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In the study of gemstones, precision and accuracy are important when describing gemstones. The terms we use to categorise and discuss gemstones can significantly impact our understanding of their origin and authenticity.

While phrases like 'real,' 'fake,' and 'genuine' are commonly used in everyday language, they can be problematic and misleading. Instead, using 'natural' and 'artificial' is a better way to label materials.

Before we dive into some example scenarios, let's familiarise ourselves with these definitions:

  • Natural: These are materials that have formed through natural processes over millions of years without the help of humans. They are treasures created by nature's geological processes. They can be organic (made with the help of living organisms) or inorganic (no living organisms involved).
  • Artificial: These are materials that are not natural or have not formed naturally; They are man-made. It can be further subdivided into three categories:
    • Synthetic: these are man-made materials that have the same chemical composition as their natural counterpart.
    • Composite: These materials are those assembled artificially from two or more natural, synthetic or artificial components in such a way as to give the impression of a single item.
    • Imitation: These are materials used to simulate or impersonate a natural or artificial material. They are used to imitate the effects, colour and appearance of other gem materials without possessing their chemical nature.

It is worth noting that cutting and shaping materials does not make a natural material 'fake' or unnatural. These terms are solely to explain how the material has grown and formed.

The difference between natural and artificial gemstones is based on factual criteria, making it easier for gemmologists, jewellers, and consumers to understand the origin and authenticity of a gemstone.

Let's review a few scenarios of why this is important:

Scenario 1: Synthetic Diamonds vs. Natural Diamonds

Misleading Term: 'Fake Diamond'

In this scenario, referring to a synthetic diamond (lab-grown diamond) as a 'fake diamond' is misleading. Synthetic diamonds have the same chemical composition and physical properties as natural diamonds. They are created in a laboratory but are 'real' diamonds. Using the term 'fake' inaccurately suggests that synthetic diamonds are not 'genuine', which is not the case. It can lead to confusion and misunderstandings about the quality and value of synthetic diamonds.


A comparison of rough diamonds shows a natural diamond crystal on the left and a lab-grown crystal on the right. Both crystals are from the GIA Research Collection. Photo: Orsasa Weldon/GIA


Scenario 2: Treated Gemstones

Misleading Term: 'Real Sapphire (Heated)'

Some natural gemstones, like sapphires, undergo common treatments such as heat treatment to improve their colour and clarity. In this scenario, labelling a heat-treated sapphire as a 'real sapphire' is an incomplete description. While it is indeed a natural sapphire, failing to mention the treatment misrepresents the gem's history and could lead buyers to believe they are purchasing an untreated, more valuable stone.

Photo: Unheated sapphires on the left, heated sapphires on the right.
Copyright: Sithy Gems Lapidary

Scenario 3: Gemstone Imitations

Misleading Term: 'Genuine Cubic Zirconia'

Cubic zirconia is a popular diamond simulant that is not a natural gemstone. While it is 'real' in the sense that it exists, calling it a 'genuine' gemstone is misleading because it is not a naturally occurring mineral - you will not find this material naturally in nature. This can confuse consumers who may think they are buying a natural gem when, in fact, they are purchasing a synthetic.

Photo: Brilliant cut cubic zirconia By Gregory Phillips

Scenario 4: Polished Quartz Crystal Tower

Misleading Term: 'Fake Crystal Tower'

Natural prismatic quartz crystals can be transformed into a polished crystal tower, enhancing its aesthetic appeal and symmetry. However, referring to this as a 'fake crystal tower' is inaccurate. The term 'fake' implies that the crystal itself is not 'real', which is not the case. It is still a 'genuine' (natural) quartz crystal, just one that has been polished and shaped.

A natural, prismatic quartz crystal
Copyright: © Harjo Neutkens
A natural quartz crystal polished into a tower
Copyright: © Candice Hamilton

Scenario 5: Opal Composite

Misleading Term: 'Genuine Opal Pendant'

If this term is used to describe an opal triplet (or doublet), using the term 'genuine' in this context can be misleading because it may lead buyers to believe they are purchasing a solid, natural opal when, in fact, it is a composite.

Note - a triplet is made up of three layers:

  1. A natural opal slice (the colourful layer in the middle)
  2. A dark backing material (often black potch or onyx)
  3. A clear protective top (usually made of quartz or glass)

Photo: View of the base of an opal triplet, and side view
Copyright: © 



In conclusion, the words used in gemmology are not just a matter of semantics; they are vital to understanding and appreciating gemstones' true nature and value. By differentiating clearly between terms like 'natural,' 'artificial,' 'synthetic,' 'composite,' and 'imitation,' we can foster a deeper appreciation for nature's marvels and the ingenuity of human craftsmanship. This clarity benefits professionals in the field and empowers customers to make informed decisions. In a market where transparency and trust are essential, accurate and honest labelling reinforces ethical practices and ensures that the beauty of gemstones can be appreciated in its truest form.

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