Synthetic gems have become a major talking point in the jewelry business thanks to some new production methods in the growing of diamonds, but synthetics have been around since the 1870s. Really. We’ve had antique synthetics for decades. 1872 is when synthetic ruby hit the market and it was an immediate hit. ‘Manmade’ had no disparaging overtones, stones were easy to match and supply was no problem. The master jewelers of the day like Cartier, Tiffany, and Faberge jumped at the opportunity to have plentiful and perfectly matched stones and the art nouveau and art deco periods are full of fabulous pieces that were unapologetically made using synthetic gems. They were durable, lovely, perfectly matched if wanted, and available enough that a piece could be designed for mass production without worrying about supply lines. What’s not to like?
My how things have changed. Antique synthetics are still out there but modern synthetic has become synonymous with fake. Most modern designers would rather cancel the production of a piece than resort to using synthetic components. They’re in the mass-market and discount worlds but top designers? Forgeddaboutit. It’s fighting words to even suggest such a thing.
This has led to a strange new phenomenon for appraisers. Natural gems, especially rubies and sapphires in an Art Deco period piece is a sign of a reproduction while antique synthetics, especially low-quality ones since quality has improved with time, are a sign of an original.
Circa dating jewelry is an art form in itself. There’s no carbon dating on metal or gems and they don’t deteriorate with age. It’s a matter of collecting a preponderance of evidence using things like materials, designs, and manufacturing techniques. It’s one of the things professional appraisers spend years practicing and they still won’t always agree. If you’ve got antiques, don’t just assume that anyone with a sign that says ‘jeweler’ is an expert. Ask.