Everything You Need to Know About Synthetic and Simulant Diamonds

People in the jewelry trade understand the difference between a diamond simulant and a synthetic diamond. But many consumers do not—and that’s a growing problem.

In 2003, Wired writer Joshua Davis hailed the beginning of the lab-grown diamond revolution. Man-made gems, he proclaimed, would be available for as little as $5 a carat. The problem was there weren’t many lab-grown diamonds out there—and 10 years later, there still aren’t. And those that are available sell for a lot more than $5 a carat.

Around that time, products labeled “synthetic diamonds” started popping up on eBay. But they weren’t synthetic anything; rather, they were very obviously cubic zirconia, a simulant. And while many consumers confuse “diamond simulants” with “synthetic diamonds,” there is a clear gemological difference.

Diamond simulants—which include cubic zirconia, or CZ, moissanite, and YAG—may look like a diamond, but have nothing in common with a diamond chemically. They generally sell for very low cost. Synthetic diamonds, however, are diamonds—they are chemically, visually, and physically identical to the diamonds everyone knows, but for the fact they were grown in a lab as opposed to in nature. And while they are cheaper than mined products, their prices are comparable: For example, Gemesis Diamond Co. sells its lab-created diamonds for about 20 percent less than the prices of naturals.

But this isn’t just a gemological distinction; it’s also a legal one. The Federal Trade Commission’s Jewelry Guides say it is unfair and deceptive “to use the words laboratory-grown, laboratory-created, [manufacturer name]-created, or synthetic with the name of any natural stone to describe any industry product unless such industry product has essentially the same optical, physical, and chemical properties as the stone named.” While it could be argued that some simulants have similar optical properties, chemically and physically they are not the same.

Gary Williams/Getty Images
A tray of moissanite rings looks like diamonds from afar, but the material is actually the mineral silicon carbide.

Still, possibly because the words sound alike and have sometimes cloudy meanings, many consumers think that simulant diamonds and synthetic diamonds are the same thing—which is, at least in part, why some lab-grown diamond manufacturers so strenuously object to the word synthetic to describe their stones.

“Moissanite and cubic zirconia…are frequently advertised as ‘synthetic diamonds,’?” said Gemesis president Suraj Mehta in a submission to the FTC. He adds that, in spite of eBay having decreed in 2007 that simulants must be accurately described, there are “hundreds of ‘synthetic diamond’ products offered for sale on eBay and Amazon, the vast majority of which are ­moissanite or cubic zirconia.”

And needless to say, this is an issue on the rest of the Internet as well.

The biggest online seller of simulants today is Diamond Nexus (formerly Diamond Nexus Labs), which now regularly places on Internet Retailer’s Top 500 e-tailers list. (Last year, it ranked 334th.) The company was named official jeweler and crown maker of the Miss Universe Organization in 2009, and was voted a “Best of Weddings Jeweler” on TheKnot.com three years running. The company has opened a retail store in suburban Chicago and is planning a new “retail concept” that will serve as more of an “experience center” than a traditional store, says marketing director Kyle Blades.

The Franklin, Wis.–based company—co-owned by Casper, Wyo.–based Lautrec Corp. and Hong Kong’s H.C.A.E. Industries Ltd.—does a canny job of reaching out to customers who have negative views of the traditional diamond industry; its site repeatedly bills its products as conflict-free and ecologically friendly, as opposed to mined diamonds. (Lab-grown diamond companies typically make similar claims for their products.)

Cubic zirconia drop earrings from New York City–based CZ Collections

Diamond Nexus Labs was founded in 2004 by Wisconsin businessman Gary LaCourt. He has become something of a lightning rod for the site’s small but dedicated group of online detractors, who inevitably note that he has served time in prison for what he calls a tax-related issue on his blog.

At least one industry member who has worked with the company says the trade underestimates LaCourt. “He’s a smart guy who works the edges,” says the person, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of being associated with DN. “He understands the consumer more than most people in this business. His sophistication with electronic marketing would blow the industry away.”

The site alienated some with its early promotional efforts, a few of which are still online. In one, dated Oct. 2, 2005, ­Robert Joseph—described as an expert jeweler and the company’s founding partner—wrote that “gemologists agree that Diamond Nexus Labs lab-created diamonds are glittering and brilliant because they come closer than any other gem material to matching, often besting, the characteristics of mined diamonds.” Because the site then (as now) sold mostly simulants, a reporter from IDEX Online charged that this was misleading. Joseph countered that the site had “diamond simulant gemstones” written atop its pages.    

“As a first mover in the industry, I think we were taken aback by how much confusion there was in the marketplace,” Blades says. “It’s our belief that it’s better for us, the consumer, and the industry to make it clear what we’re selling. We make continual updates to our website to make this as clear as possible, [and] we constantly survey our customer base to ensure they understand.”

As DN has grown in business volume and prominence, its descriptions have given critics less to gripe about. The site now also carries lab-grown colored stones as well as a selection of genuine lab-grown diamonds (which are obviously more expensive than its simulants). Yet some still take issue with the descriptors the site uses—for example, lab-created diamond simulant. To some, that comes a little too close to lab-created diamonds.

“The phrase man-made diamond simulant is not sufficient,” complains Cecilia Gardner, president and CEO of the Jewelers Vigilance Committee. “Neither is diamond simulant gemstone. If it’s not a diamond, it shouldn’t be using the word diamond at all.

Cypress, Calif.–based LaFonn’s wedding set features simulated diamonds.

“Have we received complaints on Diamond Nexus? Yes,” Gardner says. “We work with them on a case-by-case basis. But yes, we continue to receive complaints about them.”

Blades, for his part, disagrees. “We use words like lab-grown because, well, they are made in a lab. We use the word simulant because that’s what they are.… We know for a fact that over 99 percent of our customers know that what they’re buying is not a diamond.”

He contends that less than 1 percent of the company’s returns—0.8 percent in 2013—involved confusion over whether the product was a diamond. “To put that in perspective, 8 percent of people returned our rings because they got turned down on the proposal,” he says. (He says the site’s overall return rate is 12.1 percent—which he calls “perhaps the lowest return rate of any major online jeweler.”)

In any case, Gardner hopes that when its Guides are revised, the FTC will rule that the word simulant is not sufficient—and that sellers should spell out exactly what the product is.

Blades feels that’s unnecessary. “We sell a product that simulates the properties of a diamond, and we use that word to describe it as thus,” he says. “We don’t feel there needs to be extraneous language added to our product descriptions.”

The industry executive who has worked with Diamond Nexus says that “the broad swath of consumers don’t care about internal industry debates [about synthetic versus simulant]. For them, all mined diamond alternatives are the same. For every consumer who hates the company, he has tons more satisfied customers.”

LaCourt “has reached out to the industry countless times,” the executive says. “He would love to work with the industry. But the industry made him a pariah.”

Yet, the company also seems to revel in its outsider image. LaCourt said on his blog that he “wants to remember the ‘pirate ship’ culture that got us where we are.”

Blades declares that his company doesn’t really care about the industry’s opinions. “What we do care about is our customers and how they perceive us,” he says. “We don’t associate ourselves with the traditional, old-line diamond jewelry industry, and we don’t much want to be seen as a part of it.

“Our products are truly disruptive in the marketplace and will naturally draw detractors,” Blades continues. “We’ve sold over a quarter million engagement rings to people all over the world. Every time we sell a $1,000 engagement ring, some diamond retailer didn’t sell a $5,000 ring. This creates a good deal of antipathy.”

The site has blamed some of the negative online commentary on a threatened diamond industry. “We see duplicate content posted on multiple sites, and the voice is often that of an aggrieved jeweler,” Blades says. “When we reach out to these ‘customers’ to resolve their issues, as we always do, they never respond to us or provide any information about their actual order…. [That] is suspicious to us.”

Going beyond this one specific site, the Internet is full of e-tailers whose handling of nomenclature comes close to—and sometimes leaps over—the line. When you search for synthetic diamonds online, a site pops up on Google AdWords that proclaims it sells “lab-made diamonds.” Only when you read the “Frequently Asked Questions” do you see that its stones would be called a simulant by a diamond detector. (A real lab-created diamond wouldn’t.) Another simulant seller has the words man made diamonds in its Web address. A third says its “simulated diamonds” are “also known as Lab Grown Diamonds, Lab ­Created Diamonds, and Man Made Diamonds.” (As previously mentioned, gemologists—and the FTC—disagree.) 

Gardner says JVC often reaches out to these sites, particularly when it receives complaints. “Mostly they are confused, of course,” she says. “Many of them are unaware of the FTC Guides. We often get, ‘Everyone is doing this.’ That doesn’t help anybody.”

But a lot of people are doing it. And for the companies that create genuine lab-grown diamonds, this has become a real sore point.

“Google synthetic diamonds and you get 1.8 million sites,” says Tom Chatham, CEO of Chatham Created Gems and Diamonds. “The problem is so huge and has been allowed to become so huge, how do you stop it? Even the FTC isn’t that big.”

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