Synthetic diamonds have been causing a stir in the jewellery industry lately, and some are concerned that the mined-diamond industry will suffer as a result.
Man-made or ‘laboratory grown’ diamonds have been around for years – after all, a natural diamond is simply carbon which has been subjected to pressure over a long period of time. Although it may sound like alchemy, the technology does indeed exist to turn simple carbon into a beautiful diamond within a laboratory. This has actually been possible for a long time; in fact, the first synthetic diamond was created as early as the 1890’s.
Since that time, scientists all around the world have worked to improve the technology and up until fairly recently, laboratory grown diamonds have exclusively been used in industrial applications. As the hardest material on the planet, it’s used in a variety of ways; from industrial drilling, cutting and grinding, as heat sinks in electronics, and for high-performance bearings to name a few. It has been estimated that 98% of diamonds used in these types of industrial applications are synthetic.
In contrast, synthetic diamonds which are of gem-quality and can be used for high-end jewellery and luxury watches make up just 2% of the market. However, this percentage is growing and by 2020 it is thought lab-created diamond sales will reach $1 billion, and will very soon outpace the sales of mined diamonds. So what’s the appeal, and how exactly are they created?
How are synthetic diamonds made?
There are two main ways to create diamonds in a lab – one is called HPHT (high pressure & high temperature) and the other is called CVD (chemical vapour deposition). Other methods are available but not widely used, as they can be more difficult and dangerous than HPHT and CVD.
HPHT diamonds are created in much in the same way as a diamond would form within the ground, by using heat and pressure. Diamond ‘seeds’ are used to kick start the process. These are simply small slices of real diamond, which can be chemically built-upon during the manufacturing process. The seeds and added graphite (what you would find in an ordinary pencil) are subjected to a huge amount of pressure and are heated to around 1500°C.
CVD diamonds are created a little differently, but still use very small diamond seeds to get the process started. With this method, the seeds are placed in a type of microwave plasma oven along with natural gas. When the oven is turned on, the natural gas forms into a plasma of carbon, which then builds upon the seeds which are already there. This can create larger diamonds atom-by-atom.
In just a few weeks, it’s possible to create a diamond that would have taken billions of years to form naturally. These man-made diamonds have exactly the same chemical makeup of natural diamonds and only specialised instruments can tell the difference between mined and lab-grown.
Is there a difference in clarity and cut?
As lab-grown diamonds are made from the same materials and endure similar processes to their natural counterparts, they are pretty much identical to the ‘real thing’. Many industry experts believe that lab-grown diamonds are on par with ones which have been mined from the ground when it comes to clarity and quality, and it can be argued that lab-grown diamonds are better and more desirable for a number of reasons.
Artificially-produced diamonds can be cut in exactly the same way as mined diamonds, and a variety of colours can be produced, just like in nature. Clear, yellow, brown, blue, green and orange diamonds are available from diamond laboratories at a fraction of the cost of mined stones.
What are the benefits of synthetic diamonds and why do people buy them?
The words ‘synthetic’ and ‘artificial’ can have negative connotations when it comes to something as special and natural as a diamond. Extracting diamonds from rock deep down in the Earth’s mantle requires large mining operations. These diamond mines can be divisive and have caused many problems for both the local people and the environment. Soil erosion, pollution, and deforestation are common, and human issues such as slavery and the funding of conflict are still a problem in some diamond mines. It can be very difficult to 100% guarantee that a mined diamond is not a blood diamond and this can be a real concern for many ethically-minded consumers.
Buying second-hand diamond jewellery does not create demand for newly mined stones, but if a brand new piece of jewellery is preferable then lab-grown diamonds are the only sure fire way of knowing, without a doubt, that you have not funded conflict, suffering and/or destruction of communities and the environment. It is with this message that cultivated diamonds are becoming more and more popular – something which is worrying the very lucrative diamond industry.
Reduced cost is also a big benefit of man-made diamonds. Synthetic diamond jewellery is just as beautiful and costs a lot less than ‘real’ diamond jewellery, even though the chemical composition is exactly the same.
Changing the diamond industry
De Beers, one of the oldest and largest diamond corporations effectively made the diamond what it is today. They are credited with the idea that engagement rings should include diamonds and that ‘diamonds are forever’, and they initially pushed back against the rise of jewellery-grade lab-grown versions. However, in order to stay relevant and to ensure they are able to meet the increasing demand; De Beers are now creating their own lab-cultivated diamonds.
The diamond industry is going through a huge change. As the technology improves, synthetic diamonds are bound to get cheaper meaning the choice available for the consumer will rise.