Thursday, January 5, 2012

CUBIC ZIRCONIA | AN INFERIOR DIAMOND SUBSTITUTE?

The highly dense and refractive cubic zirconia (or CZ) has been a strong competitor to the well-loved and ubiquitous diamond for a little over three decades and counting.  

Unfortunately, however, this flawless isometric crystal has been marred for years by a derisive reputation.  This edition of Splendor Sidebar will explore the origins of this misunderstood man-made gemstone.  

This crystalline derivative of zirconium dioxide, a substance discovered over 100 years ago, was initially used as a “refractory material” in the 1930s in a cubic form of polycrystalline ceramic.

During this same period a pair of German mineralogists unearthed “microscopic grains” of naturally occurring cubic zirconia within metamict zircon. 

The production of synthetic, single-crystal cubic zirconia was very difficult due to zirconium dioxide’s high melting point.  There was no known crucible equipped to contain it in a liquefied form.

Roughly twenty years after Germany’s discovery, scientists in France developed a “cold crucible” method to render single-crystal cubic zirconia whereby a water cooling system was incorporated.  Through this process the scientists were only able to extract very small crystals.

Russian scientists would later tweak and improve this process implementing water-filled copper pipes, induction coils and a calcium oxide stabilizer that ultimately produced “columnar crystals.”  This process, known as the skull crucible, is still used.

The inclusion of metal oxide coatings provides these crystals with a variety of colors including yellow, green, purple, red and golden brown.  

Synthetic cubic zirconia rates an 8 on the Mohs scale (compared to diamonds' rating of 10).  However, the simulated gemstone has a higher capacity for dispersion (separate light into colors) than diamonds. 

Rhodium Plated Sterling Silver
Lavender Cubic Zirconia Pendant by Penny Best

However, a coating known as amorphous diamond is a recent innovation that improves cubic zirconia’s ability to break up light; creates an intense luster; and increases hardness making the crystal that much more diamond-like.

Canadian Karen McClintock, Iranian Amireh Parstabar, and Americans Melinda Raney of Melinda Maria Jewelry, and Ruth Barzel are among many jewelers who implement cubic zirconia into their pendant necklace, earring, and bangle bracelet designs.

Not only are cubic zirconia gemstones a beautiful, affordable alternative to real gemstones, they are also eco-friendly. 

Cleaning cubic zirconia jewelry is no different than cleaning any type of jewelry.  According to jewelry designer Penny Best, who specializes in creating cubic zirconia jewelry, these man-made gemstones should not be exposed to harsh chemicals such as bleach, ammonia, or chlorinated water.  

Hairspray, lotion and perfume should be applied several minutes before wearing a piece.  You can find more of Best’s tips on cleaning cubic zirconia jewelry at her official website.

“Gemologists can agree that CZ comes closer than any other gem material to matching the characteristics of a diamond—it is uncanny,” says Best. 

“As CZ is quickly becoming more popular as a desirable substitute for diamond, it’s important to care for it the same way you would a diamond.  Like diamonds, precious cubic zirconia (CZ) gems need to be cleaned to maintain their original brilliance and luster.”

And there you have it for my first 2012 edition of Splendor Sidebar.
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