Romancing the Stone

Choose the Best Gemstone for Your Next Jewelry Treasure



As a jeweler concerned with authenticity and lasting value, you might think I’d be a snob when it comes to anything other than naturally occurring gemstones. But you’d be wrong. Sometimes, the better gem for the purpose is lab-created.


Lab-created gemstones are not “fake” stones, like simulants made of glass or plastic. Rather, they’re the result of scientific innovations performed in controlled laboratory environments. These processes approximate conditions that created natural stones in the earth. LC’s share the same chemical, physical and optical characteristics as their natural counterparts. They can serve the same industrial and jewelry uses equally well. When it comes to jewelry, as long as the jeweler you deal with discloses the nature of your gemstones, by opting for lab-created, you may be advancing technology, preserving the environment, and saving yourself some serious green.



“Growing” the Stone


There are several methods for growing gemstones in a lab, most of which rely on some form of heat and tiny pieces of the gemstone material, or “seed,” they are intended to become. These are a few of the most common:

  • Flame fusion- the oldest and most common technique for creating gemstone material, flame fusion involves melting chemical components by dropping them through a torch flame. The “melt” lands on a metal surface coated with the seed material and cools into the desired mineral. This technique is often used to create Spinel and corundum-based gemstones, such as Ruby and Sapphire.

  • Crystal Pulling- a mineral seed is dropped into a molten broth of chemical components, then “pulled” away, resulting in a trailing thread of consistent mineral material. This process is used to produce a number of gems such as Chrysoberyl, Garnet, Corundum minerals (see link above) and color-change Alexandrite.

  • Flux Growth- much like the “Grow Your Own Crystal” kits you may have tried as a kid, this method takes time and patience. Melted flux, a chemical used to inhibit surface deterioration on metal, dissolves other chemical components, much like water dissolves sugar. The chemicals re-form into the desired mineral material as they cool. This technique is frequently used to grow Emerald.

  • Chemical Vapor Deposition- this relatively recent technology usually applies only to lab-created diamonds. CVD requires a chemical reaction to release carbon atoms, the base material of Diamond. This carbon “steam” rains onto plates of seed diamond from which new material is grown.


Choosing Stones for Design


As a designer, I frequently consider both natural and lab-created stones when approaching new work. Each offers value that makes sense in certain situations.


Lab-grown stones are known for few interior inclusions and deep, predictable colors. Inclusions are marks left by non-gem materials trapped inside gemstones during the growth process. They look like tiny dots, feathery lines, or “phantom” planes inside a stone, as seen in the accompanying image.

Blocks of red ruby with imperfections in gem matrix
A chart of potential inclusions in Ruby, furnished by GIA.edu

Inclusions are not considered “flaws” in the jewelry world. We call them “characteristics,” and regard them as unique markings that differentiate one stone from another. Think of inclusions as giving individual character or personality to a stone. Inclusions in diamond, for example, can identify your stone from someone else’s, preventing an unethical person from “switching” stones. (A rarity, for sure, but we’ve all heard the stories!) Characteristics can be recorded in great detail, or “plotted,” using an industry-wide system of marks, much like those used by a proofreader, in a grading report such as one provided by the labs at Gemological Institute of America (referred to as GIA for short).


Octagon emerald stone with inclusions disrupting its interior matrix.
A natural, polished Emerald with visible inclusions

Natural stones bear inclusions, especially a stone like Emerald, the interior of which should be crisscrossed like a roadmap for a meandering traveler. In contrast, some synthetic gemstones have too few inclusions to pass as the real thing. In the lab setting, there is nothing to interfere with the uniform growth of the mineral crystals, such as a tiny piece of carbon, which could leave a visible black dot inside a natural stone. This by itself is not a reason to reject an LC stone, simply a consideration as you examine stones to add to your new jewelry piece.


Another characteristic of an LC stone is its rich perfection in color, also seen less frequently in the natural version. Perfect imperfection has always been one of Mother Nature’s calling cards. However, the predictable colors of LC stones make them a dream for design. I can work with customers from across the world and know that, save minor differences from one computer monitor to the next, she or he will know exactly what is on order. LC stones are perfect for catalog use when I may need to reproduce a design for many customers. They’re also great to use for wedding parties, where couples request stones to match their wedding theme. With LC stones, the photos will look great! The matching stones also enhance the bonds of friendship, as they remind everyone of their shared experience.



Artistic Ethics


LC stones can serve an ethical purpose. We live in a time of rising awareness that our choices as consumers touch the lives of people all over the world. Although legitimate stone dealers do everything they can to obtain their inventory through legal and traceable means, sometimes it can be difficult to document a stone’s journey from mine to market. By choosing lab-grown stones, you can sleep tight knowing you have avoided participating in the illegal “blood diamond” trade, whereby gemstones are sold to fund military conflicts in African countries, and elsewhere.


(Side note: In response to the blood diamond trade, the industry developed the Kimberley Process, a system of documenting ownership of gemstone material from mine to market. Steps like this have gone a long way toward destroying the illegal trade and are a great reason to consider natural stones when the occasion warrants.)


For those of us concerned with Climate Change and the condition of our planet, it’s worth noting that LC gemstones circumvent the manual mining process which can leave great swaths of land denuded of plants and pocked with tunnels and terraces. In the past, some spent mines have been abandoned by the companies that built them, left for local communities as eyesores and dangerous playgrounds for children. But take heart: Not all countries maintain a laissez faire approach to mining. In Sri Lanka, a worldwide colored stone producer, a system of regulations and licensing has been in place since the early 1970’s. The “Island of Jewels” has taken its place as a leading ethical producer of high-quality rough and first-cut gem material, allowing for the economic development of local communities, as well as a focus on environmental preservation.


Now we come to, perhaps, the biggest difference between LC and natural gemstones. Yep, you guessed it: the price! There’s simply no getting around it- this is one of the greatest benefits to choosing LC gemstones. The laboratory processes that create the stones are far more controllable than mining operation in the field. The resulting stones are easier to grade, cut and sell. That means great prices for you.



LC’s in Practice


When I decided to offer my Single Star Earrings and Necklace in LC Ruby as a Limited Edition for Valentine’s Day 2022, I began by researching prices of my ruby gem material. My first thought: Keep the stone size at 5mm, the same as the original CZs in the design, to allow me to batch my tasks. (Batching is an operations decision that helps me keep my production overhead low.) My second thought: Could I afford to offer the Limited Edition at a price similar to the original design? Since most of my work uses pearls or very small diamonds for sparkle, I wasn’t sure what I would find.


I contacted my gemstone peeps. Conversations with a few of them revealed a clear answer: Lab-created rubies were the way to go. At the size I preferred, the price difference was so steep I simply couldn’t afford to purchase natural rubies on spec. A small studio like mine needs to keep a tight grasp on its resources. LCs allow me to present original, handmade jewelry at the right price, using beautiful stones with consistent, dependable color.


I hope you’ll take a peek at my Limited-Edition LC Ruby pieces, the first Limited Edition I’ve ever produced. Your purchase of these pieces means I can continue to offer Limited Editions, artistic experiments available only for a limited time. You can purchase the earrings or necklace by itself, or both pieces as a set at a special price. (Remember I mentioned keeping overhead low? When I make the set, I save time. This is how I can justify the set price.)


Thank you for reading my thoughts, participating in my design process, and supporting my business. Join my mailing list for exclusive sneak peeks and the occasional discount coupon. (Discounts are tough- my low overhead means sharp pricing that doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room.) Handmade is the greatest luxury. Indulge.


-xo

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