Diamonds aren't forever anymore. They could be moissanite. Or cubic zirconia. And much cheaper.
These man-made stones are chemically different from diamonds. But moissanite (http://www.moissanite.com), a laboratory-grown crystal, especially looks so much like the real thing that even jewelers have been fooled.
And genuine emeralds, rubies and sapphires do not just come out of the ground anymore. They are also grown in labs - chemical clones of the natural stones - in periods as short as 10 months, for an expanding market of gem lovers who want the look without the big price tag.
"The price difference could be 100 times" between the real and the faux, said James Cardinal, chief executive of Elegant Illusions, a nationwide retail chain that specializes in created gems and copy jewelry.
Today, when natural emeralds, rubies and sapphires are often "enhanced" with heat, lasers and fillers, synthetic gems actually may be more genuine, with fewer or no innate flaws, than if they were mined out of the ground. "The giveaway is that the stone color is so superior," Cardinal said.
A customer mulling over a 2-carat natural emerald worth $30,000 found - and bought - a man-made look-alike at Elegant Illusions for only $700, he said.
Alexandrite, a rare multicolored stone named after Czar Alexander of Russia in 1830, costs $200,000 to $300,000 for a 4-carat, gem-quality natural stone. A mounted clone costs less than $1,000, depending on the quality of the accent stones.
For even less, simulated stones, which look like the real thing but are chemically different, are widely available.
Cubic zirconia, an alloy of zirconium oxide and usually yttrium oxide (http://www.interlap.com), made its mass-market debut in the 1980s on the Home Shopping Network as an inexpensive diamond substitute.
Since then, the molded stone has gone from clear to several colors, with much improved quality, giving it a respectable following even among high-end jewelry buyers.
"It's perfect for travel, for people who don't want to take their real jewels to a cruise ship or hotel," said Don Levine, owner of The Mall at Shelter Cove in Hilton Head, South Carolina.
'A REAL GOOD ALTERNATIVE'
Also, "a lot of people have gone through the hardship of losing a diamond stud, and there's the high insurance cost," said Sisel Eckenhausen, president and CEO of Premier Concepts. "Cubic zirconia has become a real good alternative for customers who don't want to deal with that."
While diamonds are worth $3,000-$5,000 per carat, cubic zirconia costs $20 per carat, thanks to rival manufacturers, allowing the buyer to invest the savings or spend it on a vacation or education, Eckenhausen said. Also at that price, women no longer need to depend on their husbands or boyfriends to buy them the look they want.
A cubic zirconia copy of Marla Maples' engagement ring, with an 8-carat center stone flanked by rows of baguettes, sells for $400 at the Mall at Shelter Cove. The original sold for $110,000 at an auction after she divorced Donald Trump.
At a much higher price tag, moissanite - the trade name for a form of silicon carbide - offers even greater brilliance than a diamond (a form of carbon) and tolerates twice the heat. But a one-carat moissanite mounted in an 18-carat gold setting costs just $499 to $699, one-tenth the price of a diamond.
Moissanite has been sold as a gemstone in its own right since 1998, exclusively by Charles & Colvard through 2,500 retailers in the United States and abroad. But its allure so far has been as a diamond substitute - or, to the chagrin of jewelers and pawnshops, an imposter.
So buyer beware. Both conduct electricity but moissanite is softer - only the second-hardest material, next to diamond. And the man-made gem is doubly refractive, with more "fire."
Gemologists can be trained in five minutes to identify moissanite with a 10x loupe (a special jeweler's magnifier), or a special Charles & Colvard tester.
While these two stones are highly durable, cubic zirconia, by contrast, may cloud up and is more easily scratched..
As with natural stones, synthetics vary widely in quality and price, depending on their clarity, cut, color and size. Chatham, a major colored-gem producer (http://www.chatham.com), sells its stones in gem, fine and category A (with lots of inclusions) grades.
The intuitive buyer may rely on an innate sense to tell the natural stone from the clone.
"Jade has been polymerized to death. I can definitely feel it," Cardinal said. "I've had friends in the diamond business who can feel a stone and tell the difference."
Many experts believe it is a moot point whether synthetic and simulated stones will hold their value since genuine stones seldom recoup their retail price in any case. "The only exceptions are fine gems at the very top of the market, sold through high-end auctions," Cardinal said. "We should buy for the feeling, the love of it, the intention of a gift."