Gemstones & January’s Birthstone: Faking It with Synthetic Garnets

Like natural gemstones? Garnet is your stone. As far as I know, garnets are not treated in any way, nor are they commonly synthesized for the jewelry market.

However, synthetic garnets were, for a brief time, produced as diamond simulants.

Photo above: This GGG (gadolinium gallium garnet) cut by John Bradshaw shows why–for a brief moment in history–synthetic garnets promised to become the diamond substitute of choice. GGG is very dense (SG 7.05). So this 17.31-carat stone is just 12 mm in diameter. Photo courtesy John Bradshaw and Coast-to-Coast Rarestones International.

Originally, synthetic garnets were treated with chemicals to make them useful for industrial optical applications. Though they could be colored during synthesis, most often they were colorless. As a result, because they were harder and more brilliant than much of what was on the market in the 1970s, enterprising businesses began to cut them as diamond substitutes.

The most common of these was YAG (yttrium aluminum garnet). Commercially cut, YAG could be fairly uninspiring. When well cut by a talented amateur, though, they could be dazzling. Their primary drawback was that the cut stones had to be kept scrupulously clean. Due to a bit of hand lotion or a little soap scum, they dulled to insignificance. Marketing of the synthetics wasn’t helped by their name, either: YAG. Romantic it wasn’t. A number of marketers tried out various trade names, but none seemed to take off.

gemstones: 3.70 carat hessonite garnet

Seeing this beautiful orange 3.70 carat hessonite garnet makes clear why these gemstones are sometimes known as cinnamon garnets. Hessonites are a type of grossularite garnet. Photo Mia Dixon, courtesy Pala International.

Synthetic garnets have largely disappeared from the diamond simulant market today. They have been replaced by the ubiquitous CZ and Moissanite, both of which are harder and more brilliant. Today, a range of synthetic garnets are still manufactured for various industries, and some manufacturers still offer faceted synthetic garnets in a variety of colors.

What I miss most is that their awkward, chemical names were fun to say. Yttrium aluminum garnet, or YAG. Yttrium iron garnet, or YIG. And my personal favorite, gadolinium gallium garnet, or GGG. The odd things we mourn.

garnet gemstones: 11.40 cts of grossular garnet

These pastel bluish-green grossularite garnets are luscious in a way that bolder colored gemstones cannot be. Total weight 11.40 carats. Photo Mia Dixon, courtesy Pala International.

Sharon Elaine Thompson is a GG and FGA who has been writing about gemstones and jewelry for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist since 1987. She also writes a line of birthstone romance novels under the name Liz Hartley.

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