Pretty fake: The rise of synthetic gemstones

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We analyse a growing area of the market starting to make an impact.

While synthetic diamonds have been available for some time, synthetic coloured gemstones are starting to make an impact among UK jewellers as a new mid-market offer. Kathryn Bishop reports on the brands and retailers already working the colourful cost-conscious consumer.

Diamonds are a girl’s best friend, so they say, and while synthetic diamonds have been keeping girls in good company for several years a new area of the market is emerging and demanding retailers’ attention: synthetic gemstones.

While the offer of synthetic gemstones is not new, the ways in which brands are working with and marketing synthetic stones has developed and now it is time to for synthetics to shine as consumer demands and the retail market shift in order to satisfy the desire for jewellery that sits elegantly between plastic costume jewellery and fine designs using natural stones.

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A new era of jewellery brands such as Carat* and Ti Sento are spearheading the use of synthetic gemstones, placing them into precious metals such as silver and gold, creating a bridge between the fashion-led lower end of the market and the high-end fine jewellery brands offering everything from pocket money prices to designs retailing at several hundred pounds.

Scott Thompson, founder and chief executive of Carat*, one of the leading synthetic and simulated gemstone jewellery brands, says the market is growing for synthetic jewellery. While Carat* has long created what it terms its basics – white metal, simulated diamond studs and solitaire rings – in recent years the brand has increased its repertoire of coloured gemstone jewellery, offering ruby, sapphire and emerald synthetic stone jewellery as well as topaz and amethyst.

“The jewellers that have taken on Carat* are jewellery businesses, they’re not diamond jewellers,” explains Thompson. “They want products that they can develop and that fit into the market trends, especially in the current economic environment.”

Thompson says that Carat*’s point of difference in the market right now is its ability to replace branded jewellery that consumers have grown tired of with something that, essentially, has gemstones, fine craftsmanship – all of Carat*’s stone are hand cut and its products come with guarantees – as well as the marketing and media outreach to back it up.

While Thompson notes that its basics are its bread and butter product, he regularly refers to the fantasy-versus-reality element of Carat*. He says its coloured synthetic gemstone jewellery is offering a new point of difference, not just as big-bling cocktail rings but as an add-on product to its core ranges, which he says more retailers are now testing, or for clients who want to buy more unusual cuts of stones without the serious investment in natural gems.

“Our independent retailers will often take on the basic collection of white metal, simulated diamonds but they add in a selection of canary yellow rings, emerald jewellery or sapphire pieces,” he explains.

Lee Hooson, director of Northwest jewellery retail chain Mococo, concurs with Thompson’s observation. “We’ve just placed our first order for Carat*, with mostly its white gold and white stone pieces but some classic coloured sapphire cluster rings as well.” Hooson says that he “played it safe” with his sapphire choices, choosing pieces that followed the Kate Middleton effect, those that his female colleagues felt would work best in stores.

Mococo will debut Carat* at two of its stores, including its Chester flagship. But why did Hooson choose to take on Carat* when there are hundreds of other brands using real gemstones vying for his attention?

“We’ve grown our business from semi-precious jewellery with cubic zirconia, amber and haematite and took on Carat* as the next step up,” he explains. “It is made with white gold and looks the part without being expensive; it is well manufactured and has quality guarantees to back it up.”

While the idea of synthetic stones might send a shiver down some retailers’ backs Hooson says he wasn’t concerned as the price points outweigh any doubts and he believes the use of precious metal is a real selling point for jewellers. He also references Swarosvki; despite initial doubts about selling jewellery set with crystal, the brand has exceeded expectations at his stores.

Ti Sento’s take on synthetic gemstones is a little different, with a focus on offering both cubic zirconia versions of faceted coloured gemstones and synthetic stones that mimic the colours and patterns found in semi-precious gemstones such as cat’s eye and green jade.

Barry Kroes, marketing administrator at Ti Sento, says that the brand’s reason for using synthetic stones is based on its desire for consistency across products, something that would be unachievable if it were to make its products with natural gems.

“Ti Sento started almost 10 years ago as an affordable luxury silver brand with fashion-coloured stones,” he explains. “It is only in the [latest] collections that we are using stones in more natural tones. We use synthetics because they are consistent in colour.”

As a high-volume brand, Kroes says Ti Sento typically offers its collections of jewellery with stones in the same colour across a range of designs, because it says customers often desire matching sets of jewellery. “Synthetic stones are in many ways better in quality than real stones,” he says. “For instance, in hardness and colour.”

But does Kroes think the market has changed with a view to synthetic gemstone jewellery? “Precious stones and 18ct gold are simply too expensive these days, that is why the jewellery [retailers] turn more and more towards silver jewellery,” he says.

While Kroes says Ti Sento is still a new brand in the UK, and both retailers and consumers are still getting to know it, he says that it is getting “more and more fans”, and that retailers are becoming more open to the use of gemstone stimulants or synthetic stones.

“Almost all of them are very comfortable with selling fashion jewellery and find it a nice and suiting addition to their assortment, which brings a lot of repeat consumers,” he explains.

At the supply end of the spectrum, Helen Quenet, founder of online venture Stones and Silver, sells small volumes of synthetic gemstones to jewellery designers, students and hobbyists as well as making her own collections using both synthetic and natural stones.
She made the move into using and selling synthetic stones when, as a designer using silver, she was often asked to set large, precious stones in the metal. To avoid risking a customer’s stone she would instead recommend that they opt for a more affordable synthetic stone, to match value of the silver.

“I sell about 100 stones a month directly through my site and about
10 stones per month through Amazon,” she explains.

Quenet sources her stones directly from Thailand or China, and notes that the market has shifted recently, with more designers happy to purchase synthetic stones. “I suppose the rise in designers using silver clays has driven sales as synthetic stones can be set into it and will tolerate being fired in the kiln [as they don’t change colour in the fire],” she explains. “The other driving factor is ethical issues, which synthetic diamonds and gemstones don’t have. A lot of customers also come to me for synthetic pearls because they’re unhappy with the water quality and the way in which freshwater pearls are farmed.”

In terms of the trends driving the synthetic market, synthetic blue sapphire demand has blossomed for Quenet, but synthetic pink sapphire, synthetic emerald and synthetic ruby corundum are also bestsellers. “The big up-and-coming synthetic stone is opal,” she reveals. “Some of them are just stunning and you know that if you damage one it won’t cost the price of a natural opal gemstone.”

Back at Carat* Thompson is focused on the brand’s coloured synthetic gemstones such as amethyst and topaz, which feature heavily in its current Rocktails collection.

“Our stones are lab grown and are optically and chemically the same as natural stones,” explains Thompson. “Our quartz stones such as amethyst and topaz are made using hydrothermal techniques so they have all the same properties, even the same hardness as a natural stone.”

The hydrothermal method was originally used for industrial purposes but over time it has been adapted to allow for the growth of coloured quartz gemstones such as amethyst or citrine for the jewellery industry. The method is particularly advantageous when large-sized or matching stones are needed with a strong colour, something that is evident in Carat*’s large drop earring collections.

So are synthetics shrugging off the taboos and becoming a new, accessible luxury, offering to bridge a gap between costume and fine jewellery? Thompson certainly believes there’s demand to fit such a viewpoint, having just signed to enter three House of Fraser stores, including London’s Oxford Street flagship, and plotting out an aggressive growth campaign in the UK with the aim of securing a total of 70 doors over the next 12 months.

Quenet also says that attitudes have changed. “It’s all about the value and the impact you get for that value,” she explains. “It is a growing market and I think there is more acceptance of synthetic gemstones, and when you compare price and colour, clients often find there is little competition between opting for a synthetic stone or spending much more money on the real thing.”

This article was taken from the July 2012 issue of Professional Jeweller magazine. To read a digital version of this issue click here.
 

 

 

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