IN DEPTH: The stellar rise of synthetic gemstones

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How brands and retailers are marketing synthetic gems to consumers.

It has been a number of years since brands and companies such as Carat* and Stuller introduced synthetic gemstones to the UK industry and consumers. Professional Jeweller finds out how brands and retailers are marketing these stones today, and why synthetics are leading the way as ‘bridge jewellery’.

Designers and brands working with fine gemstones will no doubt have recognised that consumers’ growing interest in coloured gemstones appears to correlate with the growing price of good quality material, whether rough or exquisitely faceted.

Consumers are seeing more and more coloured stones paraded on the red carpet by the starlets of today and in the pages of magazines. They are glossily promoted by everyone from Gemfields, advertising its ethically-sourced stones to the masses with its beautifully pensive Mila Kunis-fronted imagery, to Bulgari, with its colourful campaigns featuring a beaming Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

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But what about those customers that cannot afford the real deal? Enter synthetic and simulant gemstones, which have been gaining a foothold in the UK for a number of years through brands such as Carat* and suppliers such as Stuller, which offers an array of loose synthetic coloured stones.

Convincing customers of the positives of synthetic gemstones (those created in labs with a similar chemical composition to their natural counterparts) and simulant stones (those that look like their counterpart but are a wholly different product, for example cubic zirconia mimicking diamond) is not the simplest of tasks, but with the rising price of gems these alternatives are growing in both appeal and presence in the jewellery industry.

Carat* was founded a decade ago, and today boasts a number of independent retail stockists in the UK, as well as standalone stores in London, Manchester and across Asia. It offers synthetic stone jewellery upwards of about £50. Carat* chief executive, Scott Thompson, says: “Carat* was founded on the idea that natural doesn’t have to be the only beauty that exists – there is also unnatural beauty, which is frankly everything we surround ourselves with as human beings.” The brand takes various synthetic materials of gem grade and turns them into products that mimic sapphires, rubies, emeralds and diamonds. It creates synthetic corundum for its rubies and sapphires, and utilises rutile quartz to create the effect of fissures in its burgeoning emerald-inspired collections. The stones are then hand-carved — an aspect Thompson says remains important in making the stones appear more artisanal and natural.

“But the stones are only half the story,” he adds. “The gemstones themselves don’t sell the product; you then have to manufacture something that someone would want to wear. And you have to have a range that suits everyone from office workers, to those getting married or going to awards ceremonies.”

As a result, Carat* offers both red-carpet designs, such as synthetic ruby chandelier earrings and oversized lab-created sapphire cocktail rings, alongside simple stud earrings featuring high-quality cubic zirconia – as a diamond simulant – set into 9ct white gold.

Northampton retailer Steffans has so far this year recorded a 300% increase in sales of Carat* compared to early 2013, with director Wes Suter stating that its studs and tennis bracelets have become bestsellers. “All the Carat* jewellery we sell is in 9ct gold, with most pieces selling between £100 and £500,” Suter told Professional Jeweller in April this year. “It has no competition and sits in its own niche between fashion and fine jewellery.”

Indeed, this ‘bridge’ element of synthetic stone jewellery is something that Carat* plays to. Thompson believes that jewellery retailers are now realising they can’t pigeon-hole themselves as fine jewellers and are instead having to provide jewellery that straddles the realms of fashion and fine.

“Retailers realise they are in the jewellery business, which itself consists of a wide range of brands. Carat* sits in the bridge between. We work with silver and gold, which we use for durability, as some of our customers might be wearing their Carat* pieces every day.”

Thompson adds that precious metals also add a precious element to its jewellery offer — noting that originally all Carat* designs were produced in 18ct gold, at the time when the gold price was somewhat more accessible.

US jewellery manufacturer and supplier Stuller generates lab-created stones and offers stimulants that imitate myriad gemstones. It reports that the market for the stones has been growing “nicely” over the past few years. It offers a range of loose stones as well as a selection of branded synthetic stones under the Chatham® Created Gemstones name, made to offer competitive price points, permanent colours and a lifetime warranty.

Stuller vice-president for diamonds and gemstones Stanley Zale says that European demand for synthetic gemstones is in-line with its overall sales in North America, showing that the vogue for synthetics and simulants is global. He reports that rounds are the most popular shape and blue the bestselling colour. “We do see demand growing and are watching the market for lab-created gemstones very closely,” Zale asserts. “We see them becoming increasingly mainstream as the consumer and the trade become more familiar and comfortable with this product.”

Comfort stems from marketing and advice, however, and it is only when the retail customer is comfortable with the concept of a synthetic or simulant stone – CZs perhaps being less constrained by this – that retail sales can be sealed.

At an independent store level, there is evidence that synthetic and simulant stones are attracting UK customers. “Customers show more interest when you explain the difference between simulant and synthetic,” says Mike Rice, managing director of Hugh Rice. “This can encourage them to purchase the more expensive products in the range, particularly with the prices being so competitive.”

Thompson describes synthetic stones as being “like Marmite”, with customers either loving them or hating them. “We’ve actually found that customers that have not purchased or do not own natural sapphire, diamond, ruby or emerald jewellery are more averse to the concept of synthetic jewellery than those that do. Those that already know what natural stones look and feel like see Carat* as a chance to purchase a matching bracelet or pair of earrings to an existing piece,” Thompson states. Rice concurs, adding that many customers purchasing synthetic stone jewellery such as Carat* from Hugh Rice stores already own fine gemstone jewellery and are seeking a little something extra for a special occasion. “They are looking for a piece that they would not normally buy, especially with the synthetic stones [offering] such deep colours in comparison with their natural counterparts,” he adds.

Sussex jeweller Inspired by Brufords holds Carat*’s synthetic gemstone jewellery. Its managing director Ashley Pugh says the brand fills a gap in the market, adding to the evidence that synthetics make ideal ‘bridge’ jewellery. “We always put over the positives of the product and explain what it is – generally the customers are happy as they achieve the look that they want for a realistic price,” he explains.

Indeed, the concept of reality runs across two planes when it comes to synthetic and simulant jewellery: you have a realistic price and wide availability for jewellery that looks unattainable or is fantastical in design. It has taken Carat* and Stuller several years to build their positions in the UK market, and while the number of synthetic brands selling in the UK remains small, the impact on consumers is pulled into focus by Thompson: “You will always get someone who says ‘wow, where did you get that?’, and that’s the whole reason you’re wearing synthetics — you don’t wear these stones to go unnoticed.”

FOCUS: "Moissanite should been seen as a synthetic diamond stimulant, not a diamond replacement"
When Nobel Prize winning chemist Dr Henri Moissan discovered tiny crystals of silicon carbide in an Arizona meteorite, he believed he’d found something special. In 1893, the sparkle exhibited by moissanite (as it was later dubbed by a Tiffany & Co. meteorologist) had only ever been seen in natural diamonds, but appreciating its intergalactic rarity scientists dared to recreate moissanite in the lab. Fast forward to 1987 and scientists achieved their aim, but it wasn’t until 1995 that US company Charles & Colvard was able to cut, polish and market the first moissanite jewels.

Charles & Colvard – the global supplier of moissanite – has said its new breed of stones are so good they have fooled jewellers. In fact, chief executive officer Randy McCullough is quoted to have said its stones can be akin to a G-H diamond colour, with the equivalent clarity of VS stones. One UK company that has noticed the changing interest in moissanite is Allied Gold, which has taken on the task of marketing and distributing moissanite in the UK. Allied Gold’s marketing director Elizabeth Hunt explains why, rather than being a threat to diamond sales, retailers should regard moissanite as an equally-enticing alternative.

Professional Jeweller: Why do you think the UK market has been slow to adopt moissanite?
Elizabeth Hunt: In my opinion, until players like Carat* came into the market there has been a stigma about created stones. I think the jewellery market in the UK has been traditionally conservative and worried about moissanite because it’s not ‘real’. Even though it’s not a genuine mined gemstone, it is a stone and it can be certified. We’ve talked to distributors who say they would never touch moissanite and then, when they see it in person, their reaction is completely different.

PJ: How will the average customer benefit from buying a moissanite engagement ring instead of a diamond?
EH: We are still in fairly austere times, so moissanite gives customers the chance to buy a larger stone and then use the money they would have spent on an equivalent diamond towards the cost of the wedding. Unless they tell their friends, they are not going to suspect that it’s not a diamond — they’re just going to think it’s a fantastic stone.

PJ: Why do you think retailers should adopt moissanite within their ranges?
EH: It comes with a lifetime guarantee and it doesn’t lose its lustre the way that CZs do. No other stone has a lifetime guarantee; that’s a huge selling point and an advantage for customers. It has actually got a better refractive index than diamond, so it fires back more light. Retailers are starting to see there is a level of untapped business [for moissanite]. Instead of a customer feeling disappointed because they’ve had to buy a quarter of a carat with their funds, they can walk away with a full carat of moissanite and it looks stunning.

PJ: What’s your advice to retailers worried about undercutting their diamond offer with moissanite?
EH: We don’t see moissanite as just a diamond substitute; it is a fiery and beautiful stone in its own right. With the price of diamonds continuing to rise at a rate, it is a realistic alternative for a couple who might want a lovely ring. Customers will buy in to what they can afford, like choosing 9ct gold if they can’t purchase 18ct. I would hope retailers explain that moissanite is an option to consider irrespective of price.

PJ: Have you seen an increase in UK interest for moissanite over the past 12 months?
EH: We are definitely seeing increased interest from retailers, in both finished pieces and in loose stones. Customers are building loose stones into specific ring settings they might have seen in the shops, but can’t justify the expense of buying the two carat diamond version.

This Focus was taken from the June issue of Professional Jeweller. To read the issue in full online, click here.
 

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