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:

  • adamant (diamond)—rock 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. Today, most rhinestone is made of glass rather than quartz. Swarovski cyrstal is considered to be the best.
  • emerald (green beryl)—this is a difficult stone to imitate. Few other minerals exhibit such a vivid green color. Green tourmaline or dark green peridot are generally the best choices. Green zoisite (anyolite) is a possibility, but often has ruby inclusions, and is only available in baroque (tumbled pebble) form. For those on a tight budget, green aventurine is a good choice, although it lacks the clarity of fine emerald. Make sure to obtain high-grade aventurine if possible. Nephrite jade is another economical choice. Green dioptase and chrome diopside both have the right color, but are too soft and brittle. In ancient times "emerald" refered to any green stone, including malachite, which is fairly easy to obtain. Malachite has the vivid color of emerald but is an opaque stone.
  • carbuncle (ruby)—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. For an economical substitute, carnelian is a good choice. The best quality is heat-treated, although it looks rather brown in comparison.
  • ultramarine (ancient sapphire/lapis lazuli)—good quality lapis has become somewhat 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 Crusades, 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 an economical candidate for substitution. If one wishes to use a natural gemstone substitute, the best choice, based on current prices, is blue topaz. This is not a naturally colored stone however. The blue coloration is produced by irradiation—either by x-ray or neutron bombardment—and has a tendency to fade over time. Aquamarine is fairly economical, but looks rather pale in comparison. Blue tanzanite is far too expensive except perhaps in baroque form. Another possibility is iolite, but that stone is often more purple in color than true sapphire.

Other Substitutes:

  • aquamarine (beryl)—first of all, bear in mind that most jewel grade aquamarine found in nature is pale green in color NOT pale blue. Aquamarine baroques are fairly cheap and exhibit a cloudy gray color with just a hint of turquoise or sky blue. Aquamarine gemstones are not terribly expensive, but may not be availalbe in the desired cut. For the pale blue gem variety, kyanite approximates both the color and the crystal structure of beryl. It is readily available in bead form. For the more common sea-green type, prehnite is a good choice. Apatite has a vivid blue-green color, but is rather soft and brittle.
  • amethyst—this gemstone is relatively inexpensive and easy to obtain. Purple fluorite approximates the color, but is very soft in comparison.
  • chryselectrum (golden topaz, chrysoberyl, etc)—citrine is the obvious choice here. Smoky quartz is another possibilty, although it looks rather brown. Organic amber is a separate category, and is relatively cheap.