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Educating Customers About Cultured Opals, Synthetic and Lab-grown Gems in Your Jewelry by Holly Gage

The other day the question of what to say to customers about the gems used in their jewelry came across my mentoring desk from someone selling my husband, Christopher's Healing Phoenix Lapidary Cultured Opals in jewelry, at their jewelry shop or craft show. My answer to such questions related to your choices in materials and design is to educate your customers. I don't mean the tech-talk jewelers use among themselves, but short, concise, layman terms they can understand. People care about what materials and gemstones you use in your jewelry, and I know you do too. Are they quality gems, natural, synthetic, or fake? Whatever you choose to use, you need to educate them about the values of your choices, as this helps consumers understand what they are purchasing and builds trust with them, which is an essential part of conducting a successful business. These questions come up most often.

  • What are the differences between synthetic gemstones and Opals, lab-grown gemstones and Opals, and Cultured Gemstones and Opals versus natural gemstones?

  • Are the gemstones genuine or as worthy as the real thing?

  • How does a cultured, synthetic, or lab-created Opal or gemstone affect its value?

  • How do I know the jewelry I’m buying is valuable?

We'll compare both Lab-created gemstones and Opals and natural gemstones concerning their similarities and differences.

Let's Discuss the Basic Facts About Cultured Opals and Answer the Most Commonly Asked Questions.

Opals are distinct from other gemstones because they are not a single crystal, but Opals consist of millions of microscopic silica. As light enters the Opal structure, the light bends, and diffracts, like when it passes through a prism into different spectral colors resulting in the rainbow-like play of color. That's why Opals are known as the "Queen of Gems."

Renee Cain Davis Cultured Opal Earrings

Opals were always popular. In fact, when looking up trends for the coming year, Opals and big statement jewelry are on the list. According to several sources, Opal not only remains popular, but is gaining popularity: Angara says, "Today, Opal jewelry is more popular than ever before..."


Natural Opal and Diamond Engagement Ring

Harper's Bazaar and Lámore Design say opal engagement rings are popular and growing in popularity.


Cultured Artisan Opal Ring by Monique Perry

The Pearl Source puts it among the 10 most valuable gemstones in the world.

Social Media is blowing up with Opal jewelry whereas Opals are the highlight of pendants, necklaces, bracelets, Crushed, and Shard Opal inlay.


Silver Pendant with cut faceted Trillion cultured opal
Fire-in-Place Cultured Opal Pendant by Holly Gage

The new Fire-in-Place Cultured Opals open up a world of creative opportunities for designers allowing them to create pieces with the Opals fired right in position.


What Is A Cultured Opal?

Cultured Opals are recognized by The Gemological Institute Of America (GIA) as having essentially the same chemical, physical, and optical properties as natural, but are grown by experts in a laboratory.

How Long Does It Take To Grow The Opals In A Lab?

For example, the Fire-in-Place Opals carried by Healing Phoenix Lapidary take 14 to 18 months to grow by experts in a lab. The colors are natural with no treatment or enhancements.

What Difference Is There Between Natural Opal, Imitation Opal, Fake Opal, Cultured Opal, Lab-Grown, and Synthetic Opal?

Natural Rough Opal

Natural Opals are mined from the earth. The Opal patterns are random and have not been enhanced in any way by humans other than to cut and shape them for jewelry.

Cultured Opal, Lab-Grown, and Synthetic Opal.

These titles are essentially interchangeable. The Gemological Institute Of America (GIA) has certified that they have nearly the same chemical, physical, and optical properties, but are grown by experts in a laboratory. Depending on the type and manufacturer, it can take as much as 18 months to grow a Cultured Opal.

Imitations and Fake Opals.

Some man-made Opals can look like genuine Opals but differ from the natural Opal's chemical makeup. Most imitation opals are made from glass, resin, or plastic.

Why would you use a Cultured Opal instead of a Nature Opal?

As the world gets more educated and conscious of how we treat the earth and the people on earth and understand the impact of gem mining practices, we need to make choices that benefit all of us. When we make good choices about our gems and materials and educate our customers, they can feel good about the jewelry they buy and feel comfortable supporting you as a responsible artist.

Human rights and environmentally friendly mining.

Mining processes are affecting the gemstone industry at large. Forced labor and child labor have been an issue. It is vital to source your Opals and gemstones at conflict-free reputable dealers like Healing Phoenix Lapidary. This is not to say mining practices across the board are bad, but it is healthy for your conscience and business to take a second look at your sources with these issues in mind. Since Cultured Opals are lab-grown, no children or slave labor are sent into dangerous mines to work.

Cultured Opals are sustainable gemstones without being mined out of existence.

Lab-grown, Synthetic, and Cultured Opals and gemstones have come a long way in their quality and consistency. You are looking for consistent even cut and finish, fire, flash, and dynamic in the stone's color. Natural environments aren't disturbed in any way and require fewer natural resources to produce.

Cultured Opals are durable.

Natural Opals are 5 - 6.5 on the Mohs hardness scale. For comparison, diamonds are 10 on the Mohs scale, making Natural Opals softer stones needing a bit more TLC in the jewelry-making stone setting stage and once set in a piece of jewelry. The Healing Phoenix Lapidary Fire-in-Place Cultured Opals are 6 - 7 on the Mohs scale, making them more hard-wearing.

Cultured Opals are valuable. The quality, durability, ethical mining, sustainability, and affordability make these gemstones very attractive. Natural Opals are rare, and some people covet this fact which drives the prices higher putting them at a premium. The question remains, what does a customer value as being important to them? Is rarity still the standard or are environmental and sustainable issues just as important? It is business-wise and ethical to state what is in your jewelry, the type of metal hallmarking, and the gems used. It is critical to avoid questions or deception in sales, not to mention the Federal Trade Commission states there should be honesty in labeling.

Let's Talk About Cultured, Synthetic, and Lab-grown Gemstones, and The Most Commonly Asked Questions

Lab-grown gems have been around for almost two centuries with the first synthetic ruby being created in 1837, and 65 years later it was commercially introduced. It is not a simple or inexpensive industry. Advancements in technology have allowed laboratory-grown gems to be created in greater variety and higher quality than ever before. Lab-grown gemstones start as ingots and are then cut and polished by lapidaries. Initially, synthetic gems were created for industry and used for their hardness, such as in the diamond drill bills we use, electricity, and abrasives, to name a few.

Below, notice much of this conversation echoes the facts above.

Cultured, Synthetic, Lab-grown, and Lab-created gems.

This category of gems is recognized by the GIA as having essentially the same mineral makeup as their natural counterparts. These terms are interchangeable in the gem trade and are made by replicating the same environment in which gems grow naturally, but in a lab.

What are Simulants or Imitation Gem Materials?

A simulant is not the same as a synthetic, but people often confuse these terms. A simulant merely looks like a particular stone, but it is not chemically identical. Simulated gemstones are usually made from cheaper materials, such as glass, plastic, or another stone than what it claims to be. Some examples are cubic zirconia (CZ) or Nano gems made of a glass-ceramic material with nano-sized crystals of spinel in an aluminosilicate glass matrix.

Enhanced gemstones are natural gem crystals treated to alter or improve their color, clarity, durability, and wearability.

Enhancements and treatments are done after the gems are formed. Because dyeing, heat treating, bleaching, and other techniques are used, this may explain the alteration of color when exposed to heat making the gemstone firing charts an invaluable resource.

How Long Does It Take To Grow The Gems In A Lab?

There are nearly a dozen laboratory-grown gemstone methods to create gems such as ruby, sapphire, spinel, alexandrite, and emerald. The time they take to form entirely depends on the type of gemstone. For instance, natural diamonds can take millions of years, whereas lab-grown diamonds can be created in days to months, depending on the manufacturer. The longer growing methods typically produce a finer gem, thus a higher price point.

What is the difference between the appearance of natural and synthetic gems?

The differences may not be easily seen with the naked eye, but the following qualities define a synthetic gemstone:

  • The color and clarity of synthetic gems are very uniform and are usually better than natural gems because they can be highly controlled in the lab.

  • There are few visible inclusions, however, growth striations, tiny bubbles, or unique inclusions may appear from the crucible.

  • Lab-grown gemstones are still valued at a lower price point because rarity is often highly valued.

  • Lab-grown gems are sustainable, and mining issues and forced labor are not issues.



Artist References:

Christopher Gage, Cultured Artisan, and Fire-in-Place Opals Renee Cain Davis, Exquisite Artisan Jewelry

Monique Perry, Fine Silver, Cloisonné, Champlevé, Semi-precious Gemstones

Source References:

Education Operations Technical Advisor Dr. Jennifer Stone-Sundberg of GIA covers laboratory-grown gem history, crystal growth methods for both jewelry and industry use, the market for laboratory-grown gems, as well as ways to identify these man-made gems.

Challenges in Utilization of Precious Opal in Ethiopia: A Case Study from

the Delanta Area, South Wollo, Ethiopia. Wollo University. The results of the study revealed that there are problems in mining, inappropriate handling, and land sliding accidents, unfair market price, corrupted and illegal marketing practices, and problems related to lack of environmental impacts such as deforestation and land degradation. file:///Users/hollygage_1/Downloads/112-Manuscript-208-1-10-20210110.pdf Artisanal small-scale opal mining (ASOM) insecurity in the

Delanta wereda, Ethiopia: The shifting landscape of

multidimensional insecurity in the face of emergent ASOM wealth



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"Holly - I really enjoyed this class and learned so much valuable info! Thank you for all the hard work and time that you give to your classes - it shows! I especially appreciate the handouts. It helps tremendously to be able to go back and review the instructions step-by-step. L. B. Davis"


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