What’s The Difference …

… between Precious/Semi-precious, Natural/Synthetic, and Simulants/Imitations?

Gemstones have been categorized as “Precious” or Semi-precious” since the 1800s. So what’s the difference?

“Precious” was reserved for four types of gems:  diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds.  All others were considered “Semi-precious”.

“Semi-precious” stones would include:  agate, amber, amethyst, aquamarine, aventurine, chalcedony, chrysocolla, chrysoprase, citrine, garnet, hematite, jade, jasper, jet, kunzite, lapis lazuli, malachite, moonstone, obsidian, onyx, peridot, rhodonite, sunstone, tiger’s eye, tanzanite, topaz, turquoise, tourmaline…, and the list goes on.

Separating gemstones into categories implies that precious stones are worth more than semi-precious stones.  Although this can be true, it is often misleading as many opals, jades and other semi-precious stones are far more valuable than most precious stones.


Gemstones are minerals or other natural material that has beauty and the durability to be used for jewelry making or other ornamental decorations.  Beauty, size, availability, cut and popularity influences the value of any gemstone.  For instance, malachite and lapis lazuli is beautiful, popular and very rare.  Specimens of these stones can sell for significant prices.  On the other hand, gemstones such as agate and jasper are equally as useful and beautiful albeit less popular, consequently commanding a lesser price.

“Natural Gemstones”

Natural Gemstones grow in the natural world without interference from human activity.  They are mined from the earth or discovered naturally existing in the water.  Examples are pearls and coral.  “Natural gemstones” are rare, some more than others depending on quantity and availability.

Although a gemstone is “natural”, it may still undergo treatments or enhancements to alter its appearance. For instance, a stone like a tanzanite may be heated (a treatment) to deepen the natural intensity of its color while a diamond could be laser drilled to lighten an inclusion (an enhancement).

“Synthetic Gemstones”

Synthetic Gemstones have the same physical properties and chemical composition as naturally occurring gemstones mined from the earth.  The difference is they are grown and manufactured in labs in a controlled environment.  All of the same chemicals and minerals present in a natural environment are introduced at the right time, temperature and pressure, allowing “synthetic gemstones” to form.

Because of the controlled environment, synthetic gemstones have fewer inclusions and more color intensity than their natural counterparts because impurities have not impacted the stone.  Being ‘man-made’, they also command a lower cost point.

Common synthetic gemstones (also called Cultivated, Cultured or Man-made) include:


Pearls (cultured pearls) – formed by introducing a foreign substance into an oyster for the sole purpose of causing it to create a pearl.  TIP:  x-rays are used to determine if a pearl is natural or cultured.
Sapphires and Rubies – widely found having vivid colors with few inclusions.
Emeralds – widely available and very popular for their intensity of color and fewer inclusions.
Diamonds – although currently being synthetically manufactured, production costs are very high which keeps them from being a viable cost-saving option to natural diamonds.

“Simulants” and “Imitations”

Simulants and Imitations are made of glass, resin, plastics, and dyes.  They are easy to identify when examined by a qualified gemologist.

Cubic Zirconia (CZ) and Moissanite are common diamond “simulants”.  They are colorless but do not have the same chemical or light refracting properties as diamonds.

Glass and plastic are sometimes cut and dyed to “imitate” natural gemstones but have no other similarity to natural stones.

Natural gemstones

Natural gemstones are beautiful and unique for their rarity and the fact the right chemicals, minerals, and conditions were present in the ground at the right time for formation.  This rarity is highly sought after and can make stones much more valuable.

Creating synthetics is notably impressive as the whole process is man-made and can often be obtained for a fraction of the cost of naturally occurring gemstones.

These are just a few interesting facts I’ve learned as I’ve spent the past several years designing and making jewelry.  I hope you’ve found the information to be interesting and informative.

As always, your opinions and input is welcome and valued.  Leave a comment to let me know what you think or ‘Like’ and follow me on facebook.com/treasuredjewels.dscherer or visit my website at treasuredjewels.org.

“They shall be mine,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘on the day that I make them My Jewels.” ~ Malachi 3:17

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