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A diamond by any other name is a zircon. Or it was for a couple of centuries. Since the mid-1970s, however, a diamond by any other name is more likely to be cubic zirconia.

Due to the name similarity, many jewelers assume that zircon, a natural diamond substitute, and cubic zirconia, a manmade diamond simulant, are one and the same or at least closely related.

They’re not.

But this widespread belief stymies efforts on the part of zircon zealots to improve the much-maligned reputation of this gem, the December birthstone.

Yet zircon isn’t the first gem to find its birthstone status more a hindrance than a help. Reflect for a moment on spinel, a gem in chronic low standing with those legions of jewelers who refuse to believe it anything but a cheap mass-production synthetic. And the fact that a large number of antiquity’s finest and rarest “rubies” have been identified as natural spinel doesn’t seem to change matters.

So it goes with some birthstones. The irony of all this is that zircon enjoys a rather formidable status among gem collectors. Indeed, like corundum and tourmaline, the gem comes in a wide enough variety of colors -- blue, green, yellow, orange, red, and brown --to make collecting it a specialty in itself. “I know that half the zircons I sell to jewelers will never make it to their showcases,” says a Beverly Hills gem dealer. “They’re buying the stones to keep for themselves.”

The Stigma Story

To be sure, such jewelers are few in number. The Beverly Hills dealer estimates that he has sold no more than a dozen zircons in the last year or so. “None of them were colorless,” he adds. “Anybody familiar with zircon knows that other gems do a much better job of imitating diamond.”

That evidently wasn’t the case a century or two ago, perhaps more, when gem dealers discovered that heating cinnamon-color zircons often made them permanently colorless, more brilliant and, well, highly reminiscent of you-know-what. From then on, the gem was largely but not entirely thought of as a poor man’s diamond, although for years the trade disguised the pretender status for these cooked-to-colorless stones by calling them “Matura diamonds” in honor (or dishonor) of the place in Sri Lanka where they were mostly found. (Nowadays, far more jewelry-grade zircons are found in Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand and Cambodia.)

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