Gemstones: Natural, Synthetic/Man-Made and Imitation

by Jake Woolley, Exclusively for Fire Mountain Gems and BeadsĀ®

Shopping for gemstones can be a lot like shopping for a used car. Is the price reasonable? How can I tell the quality? What's the best feature? Can I trust the seller? Understanding how gemstones are created allows for a more confident shopping experience. You'll also be able to better explain to your customers the components used in your jewelry.

The jewelry-making industry identifies gemstones in the following categories: natural, synthetic/man-made and imitation. Since most of us don't have a personal gemologist to help with our shopping, the following explanations can help:

Natural Gemstone:

Natural gemstones come from the purest source--nature. They are created naturally over a long period of time without the aid of humans. Natural gemstones can be found deep within the earth, along riverbeds, lining rocky cliffs and at other locations. Though very different, most seem to have the same two things in common: lots of time and help from Mother Nature. Generally, by the time they're sold, natural gemstones have been cut or polished, but not enhanced or altered in other ways.

Treated Stones:

Treated gemstones are natural stones that have been enhanced to improve color or clarity. There are many gemstone treatments and enhancements used to improve natural gemstones, such as heat and oiling. Treated gemstones are considered by many to be synthetic or created gemstones, and by law anyone selling a treated gem must disclose the treatment procedure.

Synthetic/Man-Made Gemstone:

Synthetic gemstones have all the visual, chemical and physical properties of their natural counterparts, but they are created in a laboratory. Scientists use the same elements and conditions as found in the earth to create a synthetic version of the natural gemstone, but in a much shorter time.

Through modern technology and equipment, synthetic gemstones often look identical to nature's authentic gems. With the same cut and polish, generally a quick glance won't be enough to distinguish if a gemstone is natural or synthetic. Since natural gemstones are created in nature, they will often have minor flaws, imperfections or inclusions that have occurred over time. Synthetic gemstones usually appear flawless, giving them added appeal for those wanting perfection. Stating that these gemstones are 'fake' would be too harsh. With similar beauty and chemical makeup, the distinction is more appropriately stated as a difference between natural or synthetic and not real or fake.


Many terms are used interchangeably with synthetic, such as "created gemstones," "artificial," "lab-grown," "lab-made," "man-made," etc. All these terms identify gemstones created in laboratories, not in nature. An important distinction between synthetic gems and man-made gemstones is that synthetic gems contain the exact chemical composition as its natural counterpart, whereas man-made gems can include materials that do not have natural counterparts.

Imitation Gemstone:

Doing their best to look like the real McCoy, imitation gemstones are also referred to as simulated. Not having the same chemical properties of natural gems, imitations are made of glass, plastic, ceramic or other materials, but they are created to resemble natural stones. Imitations often do such a fine job mimicking natural gems that it can sometimes be difficult to spot the difference without a closer look. One of the most well-known imitations is cubic zirconia, which has been widely used and commercialized alongside diamonds for over three decades.

As with most products in the marketplace, supply and demand causes prices to change and fluctuate. Since natural gemstones come from limited resources, some are considered rare and may require a heftier price tag. Synthetic gemstones are generally less in price but aren't always inexpensive due to their fabrication process. Imitation gemstones are often the most affordable and, like synthetic, they can be great alternatives to natural gemstones.

Whether natural, synthetic/man-made or imitation, gemstones are a staple in the jewelry-making industry. The best advice when shopping for gemstones and jewelry is to think like a gemologist, learn about gemstones, use the information in your business and always purchase your products from a reliable source.

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Customer Comments

We would like to share some of the customer comments we received in response to the article "GEMSTONES: Natural, Synthetic and Imitation," as featured in an email newsletter. Please keep in mind that the comments expressed below are those of our customers and do not reflect the views of Fire Mountain Gems and Beads.

"Wonderful article! Answers my questions. Thank you."
- Carol

"This was a really fantastic article, would love to see a follow up that shows different tests you can do to see if it is real or not. Thanks!"
- Victoria

"Great article. Thanks for sharing it."
- Rene

"The infomation you provided on the difference between natural immitation and synthetic is very helpful thank you."
- Michele

"Loved the article, although it doesn't make me an authority it does help me to look closer at the purchases I make and how I advertise my jewelry."
- Anonymous