A synthetic gem material is one that is made in a laboratory, but which shares virtually all chemical, optical, and physical characteristics of its natural mineral counterpart, though in some cases, namely synthetic turquoise and synthetic opal, additional compounds can be present.
Synthetic gem crystals have been manufactured since the late 1800s, and their production is often marked by a need for them in industrial applications outside of the jewelry industry. The first success was in producing synthetic ruby of faceting quality. Synthetic crystals are used in communications and laser technology, microelectronics, and abrasives. Because synthetics for jewelry applications can be “made to order” [i.e. consistent color and crystal shape] given the right ingredients, time, and the facilities to grow them, they are likely to be much less rare than natural gems of equal size, clarity, and saturation of color. Because of this, and because it is possible to confuse them with gems that are naturally occurring, there are strict guidelines regarding how they are marketed and sold.
In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission requires that any gem material produced in a laboratory be described in a way that leaves no doubt that it was not produced naturally. It is considered to be a deceptive practice if a synthetic gem material’s origin is not clearly disclosed throughout the distribution channel at the time of sale, from the manufacturer to the consumer. There are also a number of industry organizations such as the American Gem Trade Association (AGTA), the International Colored Gemstone Association (ICA), and the World Jewellery Confederation (CIBJO) that have formulated specific guidelines for their members regarding the disclosure of synthetic gems at the time of sale. In the last decade fewer new kinds of man-made gem materials have been marketed. This suggests that the repertoire of synthetic gem materials is close to reaching its limit in terms of the creation of new materials, but it is not limited in production which is still very significant. During the last century, researchers have developed a number of different ways to create these synthetic gem materials in the laboratory. Most of these methods fall into two major categories – melt or solution.