Guide to artificial jewellery, from rhinestones to Swarovski

Cubic zirconia is no longer just for those who cannot buy the real thing
Ring by Sif Jakobs

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Imitation gemstones have, for decades, carried the heavy burden of being perceived as naff. Their déclassé associations rest on the assumption of pretence, the idea that the stone itself is not what it seems. What happens, though, when imitation gemstones stop trying to imitate and are sold without pretence as a bit of affordable sparkle?

A shift has taken place within the industry which has made jewellery set with stones such as cubic zirconia, often used in place of diamonds, not simply acceptable but actively chic.

“Contemporary brands using the stones have improved perception,” explains Flo Campbell, buyer for Net-a-Porter. “Designers are also using the stones in the style of fine jewellery, which is a huge, fast-growing category that our customers love.”

According to research company Key Note, the market for costume and fashion jewellery in the UK in 2014 was £501m; the market for precious jewellery was £3bn.

While Ms Campbell cites the affordable price point of designs set with imitation stones as a significant draw, the notion is relative. On Net-a-Porter’s fashion jewellery pages, the more costly offerings include a gold-plated Swarovski crystal necklace from Dolce & Gabbana for £1,450 and one strung with cubic zirconia from Bottega Veneta for £1,395: prices that elsewhere on the same site would easily cover fine jewellery pieces set with diamonds.

Bottega Veneta’s oxidised cubic zirconia necklace

This elevated price bracket for what would formerly have been called “costume” jewellery reflects a trend in purchasing patterns that has emerged over the past few years. Jewellery of all kinds has become an important part of the fashion (rather than luxury) market.

Many also recognised that a seasonal jewellery purchase performs well on cost per wear: it is unlikely that anyone would slip on the same £1,500 dress every day for six months, but there is nothing unusual in doing so with a £1,500 necklace.

On the high street, mid-price jewellery purchased as gifts or fashion accessories has boomed, led by the success of the Danish company Pandora, which had a total revenue of €2.2bn in 2015, in part thanks to its popular charms and rings, many of which are set with cubic zirconia.

Peter Andersen, president of Pandora, says: “In 2015, we set over 2.6bn stones into our jewellery, and the vast majority of these were man-made.

“By substituting semi-precious gemstones for materials such as cubic zirconia, we have full visibility over where the stones are sourced, and can also ensure price points are kept competitive.”

The Icelandic fine jeweller Sif Jakobs launched her range of fashion jewellery — priced between £49 and £499 — in 2009. Angular and graphic, extending to modish pieces such as ear cuffs, it makes lavish use of black and white cubic zirconia. According to Jakobs: “After the economic crisis, more focus has shifted to artificial stones.

“The rise of high street fashion has also affected consumer shopping habits: people are perhaps more interested in buying several different types of jewellery than one expensive piece.”

Sif Jakobs’ Fucino Grande bangle

A 2014 McKinsey report cited “hybrid consumption” — consumers buying high and low jewellery — and fast fashion as key trends in the jewellery market.

The rise of interest in imitation stones has had both positive and negative effects on the raw materials available, says Ms Jakobs. “Today, there is a larger gap between poor and high quality due to the increase in supply and providers of artificial stones — so it’s easier to find poor quality stones, but also to find high quality,” she explains.

Away from self-consciously flamboyant costume and fashion pieces, Jean Ghika, European director of jewellery for Bonhams, the auction house, is troubled by imitation gemstones’ verisimilitude. “The difference between natural gemstones and imitations can be difficult to tell with an untrained eye, and some people may purchase a jewel believing it to be set with a gem when it is actually a piece of glass or similar.”

Ms Ghika often sees antique pieces that have had stones replaced with paste. “The presence of imitation gemstones in period pieces is not always a deal-breaker, though,” she says. “In September last year, Bonhams London sold a 19th-century diamond necklace for £62,500 in spite of three paste replacements.”

Jewellery set with paste or imitation gemstones can fetch a high price at auction if it is of extraordinary provenance. Twenty years ago, a triple-strand necklace of glass pearls formerly owned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis beat a reserve of $700 to sell for $211,500.

Designs sold by the major fashion houses of today are a different proposition: with the accelerated cycle and the broadening of the market, contemporary costume jewellery is something to buy for love rather than investment.

What rocks? Know your fakes

Paste and crystal

In the 1720s, the French jeweller Georges Frédéric Strass developed a leaded glass that he could cut and polish with metal powder so that it sparkled like diamond, a material known in French as “strass” and English as “paste”. In the late 19th century, Daniel Swarovski developed a method that allowed him to mass-produce very precisely cut lead crystals that closely resembled diamonds or coloured gems when mounted with a foil backing. A resemblance to rock crystals from the river Rhine gave rise to the term “rhinestones”.

Imitation and simulant stones

These are man-made, non-diamond materials that imitate (and sometimes exceed) the brilliance of mined gemstones. The most widely used in place of diamonds is synthetic cubic zirconia, which was first produced for use in the jewellery industry in 1977, and synthetic moissanite, which was introduced on to the market in 1998 and is harder than zirconia.

Synthetic stones

“Laboratory” gemstones share the precise chemical composition of their mined counterparts, so a synthetic diamond is a real diamond, albeit one that has been manufactured rather than mined. In February, the directors of Arctic Circle Diamonds launched the Promise of Created Elegance, a range of fine jewellery made with fairly traded gold and coloured diamonds produced by Belgian company Madestones. Those in the market for mourning jewellery can procure diamonds made from cremation ashes from companies such as LifeGem.

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