Cubic zirconia steps up to tacky chic status


Perky Suzanne Somers surfaced recently in the netherdepths of the cable universe to peddle her faux-jewelry line on the Home Shopping Network. As she clicked shut a velvet case housing a pair of simulated-sapphire and cubic-zirconia earrings -- "The sound of quality," she giggled -- her co-host Steve Chaney gushed over the $39.95 item. "So regal," he pronounced. "So elegant . . . so hubba-hubba."

Within those quote marks lies the inherent paradox of the cubic zirconia, a pretender of a bauble that qualifies as the Eliza Doolittle of the gem world.

The most convincing diamond simulant ever to hit the market, the sparkling cubic zirconia nonetheless suffers from chemically cockney roots. Not even categorized as a synthetic diamond because it is not carbon-based, the CZ is the result of a powdery marriage between lowly zirconium oxide (used in firebrick) and yttrium oxide.

Thanks to its wannabe pedigree, cubic zirconia became shorthand for shlock almost as soon as it hit the market in the late '70s -- an association that has been compounded by the gemstone's almost around-the-clock presence on home-shopping channels. QVC's Barry Diller learned that the hard way: After he joined the shopping network as its chairman last year, Mr. Diller was linked with the imitative stone like a box-office stud stooping to date a B-flick actress. (Mr. Diller wouldn't comment on the barrage of cubic-zirconia-related jibes occasioned by his career switch, but a QVC executive assures that they didn't upset his boss in the slightest: "Barry had no problem with us selling simulated stones -- he believed it was a really smart investment.")

As usual, Mr. Diller was prescient. Like once-reviled polyester, CZ has been so parodied that now it's actually hip in fashion circles. During the fall shows, for example, designer Todd Oldham bedecked his models with cubic zirconias ranging from 71 carats to a finger-bending 390. "To me, it's as good as the real thing -- they don't mine 400-carat diamonds anymore, darling," laughs jewelry designer Armen Ra, who created the rings, which sell in Oldham's new New York City store for $900 to $1,500.

"It's really weird, but they're totally hip," says Sheila Aimette, accessories fashion director at Macy's, which has noticed a marked uptick in cubic-zirconia sales in the last six months. "It's a sophisticated customer, someone who's reading the fashion magazines." The season's infatuation with rhinestones -- not to mention the influence of designers like John Galliano, Victor Alfaro and Marc Jacobs, who showed real gems with their fall fashions -- have fueled the demand for at least the appearance of the real thing.

Even at the bargain-obsessed home-shopping channels, CZ is not always synonymous with cheap.

"All of our cubic zirconias are set like fine jewelry, in 14-karat [gold] or better," says Fred Siegel, senior vice president of marketing for QVC, whose own line of CZ jewelry, called Diamonique, includes pieces with price tags in the several thousands of dollars. "The old thinking was that CZ was garbage," Mr. Siegel says. "But I'll bet dollars for doughnuts that you have a pair of cubic-zirconia studs. My wife does, though she'll kill me for saying so."

Barbara Ross, vice president of jewelry merchandising at the rival Home Shopping Network, divides cubic-zirconia lovers into two camps. "The first is those who would love to have a 5-carat diamond bracelet, but can't afford it," she explains. "And the second is people who do have (real diamonds) -- and who for whatever reason don't want to wear them.

"One- or 2-carat studs and earrings are the day-in, day-out best sellers," says Ms. Ross. But she notes that more elaborate designs are gaining in popularity. HSN recently unveiled "Fantasy," a collection that features shapes like starbursts and triangles laser-cut into the interiors of the gems themselves.

And in September, HSN unveiled "Estate," a line of fake-gemstones based on Ms. Somers' personal collection, which the actress had replicated in cubic zirconia because she was afraid to wear the real thing on the stage and street. Set in vermeil (gilded silver) and sterling silver, the line frequently features Ms. Somers' favored triangular "trilliant" cut. And there's more where that came from. More than 100 million tons of raw cubic zirconia are produced in the United States every year, at a price that is infinitesimal when compared to the real McCoy: Where a good-quality diamond of about 1 carat can easily sell in the five figures, its cubic-zirconia counterpart wholesales for less than $10.

Still, the diamond industry isn't exactly quaking in its boots. "Is [cubic zirconia] a real market? Yes. Are people buying them? Yes," concedes Jerry Ehrenwald, president of the New York City-based International Gemmological Institute, an independent appraiser of gems. "But does costume jewelry really take the place of real diamonds?"

Presumably, that's a rhetorical question that even the home-shopping networks -- which sell a goodly number of real gemstones themselves -- wouldn't think to answer in the affirmative.

"It's not forever," goes an advertising tag line that QVC pondered recently for its Diamonique advertising campaign. "It's for now."

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