The main difference between a natural and a lab-created sapphire is its origin. Both are identical materials and have the same molecular makeup. Lab-created synthetic sapphires have the same physical properties, visual characteristics and hardness level as the natural gemstones. Natural sapphires are created by the earth and mined, which makes them rare. The synthetic stones are created by man in a carefully controlled environment.
Sapphires are made of corundum, also known as aluminum oxide. The heat used to make the stone comes from the earth and the stones are mined from the ground. The natural gemstones are valued for their rarity and the fact that no two are alike. Natural sapphires have natural inclusions or flaws in them and exhibit a distinctive color based on the region where they are produced. Many choose a natural sapphire because of the mystery and romance associated with owning a natural stone.
Lab-created sapphires are made using corundum, just as the natural gemstone is. However, they are created in a laboratory and grown under carefully controlled conditions, simulating the high pressure and heat of the earth to replicate a natural sapphire. The heat used to create them comes from a machine. Lab-created sapphires do not scratch or chip more easily than the natural stones and are valued for their quality.
Natural sapphires have inclusions, which are flaws or specks, as a result of gases and minerals that are mixed into the molten mass and trapped within the stone during crystallization and before cooling. Natural sapphires come in many varieties, such as light blue, deep blue, violet, purple, pink, orange or yellow. The lab-created gemstones are produced to emulate the exact color and clarity desired. Because most consumers prefer the traditional blue sapphire, the color variation is not as wide in synthetic stones. The lab-created stones are relatively flawless and have all the ideal characteristics of a top-quality natural gemstone. Only a gemologist can tell the difference between a natural or synthetic sapphire.
Natural gemstones demand a high price, while flawless lab-created sapphires are substantially less expensive than the natural gemstones because they are so easily made. Natural sapphires are more expensive because they are rare, difficult to mine and include a labor cost. Natural sapphires with no inclusions command the highest price.
References and ResourcesGemSelect: Sapphire Gemstone Information
Joshua Kennon: Synthetic Gemstones vs. Natural Gemstones
GIA: Sapphire Series Part 1: Introduction to Sapphire and Synthetic Sapphire