Cubic Zirconia 101: Education and Tips for Choosing CZ Jewelry

Today we’re going to look at everything to do with the beloved cubic zirconia. A stand-out stone in itself, the cubic zirconia can be an excellent, less expensive, option to buying that coveted diamond we all long for. To the naked eye, they might appear very similar but in reality, they are a world apart.

The cubic zirconia is a stone that deserves its own recognition. It can be the perfect option for many pieces of jewelry and below we will find out why.🥳

Cubic Zirconia Yellow Gold Ring

Basics: What is a cubic zirconia (CZ)?

Cubic Zirconia will often be abbreviated to "CZ" for ease and we have our good friends over at Swarovski to thank for that. Swarovski created this abbreviated term for cubic zirconia during the 1980s when the jewelry marketplace sought out diamond substitutes as they became ever more fashionable.

However, the story of the cubic zirconia started long before this.

In 1892 zirconium oxide, the natural form of cubic zirconia was discovered and had a yellow hue that we don’t often see in our CZ's any longer. Over time, the stone took a journey of being something of little value, to being used as a less expensive material for industrial applications and lasers, to the substitute for diamonds that we know it to be today.

Indeed, this incredibly durable mineral was overlooked in its initial stages. 1937 found German mineralogists making an important discovery in the development of the CZ we have come to know today.

When the zirconium oxide is melted down, it contains cube-shaped crystals. Unfortunately, they didn’t know what to do with this seemingly "useless" information. It wasn’t until 1977 when Russian scientists were able to grow these crystals using a synthetic process, that they began to be marketed as simulated crystals.

This was years after the discovery of the natural form of the cubic zirconia! Almost 90 years and many opportunities overlooked, the cubic zirconia finally had its day. And boy, did we fall in love with it!

How is a cubic zirconia made?

Let’s look at the science, shall we?

The cubic zirconia is a synthesized material that is hard and often colorless. By melting zirconium oxide powder with stabilizers like magnesium and calcium under hours of heat exposure at over 3000 degrees, the crystals are removed and left to develop.

They are then cut and shaped for maximum fire and brilliance.

The cubic zirconia can be "doped" with other elements to change the color and offer a variety of alternative hues.

An example of these include:

DopantSymbolColor(s)
CeriumCeyellow-orange-red
ChromiumCrgreen
CobaltColilac-violet-blue
CopperCuyellow-aqua
ErbiumErpink
EuropiumEupink
HolmiumHoChampagne
IronFeyellow
ManganeseMnbrown-violet
NeodymiumNdpurple
NickelNiyellow-brown
PraseodymiumPramber
ThuliumTmyellow-brown
TitaniumTigolden brown
VanadiumVgreen

*Data source: Wikipedia

Cubic zirconia vs. Diamonds: How to tell the difference?

Alright, so we’ve been told that although cubic zirconia and a diamond can be seemingly indistinguishable, there are some pretty large differences between the two. These can help us distinguish between the two different types of colorless stone and can help us understand why we might choose one over the other.

In this section, we are going to look at six different elements of each stone that can help differentiate between the two. Here we go!🏂🏻

Beauty and Brilliance

Beauty and brilliance are perhaps two of the most important factors that we look for when buying a precious diamond. When we are discussing beauty and brilliance we are simply speaking of the sparkle and fire.

Brilliance would be the clean, bright sparkle we see when white light is reflected among the facets of the stone whereas fire is a term used when we are discussing the colored light reflected.

Platinum Plated Silver Cubic Zirconia Side Stone Ring
Amazon Collection

Often you may see flashes of the rainbow in your diamond or zirconia and this is the fire that you can see.

Unlike a diamond, the cubic zirconia has almost no real brilliance or fire. Its refractive index is approximately 2.15 -2.18 compared with the 2.42 we would expect to see in the diamond counterpart. This means that the light does not get reflected into the eye to give that life and sparkle that we naturally get from a diamond.

Because the light passes through a CZ with less refraction, we see significantly less fire and brilliance. Likewise, the higher dispersion rate of cubic zirconia to diamonds (0.058-0.066 higher than the 0.044 of a diamond) means that we are more likely to see the spectrum of rainbow colors reflected from that of cubic zirconia. This is an easy way to differentiate the two using the naked eye.

Size is not really an influencing factor here, a bigger cubic zirconia does not likely have more fire and brilliance than a smaller stone.

Durability

Mohs scale of hardness allows us to determine the durability and resilience of a stone. It might come as no surprise that the champion stone that is the diamond sits at the top of the scale, rating a solid 10 for durability.

Cubic zirconia sits lower down on the scale and ranks at an 8.5, which is below that of its corundum friends, the ruby and sapphire, which place second at a comfortable 9.

💡Due to the cubic zirconia’s synthetic nature, it is perhaps more durable than some might think and can certainly handle itself. Despite this, it does mean that stone may lack longevity and is more prone to scratches over time.  

Density

You might be surprised to learn that where the cubic zirconia falls short on hardness and brilliance, it is a slightly heavier stone than the diamond. Weighing and comparing the two together on a set of scales will easily and quickly determine which one is which.

What that means is that a 1-carat diamond ring may appear to be larger than a 1 CZ equivalent due to its added density.

Clarity

One of the true beauties of cubic zirconia is its flawless finish. The synthetically made stone is made under strict guidelines and is, therefore, able to be formed without the natural inclusions that we might see in some diamonds.

It is incredibly rare to find true flawless diamonds, and it will come with quite a price tag if you do, but each cubic zirconia stone comes blemish-free and can be regarded as "flawless".😱

Machine-Cut Cubic Zirconia Loose Stones
JIANGYUANGEMS / Amazon

Despite this appearing to be a stand out feature of the CZ, to some it can appear fake-looking and evades its synthetic production.

When searching for a diamond stone, however, you are best to look for one that is seemingly flawless to the naked eye. What this means is that there may be inclusion present but they are almost invisible to the naked eye and would need a loupe (magnification tool) to really see any impurities. Often you can achieve this flawless look with a diamond of a VS2 clarity grade or higher.

Color

When choosing a diamond stone for our jewelry, we will often seek the most colorless diamond we can find. The more colorless the diamond, the more valuable it is. Again, on the color chart, we are seeking to find a diamond that appears colorless to the naked eye. This would often lie on the color grading system between a G to I rating.

Once we go above these ratings and start searching in the top bracket of the colorless diamond (D-F on the scale) we can start to see the price dramatically increase.

Alternatively, cubic zirconia is considered to be colorless due to its manufactured and synthesized birth. It has been manufactured to remove all of its original hues to mimic the superior diamond stone. However, due to the dispersion rate of these stones, as mentioned above, you will likely see a dance of rainbow color captured with these stones.🌟

Value

If we’re talking about the price tag, you are going to spend a lot more on any diamond than that you will on cubic zirconia, regardless of diamond quality. Cubic zirconias are far less expensive than that of a diamond, the leap in price is quite enormous.

In terms of value, the cubic zirconia has almost no worth and so does not retain any market value and is not considered a sought after stone. After all, what can we expect from a stone that is produced in a lab?

A diamond, however, holds market value and can often be resold at a very reasonable price. Although diamonds may not be considered a worthwhile investment, they can hold sentimental value and withstand the tests of time, passed down from generation to generation.

Let's take a look at this 1 carat solitaire round CZ engagement wedding band. This stone has the appearance of a beautiful diamond solitaire ring but is set in 925 sterling silver metal and has a 1 carat round solitaire CZ stone in the center. This is retailing at a mere $12.99-$16.99 depending on the size needed.

925 Sterling Silver Solitaire Cubic Zirconia Engagement Ring
Cubic zirconia solitaire engagement ring sold at around $16.99 | SOMEN TUNGSTEN / Amazon

Now, compare this to any of the diamonds we see here at James Allen. Here we have loose 1 carat diamonds ranging in quality across the 4 Cs (cut, color, clarity, and carat) that are anywhere from $2000 to $5000.

As the carat weight increases, the price difference only becomes greater.📈 As the clarity of the diamond improves, the price goes up. The same with color and certain cuts that offer greater fire and brilliance.

We can see a significant difference in value between the two but that does not mean that cubic zirconia doesn’t have something to offer you.

Comparing CZ with lab-grown diamonds

This will have you feeling a little dizzy.

CZ are lab-grown and diamonds are naturally grown. However, you can also buy lab-grown diamonds. Who knew?!

A mined diamond and one that is lab-grown have the same atomic make-up. Their chemical composition is identical despite the difference in how they are made. Because of this, a lab-grown diamond still rates at a whomping 10 on the Mohs scale of hardness, overshadowing the 8.5 of the CZ.

Not only that, despite being priced at approximately 50% lower than an organically grown diamond, there is still a huge jump in price tag. So, it might make a difference if you are trying to choose between two diamonds (natural or lab-grown) but it won’t bring the cost down enough to have you umm-ing and ah-ing between a lab-grown diamond or a CZ. The prices will still be miles apart.

Cubic zirconia vs. Other sparkly stones

Cubic zirconia isn’t the only white stone on the market that does a half-decent job of mimicking the diamond.

Below we are going to look at two other stones that battle for "best diamond substitute" and see what the differences are between them and the cubic zirconia.

Moissanite

Both cubic zirconia and moissanite are synthetically created in a laboratory. However, their chemical make-up is quite different. With cubic zirconia being the crystalline form of zirconium dioxide, moissanite is made from silicon carbide.

What am I supposed to do with this information, I hear you ask?😋

Well, with diamonds being made of pure carbon, this means that moissanite is closer in its chemical autonomy to a diamond than the cubic zirconia.

Likewise, a moissanite stone benefits from having a much higher refractive index than that of a CZ which means that it can exhibit much greater fire and brilliance, even more so than a diamond! This gives moissanite greater depth and light than the cubic zirconia.

Perhaps another triumph moissanite has over CZ is its durability. With the CZ ranking at a respectable 8.5 on the Mohs scale, it is overshadowed by the 9.25 ranking of moissanite. Pretty impressive, right?! This makes the moissanite tougher, more durable, and likely longer-lasting.

Much like the natural state of a diamond, moissanite can range in clarity and color unlike the "flawless" appearance of cubic zirconia. Advances in technology have meant that most moissanite is now only considered colorless however, there was a time where we might have seen hints of greens and blues in the stone. The imperfections that can be found in that of a diamond can also be found in this stone which is often considered a benefit as it gives a better illusion of being a real diamond.

Due to all of the aspects discussed above, moissanite falls into the mid-level pricing range as opposed to the truly inexpensive options such as cubic zirconia. It holds considerably more value than the CZ but makes for an excellent alternative to the diamond if it stretches your budget.

White Sapphire

Naturally found white sapphires are incredibly rare, most white sapphires on the market are lab-created.

The white sapphire is part of a group of minerals called corundum; a family of stones that include rubies and blue sapphires. This means it sits highly on the Mohs scale of hardness at 9, higher than that of cubic zirconia at 8.5.

This stone is a form of aluminum oxide and in this can be found elements of chromium, titanium, magnesium, copper, or iron. The element of which determines the color of the sapphire.

The white sapphire, unlike other sapphires, is considered colorless which is why it makes for a perfect diamond alternative. Either natural and lab-created white sapphire may achieve this appearance through heat treatment— which is an industry-accepted technique to amplify a gem's beauty.

White sapphires do not have the same value as a diamond and so often are a more affordable option for buyers.

What you will find is that these tend to have less sparkle and fire than that of both a diamond and CZ and can often appear cloudy and less vibrant. Whereas diamonds refract a beautiful rainbow from white light, the white sapphire refracts a toned down, silver-like sparkle due to its lower refractive index and dispersion.

Once again, the white sapphire, like the moissanite, is positioned at a higher value than the cubic zirconia alternative.

For easier comparison of all four of the discussed colorless stones, please reference the table below:

  DiamondMoissaniteCubic ZirconiaWhite Sapphire
Hardness109.258.59
Beauty and BrillianceFascinating fire, brilliance and sparkleMore fire and brilliance than diamonds; a different quality of sparkleMore fire and less brillianceLess fire and brilliance than diamonds
Dispersion Rate0.0440.1040.058-0.0660.018
Refractive Index2.41-2.422.65-2.692.15-2.181.77
ColorFrom light yellow or brown to colorless, depends on the color quality chosenNear-colorless; under certain lights, yellow and green tints can be seenColorlessA cloudy white hue
ClarityDifferent levels of inclusions and blemishes depending on the clarity grade chosen, but some flaws are eye-cleanThe average clarity level is higher than that of natural diamondsCan be regarded as flawlessTends to have more inclusions and blemishes than diamonds, but depends on the quality chosen; some are invisible
Density3.50-3.53
3.22
Around 15% lighter than a diamond
5.6-6.0
Heavier than a diamond
3.95-4.03
Slightly heavier than a diamond
Price$$$$$$$$$$$

Evaluating the quality of a cubic zirconia

Believe it or not, we can evaluate the quality of cubic zirconia using the same grading system as we would for a diamond, using the 4 Cs—cut, color, clarity, and carat.

We’re going to look at this grading system and also take into account an alternative method of using a five-tiered system of A to designate the quality. You’ll see what I mean!

Let’s take a look at those 4 Cs.

Cubic Zirconia Cut

Like any other stone, the cubic zirconia can be cut into almost any shape we desire. We often see them displayed in the most popular cuts such as the brilliant round, princess cut, pear, Asscher, and many more.

Just like the other white stones we have discussed, the aim is to cut the stone in a way that maximizes sparkle and brilliance.

Cubic Zirconia Color

Now, this is nice and simple. If you know your diamonds well, then you will know that a D grade diamond is considered completely colorless. These make for the highest priced and more valuable diamonds as they’re incredibly rare to come by!

The cubic zirconia has a color grading comparative to a D diamond grade on the color scale (but without the hefty price tag!).

Cubic Zirconia Clarity

As mentioned above, almost all CZ stones are considered flawless. The synthetic process of creating these stones allows us to control and eliminate all inclusions in the stone for a clean finish.

Cubic Zirconia Carat

The weight of cubic zirconia is heavier than that of a diamond. Despite this, the expense of the cubic zirconia does not rise dramatically when we increase the carat weight as it does with the other white stones we have discussed.

Due to the increase in density, you will find that CZ of the same carat weight as a diamond will not be the same size, but smaller.

The five-tiered system of A

The five-tiered system of A offers a standard of quality measurement for machine-cut cubic zirconia only and so is not often used when describing stone quality to the consumer.

Hand-cut cubic zirconias are cut with greater precision, technique, and craftsmanship resulting in a higher quality of stone. However, machine-cut stones allow us to mass-produce and, as always, that is what the industry wants! But it doesn’t always mean we get the best.

Machine-cut CZ stones are not always able to match the high-quality cut to a hand-cut stone. So, we use the five-tiered A grading system to mark the quality of these stones.

In this system, a single A is the lowest grade with AAAAA being the highest grade.

Would you choose cubic zirconia jewelry?

In this section, we’re going to take a look at the reasons why we might buy cubic zirconia over diamonds as our stone of choice.

Yes, although this might surprise you, there are some worthwhile reasons for choosing this synthetically manufactured stone over the glistening beauty of the diamond.😎

Cubic zirconia vs. Diamond wedding jewelry

For easy understanding, let's break down why we might consider buying cubic zirconia for our engagement and wedding rings over the beloved diamond.

  • If you’re limited by your budget, the cubic zirconia makes for a great stone for your engagement or wedding ring. This can easily be replaced a little down the line when your budget increases and you can upgrade to white sapphire, moissanite, or diamond.
  • Synthetically made or not, the CZ is flawless. You will find no inclusions or markings among this stone and so it makes for a stunning alternative if a diamond is not an option for you.
  • You can go bigger! If you’re a magpie for shiny things and more means better and bigger means better then you can go the whole hog! An increase in stone size is unlikely to stretch your budget where the cubic zirconia is concerned.

Remember, nothing can replicate the quality, durability, and brilliance of a diamond but, when a diamond is not an option, it’s good to know you have other choices!

What types of jewelry is cubic zirconia good for?

Alright, so we could use cubic zirconia in our wedding and engagement rings but what else might this stone be well suited for?

  • Cubic zirconia earrings or pendant necklaces are perfect for a stone such as this. With the likelihood of less contact with other materials and chemicals, the stone experiences less wear and tear and has a chance of greater longevity.
  • If we are happy to accept that a stone at this value will likely have a shorter lifespan then it is perfectly acceptable to choose the CZ for our rings and bracelets.
  • Buying cubic zirconia jewelry as fashion jewelry to be worn seasonally could make it the perfect choice. With it only taken out of its box for short periods of time, it’s likely to withstand the tests of time.
  • Rather than choosing the cubic zirconia as the center stone, we can use them as side or accent stones to enhance the feature stone.
  • Cubic zirconia in a more secure setting would be an excellent choice for mitigating damage such as scratches or chips. A more secure setting would allow for greater protection of the stone.
  • It is also perfect for younger children. You know why! With less awareness to take care of the stone in a way we adults know how children are at greater risk of damaging their jewelry. Maybe save the diamonds until they are a little older!😊
Princess-Cut Cubic Zirconia Stud Earrings
GEMSME Store / Amazon

Bonus #1: How to clean a cubic zirconia?

The cubic zirconia stone may fall into a lower price bracket but this doesn’t make it any less special. With that said, as with all of our jewelry, it will need cleaning from time to time.

The gaps between the stones and claws allow for build-up or dirt that will dull the sparkle and detract from the overall shine of the piece. And we don’t want that!

There are two simple methods for quick and easy cleaning of cubic zirconia.

The first is using professional cleaning liquid. Now, if you buy from a reputable store, the likelihood is that a cleaning service may well be offered and they will use the correct equipment. If a chemical is too harsh or the handling too abrasive then the ring will be open to damage.

Unfortunately, a lot of these liquids are incredibly specific in the metal and stones they are made for so watch out! Make sure you’re buying the correct liquids and the correct cloths to keep your items damage-free.

If you’re at a loss, get in touch with the professionals and they’ll tell you what you need.

The second option is a DIY, at-home cleaning that does the job spectacularly well at almost no cost to you!

What do you need? Some dishwashing soap, some warm water, and a SOFT bristle brush.

Submerge the item in warm, soapy water for several minutes. Allow it to soak in there before taking it out and going over it, ever so softly, with your soft bristle brush.

You must avoid leaving the item in for too long or brushing too hard as you may cause damage to your item. Other than that, it will come out as good as new!

Bonus #2: FAQ about cubic zirconia

You’ve got some questions, I understand. Let’s try and answer those for you, shall we?!

Is cubic zirconia a mineral?

Yes and no! As a synthetically manufactured stone that is created in a lab, the cubic zirconia cannot be classed as a mineral as it is not naturally formed.

However, the original cubic zirconia founded in the 1930s was indeed a natural mineral that was mined from the Earth. So, once it was but now it’s not!

Are cubic zirconia (CZ) and zircon the same?

Cubic zirconia is NOT the same as zircon! Zircon is a naturally occurring mineral that is still found organically, and while there are synthetic versions available, they are very rare.

Whilst the CZ and the zircon look very much the same, their similarities do end there! Zircon is made of zirconium silicate while cubic zirconia is made of zirconium oxide. Zircon is a softer stone, ranking 6 to 7.5 on the Mohs scale, and comes in a wide range of stunning colors that are considered more desirable than the colorless zircon.

Cubic zirconia and zircon may share elements of the same name but they are different in almost every other way!

Does cubic zirconia get cloudy?

Unfortunately, yes. Over time the cubic zirconia does lose its sparkle and shine. We can mitigate this as much as possible by cleaning it when needed and trying to avoid the stone coming into contact with other materials or chemicals.

How long does cubic zirconia last?

As a guideline, cubic zirconia can last up to two to three years with regular wear or up to five years with occasional wear.

With all jewelry subject to wear and tear, the longevity of your cubic zirconia depends on its lifetime and care. So, the longer you’d like to treat it the more attention you’ll have to give it!

Everything you need to know about the cubic zirconia

Nothing could ever replace the quality, individuality, brilliance, and fire of a cherished diamond. However, when times call for us to consider an alternative, cubic zirconia could certainly be the one for you.

💃🏻A flawless, low-cost alternative makes it perfect for occasional wear or the temporary stone in our wedding jewelry until we can finally take the plunge into the more luxurious territory.

Although the cubic zirconia had a slow start in life, it has now taken the world by storm and is considered a necessary part of the jewelry box for many.

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