Shopping for gemstones is no easy feat.
In your search for the right stone for you, you have to sift through a thousand and one gems, checking for style, quality, and value across all available options and within similar gemstone families.
It also doesn’t help that you deal with a mountain load of gobbledygook when seeking gems’ information. With the jargon that “experts” throw around in the jewelry world, the uninitiated can be quickly confused and left unable to discern if they got the right product to fit their needs.
One such hackneyed word is “crystal.” While this term has unpretentious origins in the science world, it takes up more arbitrary usage in the jewelry space. Here, gemstone makers and retailers apply the label to several types of jewelry with similar structures and appearances to diamonds that often retail as diamond imitations.
The chances are that if you are dipping your toes into jewelry shopping, you’ve had that internal debate when you see a diamond on offer placed side-by-side with one of these “crystals.”
Should you pick the also shiny yet cheaper crystal over the coveted diamond? What’s the real difference between these two gemstones?
Diamond is one gem that needs no introduction. As a prominent Western symbol of love and a traditional component of most engagements and weddings, diamonds are some of the most popular gemstones on this side of the world.
This material is a mineral made up of 100% carbon atoms arranged in a rare diamond cubic crystal structure (diamond is scientifically a crystal) that gives it some unique properties.
Thanks to the unique structure and the covalent bonds found in this crystal, diamonds pack a high refractive index and a strong ability to disperse light. These properties give diamonds extraordinary brilliance and remarkable luster, which play a decisive role in making them the most popular gems on the planet.
Plus, diamonds are the hardest naturally occurring material known to man. This attribute is perfect both for creating long-lasting jewelry and for use in a host of industrial applications.
This mix of excellent gemstone properties and high demand from various sectors make diamonds some of the most sought after stones available today. If you are looking to get genuinely exquisite jewelry, you can’t go wrong with a diamond. As the famous saying about the gem goes, “diamonds are forever.”
In the jewelry world, the label “crystal” is quite different from its connotations in science.
Scientifically, a crystal is any material that has all of its atoms arranged in a regular, geometric pattern. By this definition, diamonds and the large bulk of gems available on the market today are crystal.
Here, jewelry enthusiasts limit the use of the term to describe a handful of stones (and synthetic materials) with similar appearances and internal structures to diamonds. These gemstones typically retail as imitation diamonds, offering a cheaper alternative to the real thing.
While you can apply this label loosely to a host of materials, the two most popular jewelry types marketed with this title are Swarovski crystal and cubic zirconia.
It’s ironic that one of the most popular forms of “crystal” is not even a crystal. Swarovski crystals are a type of lead glass made by the Swarovski Company, one of the most influential names in the world of jewelry cutting and shaping.
These gems feature a makeup of potash, quartz sand, sodium carbonate, and red lead. The manufacturer combines these components in their molten form to create a new material that mimics diamonds’ physical properties.
Swarovski crystals pack a truly sparkling appearance with enough vibrance to fool the uninitiated. Plus, this substance is also significantly more malleable than diamond, making it an easier option to shape and otherwise manipulate.
When the Swarovski crystal pioneer, company founder Daniel Swarovski set out to make these imitation diamonds, his goal was to create “a diamond for everyone,” which is a perfect definition for the result.
Swarovski crystals are brilliant diamond lookalikes that retail for a fraction of the price.
Cubic zirconia is another imitation diamond material and one of the most popular options in faux diamond jewelry. Cubic zirconia, or CZ, is a synthetic crystal that sports a similar refractive index and luster profile to a real diamond.
These crystals are also significantly cheaper than diamonds, making them an excellent candidate for pocket-friendly imitation diamond jewelry. Consequently, you can find zirconia pieces in abundance on the market, offering truly sparkling jewelry for a tiny fraction of the price of authentic diamonds.
A big selling point with cubic zirconia is that when you compare it to most faux diamond materials, despite ranking as one of the cheapest, it is also one of the hardest. Add this potential for considerable durability to its appearance profile that is almost indistinguishable from diamonds, especially to the untrained eye, and you have the perfect imitation diamond.
Since the mass production of cubic zirconia began in the late 70s, the material’s availability has continued to ramp up, and CZ is now the single largest diamond competitor on the market.
Some of the cubic zirconia top production companies include the Ceres Corporation and Taiwan Crystal Company Ltd. However, here too, Swarovski takes the cake, as many in the industry regard their cubic zirconia output as the best in class.
CZ’s main constituent is zirconium oxide, a compound extracted from baddeleyite, a rare mineral discovered in 1892.
Crystal vs. Diamond
The development of diamond alternatives like cubic zirconia and Swarovski crystal is a welcome addition to the jewelry industry. It brings affordable diamond substitutes that offer consumers cheaper options that pack similar physical attributes to diamonds like extreme toughness and a brilliant luster.
However, despite how close these stones come to mimicking diamonds, there are considerable differences that are immediately recognizable to the trained eye and a marked dissimilarity in toughness.
Hence, if you choose to opt for these faux diamonds, you will be making some trade-off in terms of luxuriousness and durability. Nevertheless, these diamond alternatives have their own merits, too, as they offer a significant price cut and more adaptable materials.
The looks department is one where faux diamonds like Swarovski crystal and cubic zirconia put up a decent fight.
For most people, these imitation diamonds will be almost indistinguishable from the real thing. With truly high-quality offerings, it is quite common for most passers-by to admire your “expensive diamonds.”
Here, only seasoned diamonds enthusiasts can tell them apart at first glance.
Plus, with these faux diamonds, you also get your pick of colors. Unlike with real diamonds where colors are few and far between, with Swarovski crystals, the synthetic manufacturing process means that you can get them in over 80 colors, as well as sparkling, inclusion-free transparent options.
Hence, if the good looks of diamonds are your thing, and you are not bothered about rocking a faux substitute, crystal jewelry can be an excellent option.
Hardness and Durability
Here, diamonds take the cake. Diamonds are the hardest substance known to man, and that fact immediately puts them above all gemstones when it comes to durability. While you still have to take special care when rocking your diamonds to avoid chipping or otherwise damaging them, compared to other diamond substitutes, there is no contest.
You will undoubtedly replace your CZ or Swarovski crystal multiple times from damage before you have (if you ever have) the same issue with your diamond.
However, these crystals typically retail for considerably less than diamonds, and hence, the scales tend to balance out.
Here too, the diamond is miles ahead, and this is thanks to its rarity and extreme demand.
While the prices for a diamond carat typically start at around $2500 (and can reach several tens of thousands,) even the best quality Swarovski and CZ crystals will only cost you a couple of hundred bucks per carat at most.
Most faux diamond options on the market today typically retails for around $5-$20 per carat.
Use and Popularity
Despite the considerable price disparity, faux diamonds like Swarovski crystal and CZ are almost as popular as real diamonds, albeit for different reasons.
Scan the market, and you will find an abundance of cubic zirconia and Swarovski crystal jewelry available on offer. These pieces offer a passable alternative to real diamonds at a fraction of the cost, and therein lies the allure.
Nevertheless, the extreme value of diamonds and their symbolism in our culture will always make them one of the most coveted stones, a social status symbol, and the most popular gemstones you can buy.
Which Should You Get?
You should consider getting a faux diamond alternative like cubic zirconia and Swarovski crystal if:
- You want that diamond-level shine but do not have or are not willing to shell out the outrageous cost that comes with buying real diamonds.
- You want the peace of mind of rocking diamond-like pieces without the fear-of-loss anxiety that comes with wearing real diamonds.
However, there is always the allure to sporting real diamond jewelry, especially in high society. If you have the means and are willing to bear the extravagant costs of natural diamonds, that is probably the only option that will truly satisfy you.