result of a real misunderstanding about the nature of cultured laboratory-grown gemstones, so, before you switch off, I want to emphasise that laboratory created diamonds and gemstones are real stones. They are not fake like cubic zirconium (Cz), glass and resin imitations. They are chemically, optically and physically identical to stones dug out of the ground. So much so that it is impossible for even an experienced gemmologist to tell the difference with certainty between these and high quality mined gemstones and diamonds without using very sophisticated equipment. In fact, specialist equipment has had to be created to detect more quickly the increasing numbers of laboratory grown diamonds finding their way into the supply chain illegally.

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AS GOOD AS THE MINED VARIETY

Let me tell you a personal story of emeralds to illustrate the point. My husband wanted to give me a ring for our wedding anniversary, so we designed it together and I chose the stones. I love emeralds; what I don’t like is not always being sure where and how they get to the ring on my finger. Large, good quality emeralds are also rare and very expensive, and like most people, my darling husband doesn’t have bottomless pockets. So, for different reasons, we are both advocates of created emeralds, particularly those produced by Chatham Laboratories since the 1930s.

After many drafts, the ring was duly made in 18ct yellow gold and platinum with five Chatham emeralds and two Canadian diamonds. Having initially designed it to go with my wedding band, I decided that I wanted to wear it on its own on my right hand. Right is bigger than left, so I took it to be resized. When I dropped by my repairs workshop to collect it, the resident gemmologist came over and congratulated me, commenting that I had ‘some lovely emeralds in that ring’. He had been examining it for quality assurance of their work and was struck, he said, by their excellent colour and grade, and that they looked very much like the best Colombian stones. I thanked him and said that I was really pleased to have found them, without saying where. I did not want to embarrass him by letting on that they were cultured emeralds, but I was very happy to know that even an expert using high magnification could not tell the difference.

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CULTURED GEMS VS THE REST

One thing we need to get clear right from the start is the difference between created, or cultured, laboratory-grown gemstones (also known as synthetic) on one hand, and simulants and imitations on the other. The terms ‘created’, ‘cultured’, ‘laboratory-grown’ and ‘synthetic’ mean the same thing and are interchangeable. The term ‘synthetic’ is often misused and given a pejorative slant.

Simulants and imitations are not the same thing as mined stones, whereas cultured/synthetic stones are physically the same in every respect.

Cultured stones As illustrated above, cultured gemstones, including diamonds, are chemically identical to mined stones. They are very difficult to tell from naturally occurring gems, and highly sophisticated equipment is needed to identify them.

There are a couple of different patented methods for creating gemstones and diamonds. Laboratory grown stones are specified as such with their own recognised classification, and synthetic diamonds have their own special GIA grading reports so that the consumer is fully aware of what they are buying.

Good quality emeralds, rubies and sapphires of a reasonable size are rare and expensive. Although growing them in a laboratory takes time, it doesn’t take as long as growing them in the ground.

It is costly to produce synthetic gems and they take time to make, typically up to twelve months for larger stones depending on the method. So, although they offer a significantly less expensive alternative, they should not be thought of as ‘cheap’, because they are not.

Laboratory created gemstones are very pure and high quality.

Synthetic rubies can look like the highest grade naturally occurring stones, and the same can be said of synthetic diamonds. As is so often the case, their greatest strength can also be a weakness, depending on what you want from your gems. Their chemical purity means that there are no natural inclusions in the stones. This is a good thing because they then have greater brilliance. The colours are clear and bright, and cultured sapphires are a particularly lovely shade of cornflower blue.

Nevertheless, some people want the variation and character which inclusions can bring to gemstones, in spite of their negative impact on clarity. This can be particularly so in the case of emeralds, where inclusions are common and are given the rather romantic name of ‘jardin’. I suspect this to be a clear case of making a virtue of a necessity, and I’m happy to have a lovely large ethically produced emerald which I can afford.

Apart from the significant cost advantage of synthetic gems there is also the security of knowing that these gemstones are just about the most ethically sourced you can find. No ‘Blood Diamonds’, no funding genocidal wars, no questionable mining or other working conditions, no ecologically damaging extraction or production methods and no risk that child labour (or forced labour) is involved.

They are worth considering if you are one of the increasing number of people to whom these matters are top priority. In the end, it is down to personal preference. To some people, it is the look of a piece of jewellery which matters, not whether or not the stones came out of the ground, and to them, the lower cost is an added advantage. To others it is the mystery of the natural stone which captivates, for which they are prepared to pay a large premium and overlook the problem of supply.

Synthetic and cultured diamonds Like cultured emeralds, which have been around since the 1930s, synthetic diamonds have also been around for a while. Originally used in industry, gem quality synthetic diamonds have been available to consumers since the 1980s. Like all synthetic gemstones, synthetic diamonds have the same physical, optical and chemical properties and they are as hard as natural stones

(at 10 on the Mohs scale). They are essentially the same, but grown in a laboratory rather than in the ground, the biggest difference from natural stones being their price.

One extra benefit of synthetics is that the sourcing of these diamonds is completely and unequivocally ethical. There is no possibility of any suspect mining, employment or trading practices to worry about.

However, the processes for producing synthetic diamonds is a complex one, and the quality of the stones is very high, so they are only less expensive in comparison to high grade diamonds. They will often be more costly than a medium grade natural diamond.

SIMULANTS AND IMITATIONS

Now we’ve established what a created or cultured gemstone is, what is the difference between these laboratory grown gemstones, gemstone simulants and imitations?

Simulated stones ‘simulate’ the appearance of other stones, but they are not the same. They can be natural stones which look like the gemstone they ‘simulate’ or they can be imitations.

Two good examples of natural simulants of diamond are white sapphire and white zircon. White sapphire is a corundum, so it is the next hardest mineral after diamond. Although it can be mistaken for diamond by the layman, it does not have the same brilliance and has to be kept very clean of day to day grease and grime to retain its lustre. White zircon is fiery, but much softer than sapphire (at 6.5 to 7 on Mohs scale) and not really practical for daily wear as a stone in an engagement ring.

Imitation gems are simply made from clear or coloured glass, plastics or resins. Examples of imitations used in place of diamonds and other stones are Swarovski crystal, cubic zirconium (Cz) and what used to be known as ‘paste’.

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A Note on Moissanite

Moissanite has become a popular man-made simulant for diamond. Synthetic moissanite (silicon carbide) is produced in a near-colourless form and its brilliance is only slightly less than a natural diamond. It does however tend to have a slightly yellow or greenish-grey hue, although new developments are constantly improving the available colours. Moissanite is rated with a hardness of over 9 on Mohs scale, it displays excellent toughness and its durability can compete with diamond. However, I have found princess cut moissanite to be quite brittle at the corners and liable to break in a four-claw setting. This can also happen in diamond, but is much more likely with moissanite.

At the moment, if you get the right colour and can avoid shapes with sharp corners, moissanite may be an acceptable option for some.

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CONCLUSION

Laboratory grown, synthetic, cultured or created gemstones and diamonds are an ethical alternative to mined stones. All four terms and descriptions are commonly used.

It takes some time to grow the crystals for these gems and they are chemically, optically and physically identical to the stones which come out of the ground. They are also of very high quality and are less expensive than the same quality mined stones, although they are not cheap as their quality makes them comparable with the best mined stones.

They are not fake, imitation or simulated and are increasingly popular owing to their many benefits, not least the guarantee of ethical sourcing.

It is important to be properly advised when choosing laboratory grown gems to ensure you are getting them from a reputable source.

Read On – Chapter 11 looks at the full range of precious metals available to you in designing your engagement ring.

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