There is so much beautiful jewelry in the world that has a ton of sparkle without costing a fortune. Gone are the days when your only choices for bling were either expensive diamonds or lackluster rhinestones. Today, you can find gorgeous pieces featuring diamond-like substitutes that quite convincingly replicate the real deal at a wide range of price points.
This post explores the multitude of options and the differences among them. Along the way, I’ll present you with quizzes to test how well you can identify which pieces are made of diamonds vs. a less-expensive substitute. Answers appear at the end (don’t cheat!).
Naturally mined diamonds come from within the earth and were formed billions of years ago under conditions of intense heat and pressure. (Read more here.) Lab-created diamonds, on the other hand, have all the same physical and chemical properties of naturally mined diamonds, but are grown in a lab under conditions that replicate the natural diamond growing process.
The biggest advantage of lab-created diamonds is that they cost less than natural diamonds while looking indistinguishable to the naked eye. Don’t be mistaken, though, they are not cheap. According to this site, the capital costs for lab-grown and mined diamonds are similar, but lab-grown diamonds have a shorter supply chain than mined diamonds, which makes them somewhat cheaper.
Another big advantage of lab-created diamonds is that they don’t pose the same ethical concerns as mined diamonds. And because they don’t require mining, they are also kinder on the environment.
Interestingly, lab-created diamonds are graded and certified using the same standards as naturally mined diamonds (i.e., the 4 Cs–cut, clarity, color, and carat). So you can easily compare a lab-created gem with an equivalent naturally mined gem to really see the price differential.
Not everyone is a proponent of lab-created diamonds. According to this article, which was published by the National Diamond Council (so take it for what it’s worth), diamond experts caution that lab-created diamonds will not hold their value over time as they become easier to produce and more widely available. These diamond loyalists also bemoan that lab-created diamonds have “something soulful missing” because unlike mined diamonds, which are “miracles of nature,” they are mass-produced in a lab and lack the deep “historical significance, symbolism, and yes, love.” So if you care about that stuff more than getting sparkly bling at a lower price, lab-created diamonds aren’t for you.
Here are two nearly identical pieces, except one features naturally mined diamonds and costs $36,000, while the other one features lab-created diamonds and costs $1,400:
Moissanite is a mineral that was discovered by Henri Moissan in 1893 when he was analyzing rock samples taken from a meteor crater in Arizona. Moissan initially thought the crystals were diamonds, but later identified them as silicon carbide.
Because natural moissanite is super rare, the moissanite used in jewelry today is lab-created. According to this helpful guide, there are some key differences between diamonds and moissanite, even though they superficially appear quite similar.
Diamonds are the hardest known mineral (with a score of 10 on the Mohs Scale of Hardness), but moissanite is not far behind at 9.25. That makes this mineral suitable for use in engagement rings, which take a lot of knocks through everyday wearing.
Moissannite is actually more brilliant than diamond and emits a “fiery, rainbow flash” in bright light. Some people prefer the more subtle sparkle of diamonds.
Like lab-created diamonds, moissanites are ethically less controversial than naturally mined diamonds and are more eco-conscious. They are also much less expensive than diamonds.
Finally, unlike diamonds, which are graded on the “4 Cs,” moissanites are graded solely based on color. The most expensive moissanites are colorless.
So, think you can tell the difference between moissanite and diamond? Below are two similar pendants, one made with moissanite that costs $600, and the other made from diamonds that costs $6,300:
If we’re getting technical, cubic zirconia (“CZ”) is the “cubic crystalline form of zirconium dioxide (ZrO2).” It is exclusively manufactured in labs and does not occur in nature. Commercial production of this diamond alternative began in 1976.
Like the other substitutes discussed above, CZ is significantly cheaper than diamonds and, because it is not mined, it is ethically and environmentally more favorable than diamonds. It is also inherently flawless, which can’t be said for most naturally occurring diamonds.
CZ is not a perfect substitute, however. It has a lower hardness than diamond and moissanite (8.5 on the Mohs Scale), meaning it scratches more easily and will show more wear. It also has a lower refractive index and is thus less sparkly than diamonds. CZ will also become cloudy over time and requires regular cleaning to keep its shine. Read more here and here.
All that said, CZ may not be the best choice for an engagement ring (if the other options above are feasible), but it is a fine choice for convincing costume jewelry.
Below are two similar flower bracelets, one made with diamond that costs $20,000, and the other made from CZ that costs $150:
Lab-created diamonds, moissanite, and CZ are certainly the most well-known diamond alternatives, but there are others worth considering:
- White Sapphire: Sapphire, one of the four precious gemstones (along with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds), comes in several colors, including white. It ranks a 9 on the Mohs Scale, but has a lower refractive index and less sparkle than diamond. It appears more transparent than diamond and requires regular cleaning or else it can look dull. It is much more affordable than diamond. Read more here and here.
- White Topaz: Topaz is a commonly found, naturally occurring semi-precious gemstone. It ranks at an 8 on the Mohs Scale, which–because the scale is non-linear–means it is roughly 6-8 times less hard than a diamond. That said, it is more prone to being damaged through regular wear than diamond. Topaz also has a lower refractive index than diamond, making it less sparkly and bright. As you probably predicted by now, topaz is much, much cheaper than diamond–1 carat of high-quality white topaz likely costs around $100, whereas a 1 carat flawless, colorless diamond runs around $15,000. Read more here and here.
- Herkimer Diamonds: I only recently learned about Herkimer diamonds and find them very intriguing. These stones aren’t actually diamonds, but rather are a type of quartz crystals that were discovered in and around Herkimer County, New York and the Mohawk River Valley. (Read more here.) They don’t look nearly as convincingly diamond-like as the other substitutes discussed above, and at only 7.5 on the Mohs Scale, they are not durable enough for daily wear. While Herkimer diamonds may contain flaws like air bubbles and black carbon deposits, it is possible to find high-quality, completely clear stones. (Personally, I think the flawed stones are pretty neat–see here and here.) These stones can resemble glass because they lack the brilliance of diamonds. But–you guessed it–they are more affordable than diamonds! Read more here, here, and here.
Long story short, nothing is as hard, perfectly brilliant, or expensive as diamonds. But most of these details are quite technical unless you’re looking specifically for a piece that will last forever with minimal wear and hold its value (e.g., an engagement ring). If, instead, you’re just looking for some pretty bling, any of the above are excellent choices!
For your last quiz, I challenge you to rank the following pieces in order of least expensive to most expensive:
Here are some great online stores I’ve found for beautiful diamond-alternative jewelry:
- Lab-Created Diamonds: Agape, Lightbox
- Moissanite: Charles & Colvard, Allurez, deBebians
- CZ: Berricle, Erwin Pearl
- White Sapphire: Italo
Don’t peak until you’ve completed all the quizzes!
Quiz #1: Lab-Created vs. Naturally Mined Diamond:
- Answer: The ring on the RIGHT is more expensive.
- Left: Lab-Created Emerald Cut Five-Stone Engagement Ring ($1,400)
- Right:Flawless 2 ct. Three-Stone Emerald Diamond Engagement Ring ($36,000)
Quiz #2: Moissanite v. Diamond
- Answer: The pendant on the LEFT is more expensive.
- Left: Diamond Halo Pendant Necklace Round Solitaire ($6,300)
- Right: Round Moissanite Halo Necklace ($600)
Quiz #3: Cubic Zirconia v. Diamond
- Answer: The bracelet on the LEFT is more expensive.
- Left: 12.41ct Fancy Floral Cluster Diamond Bracelet ($20,500)
- Right: 15.50 ct. Multi-Cut CZ Floral Bracelet in Sterling Silver ($146)
Quiz #4: Least to Most Expensive