Jewelry: The Real, the Fake, and the Rest

jewelry terms

When it comes to jewelry, how do you know what you’ve got – or what you’re getting? What’s valuable and what’s not? Real, genuine, natural, authentic, simulated, synthetic, lab-created, imitation, costume, fake – it’s enough to make your head spin!

There’s a lot of contradiction in the use of these words – and they don’t necessarily mean what you might expect. Costume jewelry isn’t always low-quality or inexpensive; “real” and “authentic” don’t tell us anything about a piece’s composition or value. Sometimes, natural stones may be less desirable than their lab-created counterparts.

Here are the three most common categories used by jewelers to simplify jewelry, and the differences between them:

  1. Genuine

    This refers to natural materials taken from the earth. A diamond taken from a mine, cut and polished by a craftsman, and set in a ring is a “genuine” diamond.

    Genuine stones may undergo special processing (such as heat treatments) to improve upon their natural state, altering their color or clarity. Depending on the piece, this can increase or decrease the value. (A natural emerald is often cloudy and brittle until it is treated with a special resin to give it a resilient, gem-quality luster.) In many cases, a gem in pristine condition is so rare that its value far outstrips common market value. Excessive treatment will detract from the value.

    Natural gemstones. The “cardinal” gems, clockwise: sapphire, ruby, emerald, amethyst, and diamond
    Cardinal gems

  2. Synthetic

    Also simulated, lab-created, lab-grown. Don’t confuse synthetic with “cheap” or “fake.” A synthetic gem has the same properties as a natural gem, because it is created by the same processes, only under carefully controlled lab conditions. Synthetic gems are usually of a very high quality for use in fine jewelry, and in some cases their cost is comparable to that of natural gems. In most cases, only a jewelry professional will be able to distinguish between genuine and synthetic pieces.

    Moissanite is a natural mineral whose properties are very close to that of a diamond. Because synthetic moissanite is now widely produced in labs, its presence on the jewelry market means that it is often mistaken for diamonds. This can lead to confusion, especially if an unsuspecting buyer is the victim of a fraudulent sale. (More on why it’s important to buy from an IJO certified jewelry retailer…)

    Synthetic diamonds [moissanite] in an engagement ring
    Synthetic diamonds [moissanite] in engagement ring

  3. Imitation

    This refers to a substance used to mimic the appearance of a rarer, more expensive material. A large marquise-cut piece of red glass may be used in place of a ruby in costume jewelry. A cubic zirconium is a “genuine” cubic zirconium, but if used in lieu of a diamond, it’s a mere imitation; it will never match the diamond’s brilliance or durability.

    Imitation jewelry can be both attractive and affordable, but lacks the durability and outstanding qualities that are prized in fine jewelry. The rarity, beauty, and exquisite artistry involved in fine jewelry are the primary reasons it is so greatly valued as a personal treasure and a timeless gift for your closest loved ones.

    Glass cut jewels
    Glass Gemstones

Terms for precious metals can also be confusing, because they are available in many different alloys and combinations. As a rule, the purer the metal content, the greater the value. Silver must make up 92.5% to be considered sterling quality. Vermeil is silver that is electroplated with gold. Colored gold is available in different karat quality depending on its composition. Plated items can’t be melted down for the worth of their silver or gold content.

Knowing what your jewelry is made of is an important factor in determining how best to care for your pieces. A visit to a qualified local jeweler for a routine cleaning & checkup is a great way to answer any questions you have about your jewelry’s origin and value, while keeping it at its best!