When De Beers, perhaps the best-known name in diamond jewelry, unveiled its Lightbox Jewelry Line in June 2018, they rocked the gemstone world. As jeweler J.R. Dunn noted in a blog post at the time, mined diamonds vs. lab-grown diamonds has been a hot topic for some time. It’s such a controversial topic, in fact, that master gemologist Neil Cohen at first declined to talk about the differences between the two, saying that it’s, you know, a controversial topic. He agreed to talk when I asked him how to tell the difference between lab-grown gemstones and mined ones. If that’s the case, how can a consumer tell the difference—and does it really matter at all? Here’s what you should know about the differences between lab-grown gems and mined gems.
What’s the Difference Between Mined and Lab-Grown Gems?
While you may have thought lab-grown gems are a relatively new phenomenon, in fact scientists have been creating synthetic gems since the late 1800s. What began as a way to create minerals for industrial use rapidly became a way to make beautiful gemstones more widely available to people who couldn’t afford to pay a fortune for a piece of jewelry.
In actual material terms, there’s very little difference between precious gems mined from the earth and those grown in a lab. Whether it’s diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, or rubies, both mined and cultivated gems are made of the same material and have the same essential structure. The best specimens exhibit the same sparkle and refraction and are visually indistinguishable from naturally formed gems.
The biggest difference is that the mined one took millions of years to produce. Meanwhile, the other can be manufactured in as little as a few hours. This is all depending on the process used to grow them. That means that natural gems are far rarer than synthetically produced gems. This makes them more valuable, both intrinsically and in investment value.
How to Tell the Difference Between Real and Lab-Grown Gems
Cohen, my expert gemologist, would only go on record about one clear statement: even expert gemologists can’t tell the difference between mined and lab-grown gems just by looking at and holding them. It requires specialized equipment and expert knowledge. He agreed that the only way to find out for sure whether the gems you own are real or synthetic is to have them appraised by an expert gemologist.
I did, however, also speak with Matt Brodeur, who spent five years working in a wholesale gem shop. According to Matt, “Real stones are cooler to the touch than fakes.” He agreed, however, that this isn’t a reliable method. Only a certified gemologist using specialized instruments can distinguish between them for sure.
Are Lab-Grown Gems a Good Investment?
All the experts agree on one thing: if you’re looking for investment-quality gems— that is, gems that will hold their value or appreciate in value over time—buy genuine, mined gems. As Dunn notes, lab-grown gems will become cheaper over time, which generally won’t happen with mined gemstones. Lab-grown gemstones are likely to become even more common. This would make them less expensive and therefore not as good as a financial investment.
Which Is Better—Mined Gems or Lab-Grown Gems?
The answer to that question depends entirely on the reason you want a piece of jewelry or gem in the first place. If you’re buying for investment purposes, mined gems are the way to go. If, on the other hand, you want the beauty, color, clarity, fire, and other properties of your favorite gem. Then lab-grown gems offer all of this at a far more affordable price point.
Even diamonds, the most expensive of the lab-grown synthetics, sell at far below the price of mined diamonds. As of June 2018, about 30 percent below the price of mined diamonds. That means you can afford a larger stone for your price point than if you chose a natural diamond. In addition, choosing a lab-grown gem may align with other considerations you have when buying gifts of jewelry.
Many people avoid buying diamonds—and increasingly other gemstones and crystals, too—for ethical reasons. Gem mining has been associated with child labor and other exploitative practices. This leaves a sour taste for those who prefer not to contribute to these practices. Lab-grown gems allow you to have your shiny objects without the associated guilt, though, as some organizations point out, the ethics of gem mining can be more complex.
From a purely practical standpoint, lab-grown gemstones offer nearly all of the same qualities at much cheaper prices than those that spent millions of years cooking in the earth, with few of the ethical considerations. Unless you believe that the more money you spend, the more love you show, a gorgeous lab-grown sapphire ring or pair of ruby earrings may be the perfect gift for your bridesmaids, or for a birthstone birthday gift.
Five Tips for Buying Gemstone Jewelry
- Read the product description carefully. Look for words like synthetic, lab-grown, and faux to tip you off.
- Look for the GIA certification. GIA, operating since 1931, is the world’s foremost authority on diamonds, colored gemstones, and pearls. Buying a GIA-certified diamond ring is not only the surest way to know you’re buying a mined diamond, it will also help you track the history of the gem.
- If in doubt, have your gems evaluated by a professional gemologist. It’s the only way to know for sure.
- Consider the price. If someone is offering you a “genuine” gemstone piece at a price that’s substantially below market value, be suspicious.
- Buy jewelry for the joy it brings you—or to the person who receives it. Don’t worry about where it was grown unless it’s important to you.
Prices are accurate and items in stock as of time of publication.
Deb Powers is a freelance writer living and working in Massachusetts. She writes frequently about health, wellness and lifestyle topics.