Synthetic Sapphires- A History

What is a synthetic sapphire?

A synthetic sapphire is a gemstone with the exact same chemical composition as a natural sapphire, the only difference is that a synthetic stone is grown in lab conditions opposed to in nature.

How are synthetic sapphires made?

Synthetic sapphires can be made in one of two methods: melt or solution.

Melt Methods:

The most common melt methods are verneuil/ flame fusion or crystal pulling method. These methods both focus on forming an artificial crystal using a liquid sapphire solution.

In the flame fusion method, you drop this solution through a chemical flame at excruciating temperatures onto a seed (much like making a candle), as you do this a crystal starts to form from the very fine layers of sapphire building one on top of the other.

Auguste Verneuil creator of the verneuil method

The pulling method is very much the same process, but in reverse. Instead of building the crystal up pull it towards you. Here you start by dipping a seed into a sapphire solution held in a crucible, once submerged you then very slowly pull the crystal upwards, as you do this a crystal is literally pulled from the solution.

Solution Methods:

Solution methods are less common as they are more costly and time consuming, however some gemstones can only be made using a solution method. Here there is a high pressure and high temperature environment filled with flux. You dissolve the chemicals needed for your gemstone in the flux and as it cools synthetic crystals are formed.

Synthetic sapphire boules/ crystals - photo from GIA

When were synthetic sapphires first made?

The first synthetic sapphire was successfully made in 1873 by the flux method. This was followed shortly by the flame fusion method in 1902. Needless to say, at the turn of the century synthetic gemstones were quickly rising in popularity.

Why were synthetic sapphires popular?

The main reason synthetic stones are popular is the cost. You get the ‘perfect’ gemstone for a fraction of the cost because it can be made a lot faster than its natural counterpart and without the large labour costs of mining.

On top of this jewellery in the 1920s was beginning to change, there was an emphasis on delicate, gemstone set, designs, aided by the introduction of platinum to the market, which was more hardwearing than traditional gold. It became fashionable for pieces to incorporate precision cut gemstones and diamonds; hand faceted to fit together perfectly like a jigsaw puzzle. However, gemstones were still relatively hard to come by and finding perfect colour matches for hundreds of melee stones proved challenging. Synthetic stones solved this problem as they offered an affordable way to guarantee colour matched gems and the public were sold on no one knowing the difference between the lab grown stone and the natural.

A pink synthetic sapphire from the early 1900s

Synthetic stones as an investment

Synthetic gemstones were incredibly popular during the early to mid 1900s for the reasons discussed above, as such it is common to find them in original pieces from this era and they are a good investment. Although synthetic stones do not carry the same cost as a natural stone they are far from worthless and true antique stones are sometimes more collectable than if the a stone is replaced as they are authentic to the original piece.

The ethics

Today synthetic stones still offer what they did in the 1900s, however they are also more ethical as they are free from the controversy of conflict that has sadly become somewhat synonymous with precious stone mining. When you wear an antique synthetic stone you can guarantee that it is conflict free and eco-friendly, something important in today’s market.

Curved colour zoning in a synthetic sapphire