​Lab Created Diamond vs Cubic Zirconia – What’s The Difference?

All that glitters isn’t gold and all that sparkles aren’t diamonds. 

When Cubic Zirconia (CZ) hit the market in 1976, people flocked to buy it; It was the poor man’s diamond, the solution for those who wanted to rock a ring but couldn’t afford the rock, the bling that was almost the real thing.

It seemed prefect, but was CZ all it was cracked up to be?

The more people started to wear CZ, the clearer it became that it paled in comparison to a real diamond, and what started as trendy ended up as tacky.

But science knew there was a market for a cheaper diamond, and they were not going to let things lie until they created one that was impossible to spot as a fake, and that was the lab created diamond.  

In this article, we’re going to compare the two.  We will discuss:

  • What Is A Lab Diamond?
  • What Is Cubic Zirconia?
  • How Are They Different?
  • Difference in Durability
  • Difference in Clarity
  • Difference in Color
  • Difference in Sparkle/Fire
  • Lab Diamond or Cubic Zirconia: Which is Better?

What Is a Lab Diamond?

The reason the lab diamond is impossible to spot as a fake, is because, well, it’s not a fake. Lab diamonds are made out of the same materials as natural diamonds, and grown under the same conditions, and do qualify as real diamonds.

As with many things, when making the lab diamond, science took its cue from nature. Scientists knew the best way to make a diamond indiscernible from the real one, was to study how the real one was made and keep it as close as possible.

A natural diamond begins as carbon highly pressurized at extreme temperatures deep within the earth. There it waits for many years for a series of volcanic activities to occur to send it to the surface where it is formed into crystals and eventually mined and shipped off for use. 

Scientists began manufacturing lab diamonds using much the same method. They found that by using the same carbon source creating the same high pressure and high temperature conditions in a laboratory, they were able to make an indistinguishable duplicate.  

The older method of making lab diamonds in the HPHT (High Pressure High Temperature) method. This method uses one of three types of presses to generate the necessary amount of pressure and temperature to make the diamond.

In the HPHT method, a diamond seed surrounded by purified carbon is placed on the bottom of the press which mimics the extreme heat and pressure of the earth to create an environment conducive to diamond growth. As the diamonds cool off and depressurize, they begin to form the crystals that eventually become diamonds.

In the CVD (carbon vapor disposition) method, high pressures and temperatures are not required. In this process, a thin diamond seed is placed in a sealed chamber and heated to about 800 degrees Celsius. There, carbon rich gases (primarily methane) are pumped in and ionized into plasma using lasers or microwaves. These lasers break the bonds in the gases and begin to stick to the carbon seed, eventually building up to form the crystal.

What Is Cubic Zirconia?

Cubic zirconia is neither a natural nor a synthetic diamond, rather it is a diamond simulant. Simulants are lab grown gems that are similar in appearance to the real gem, but differ in optical, chemical and physical properties.

Unlike lab created and natural diamonds, cubic zirconia is made from high purity zirconium oxide powder stabilized with calcium and magnesium. There are many ways to produce CZ, but the most common is the skull melting method.

The apparatus used in skull melting is a crucible surrounded by radio frequency activated copper coils in a water cooling system.

First the water is circulated throughout the system to cool the walls of the device. The cup is filled with the zirconium oxide powder and heated until the powder melts into a liquid. There, the molten material combines with the not- molten material to form the “skull.”

Once the skull is formed, the non-molten materials begin to form a crust. Once this happens, the source of heat is removed and the materials continue to cool.

At this point, nucleation begins, and the crystals begin to form. This crystallization process continues until everything solidifies.

The stone is then cut along marked cleavage planes, and the corners are rounded in a process known as bruting.

Finally, the stone is cleaned, inspected, and packaged to ship.

How Are They Different?

If you’re wondering why cubic zirconia differ so greatly in appearance from natural diamonds, while lab created diamonds are virtually indistinguishable from real diamonds, there’s a good reason for that.

Cubic zirconia is nothing like real diamonds in terms of chemical composition.

While both CZ and lab diamonds are created in a lab, lab diamonds are created with pure crystallized carbon, which is the same element natural diamonds are grown from.  That means, their physical, optical and chemical properties are the same as earth mined diamonds and they will behave in a similar fashion.

Cubic Zirconia, on the other hand, is made of zirconium dioxide (ZrO2), which differs greatly in chemical composition from carbon.  While ZrO2 is widely used as a diamond simulant because of its crystal structure and optical similarity to a diamond, the properties of the two are quite different.

So, when one compares CZ to a diamond, basically what you have are two substances that look somewhat similar but are otherwise unrelated.  The properties they exhibit differ greatly and make it easy to differentiate one from another.

The lab diamond, conversely, is identical to a real diamond in composition, and physical properties, and are extremely hard to distinguish from one another.

Difference in Durability.

What about durability? How does CZ stack up against the lab diamond when it comes to endurance?

The Moh’s scale of hardness is a scale which determines the durability of a gem by its resistance to scratching. Since diamonds are the hardest mineral known to man, they rate a 10, the highest rating on the Moh’s scale.  Talc, the lowest, receives a 1.

Because the lab diamond’s chemical composition and properties are identical to those of a natural diamond, it too receives a 10 rating, placing it right alongside the diamond in the top-ranking slot.

Cubic zirconia, on the other hand, is not made from pure carbon and while it does come in at a respectable 8.5 on the Moh’s scale, the small difference in numbers make a big difference when it comes to wear and tear.

Lab diamonds are very hard stones; they do not chip or scratch easily. In fact, the only thing that can scratch them is another diamond. They sparkle effortlessly and require minimal maintenance even with daily wear.

CZ is more prone to scratching and won’t stand the same test of time as a lab grown diamond. As it ages, it will become cloudy and require regular care to keep it shiny. Over time, it will need to be replaced, making it an impractical choice as a wedding or engagement ring.

Difference in Clarity

When it comes to buying a diamond, there is one thing that we want to be clear – the diamond.

However, often it’s not.

The clarity of a diamond refers to the number of flaws, or inclusions the diamond has. The GIA rates the clarity of diamonds on a scale from flawless (Fl), indicating that the diamond has absolutely no flaws or imperfections, to included (I), meaning the diamond has very obvious inclusions, usually ones that can be seen by the naked eye.

While the most valuable diamonds are flawless, the flaws in a diamond indicate that the diamond is real.  Diamonds grow under such extreme conditions, they are more likely to be flawed than not.

Because lab diamonds are grown in an environment nearly identical to those of a natural diamond, they similarly contain a varying number of flaws, making them hard to tell apart from the real thing.

Cubic Zirconia, on the other hand is completely flawless, to jewelers, that’s the dead giveaway. Perhaps the easiest way to tell cubic zirconia from lab diamonds is by their difference in clarity. You will never find a flaw in CZ, in a lab grown diamond, flaws are more often the rule than the exception.

That said, it is very possible to find a lab diamond that’s completely flawless if you’d like as well because they grow them in a lab and can easily control the environment.  It’s not like a flawless diamond is a bad thing as it’s likely to sparkle really well, but it’s not all that natural to happen in nature.

Difference in Color

When it comes to the color of a real diamond, the white, or colorless diamond holds the crown. The white diamond is perceived as the most valuable diamond and is, consequently, the most expensive. The GIA color chart grades diamonds on a scale from D to Z; D is the rating given to diamonds that are colorless, Z rated diamonds are lightly colored or yellow.

In nature, the color is subject to the conditions under which it was grown.

However, with both CZ and lab diamonds, the creator has control of the diamond and can play a greater role in its formation.  As a result, all CZ and lab created diamonds are typically made colorless and designed to resemble the D grade diamond as closely as possible.

Difference in Sparkle/ Fire

What about the sparkle of cubic zirconia vs. a lab diamond? Does CZ have what it takes to light your fire?

The sparkle of a diamond is based on its “dispersal.’ The dispersal of a diamond refers to the way it breaks light down and gives it off in the spectral colors of the rainbow.

In other words, the fire is the amount of colored light a diamond gives off.

Diamonds are known for their ability to play with light, and have a dispersion rate of 0.044., as do lab created diamonds, giving them just the right amount of natural color play. Lab created diamonds have a dispersion rate of 0.44 as well.

Cubic zirconia, in contrast, has a higher dispersal rate of 0.66 which gives it a much more noticeable rainbow effect.  However, what the CZ gains in fire, its lacks in subtlety. Many customers prefer the warm tones of the lab created diamond to the bright dispersal of the CZ. and chose to stick with the more understated choice, finding it less overwhelming and more organic.  

Another way the lab diamond differs from the CZ is in the sparkle of the diamond. The sparkle refers to the colorless light that emits from the stone. The refraction index is angle at which the light bends when it enters the stone. The way the light is reflected has a large influence on the sparkle of the diamond.

Lab created diamonds have an RI (refraction index) of 2.42, giving them a depth of brilliance that has become a signature of real diamonds. CZ has an RI of 2.15-2.18, which means lab created diamonds have a depth of brilliance uncommon to cubic zirconia, bringing the lab diamond closer in nature to the real diamond in terms of light refraction.

​Lab Created Diamonds or Cubic Zirconia: Which is Better?

The word cheap has two meanings.  The first is inexpensive, the second is of inferior quality.

If you’ re looking for an inexpensive diamond, the lab diamond is what fits the definition to a tee. If you’re looking for a diamond that’s inexpensive and has inferior quality, the cubic zirconia is what you’re looking for.

The cubic zirconia is not a diamond, it won’t last like a diamond, it won’t shine like a diamond, and it won’t take the place of a diamond. If you put it up against a real diamond, it will pale in comparison, so you can forget about pairing it with your real diamonds.

The lab grown diamond is a real diamond. It’s made from the same materials and has all the physical properties of a natural diamond, with the only differences being in price and origin. 

Although cubic zirconia may cost considerably less, sometimes beauty and quality come at a price, and sometimes that price is worth it.

Some choices are difficult to make, others are obvious.

If you want a piece of costume jewelry, cubic zirconia may do the trick, but if you’re looking for something classic and timeless, the lab created diamond is the cut that is a cut above.

How do you think the lab diamond compares with the cubic zirconia? Would you wear an engagement or wedding ring made of cubic zirconia? When is it appropriate to wear cubic zirconia, if at all?

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