To Mine or not to Mine

I had a customer commission me for an engagement ring and the parameters for its design were very interesting. He wanted to use lab created gems because he felt that it was the only way to be sure that the gemstones were not gathered while harming the environment. We talked awhile about mining vs. lab created gems and I wanted to share the information I unearthed (ha!). Having studied gemology, I had always only looked at and used gemstones that had been mined. In fact, I used only “real” gemstones with pride. I did a lot of research into lab creation of gems and I have now started offering lab created stone in addition to mined. There are arguments pro and con and I would like to present the facts and let you decide.

In the manufacturing of a Lab Created gem (LCG), raw material of the composition of the gem is used and “grown” under the correct conditions for this gem. For example, if you are trying to grow crystals of a blue sapphire, the lab would start with raw corundum material (the genus of sapphire) and then subject the material to conditions that mimic what would have happened underground with the same chemicals, heat, and pressure.

Natural gemstones are mined in a few ways, open pit mining, river panning, or closed pit mining.   Open pit and closed pit mining in areas involves industrial machinery including excavators, hydraulic drills, bulldozers, underground vehicles and “shaker” machines which separate rocks, but this is only in wealthy areas.  In developing countries and more commonly, rudimentary tools will be used and the conditions under which the gemstones are collected is much harder (and more dangerous to the people and the environment) Riverbed mining is the classic way that gems are found but this can cause damage to the landscape. When a mine is depleted, there are usually no regulations to fill in the damage done and often the environment is left much worse for the wear.

There is also the issue of gemstone sources being tapped out. If you have heard about the Tanzanite mines and the trouble that have been going on there with getting resources, imagine this happening with malachite, agate, garnet and carnelian as well. There are still many gems cut from these materials left in the world, but eventually lower grade gems and unavailability become issues. Bear in mind however that new gemstones are still be discovered around the world.

Natural versus synthetic?

Depending on the type of natural gemstone uncovered (and the areas in the world where it can be found), a gemstone can be described as rare and desirable, often the harder it is to find and mine (and shape and carve) the more valuable it becomes. Many gemstones are popular simply because of their natural color or effect, their history, or desirability. With lab created gemstones, natural material is grown for consistency of hardness, color, and the ability to produce a consistent clarity. Lab created stones offer hard and consistent gems made of the same materials as the natural gemstone, manufactured under ideal situations. The decision is yours.


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