Imitation Gemstones

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Imitation Gemstones, either natural or manmade, are effective substitutes for stones that are too expensive or too difficult to obtain. One of the problems facing re-enactors is how to present an authentic appearance on a limited budget. This is especially true regarding jewelry. Many gemstones that were popular in the Middle Ages are too expensive for the average person to obtain. There are several ways to use substitute or imitation jewelry however.

Glass Jewels:

The use of colored glass to imitate gemstones dates back to ancient times. For small jewels this can be very effective. For larger gemstones glass may be too clear, and lacks the inclusions found in natural stones.

Synthetic Gems:

Most inexpensive jewelry on the market uses synthetic rather than natural gemstones. These fall into two categories: Laboratory synthetics are exact duplicates of natural minerals. The only difference is that the stone lacks the inclusions and imperfections found in nature. Synthetic imitations are also grown in the lab, but are of a different chemical composition than the natural stone. When using synthetic stones one should remember that most medieval jewels were cut as cabochons. A facetted gemstone would look out of place on a Viking warrior.

Natural Imitations:

There are a number of natural gemstones that bear a strong resemblance to the cardinal stones—diamond, emerald, ruby, and sapphire. The following is a list of natural stones (plus a few manmade ones) which may prove to be effective substitutes:

  • diamondrock crystal (a clear variety of quartz) is the classic substitute for diamonds. The best quality crystal came from central Europe, near the Rhine; hence the term rhinestone. One should remember that diamonds were nearly aways cut in facets, almost never as cabochons. Herkimer diamonds (another variety of quartz) make convincing looking diamonds in the rough. Another good possibility is clear topaz, but this may prove to be too expensive.
  • emerald (green beryl)—this is a difficult stone to imitate. Few other minerals exhibit such a vivid green color. Green aventurine is probably the best candidate for imitation emerald. Make sure to obtain high-grade aventurine if possible. Green zoisite (anyolite) is another possibility, but often has ruby inclusions. Green dioptase has the right color, but is too soft and brittle. In ancient times "emerald" refered to any green stone, including malachite, which is fairly easy to obtain.
  • ruby (carbuncle)—garnet is the best bet; it was one of the three stones classed as carbuncle. Spinel was a another type of carbuncle, but it has become rarer and more expensive than even genuine ruby. Synthetic spinel may be a good substitute however.
  • ultramarine (ancient sapphire/lapis lazuli)—good quality lapis has become rather expensive, and a lot of the stuff on the market is of the denim blue variety. Sodalite is a good substitute although it lacks the pyrite inclusions found in genuine lapis. Dyed howlite is another posibility. Be warned, however, the dye job is seldom permanent.
  • hyacinth (late medieval & modern sapphire)—this is another difficult stone to imitate. By the time of the Crudades, the term "sapphire" was being used to refer to blue transparent gemstones, rather than the lapis of ancient times. A lot of medieval sapphire jewelry has proved to be nothing more than colored glass. Volcanic glass, a man-made substance from obsidian and volcanic ash, is a good candidate for substitution. If one wish to imitate genuine sapphire, blue tanzanite is probably the best choice, although it can be rather expensive. Another possibilty is iolite, but that stone is often more purple in color than true sapphire.