There is a growing market for lab-grown diamonds. This article will discuss the history of lab-grown diamonds, how they are made and what makes them unique from mined diamonds.
Lab-grown or artificial diamonds were introduced in 1950 by General Electric Company and have been used in industrial and jewelry applications ever since. They can be identified through markings on their girdle (the widest part of the diamond), which must appear on all artificial diamonds to distinguish them from mined stones. The GIA’s CARAT STONE program uses four criteria to identify artificial diamonds: color, crystal structure, fluorescence, and specific gravity tests.
The history of lab-grown diamonds
Before discussing the history of lab-grown diamonds and how these stones are created, it is essential to identify the difference between synthetic and simulant diamonds. Synthetic diamonds are crystalline carbon, the building block of the diamond trade, made by a manufacturer in a laboratory under controlled conditions. They have the same chemical composition as mined stones and can be found with the same clarity, color, and appearance as their natural counterparts. A simulant diamond is a stone composed of non-diamond material that looks like a natural diamond but does not have inherent physical properties. These would include cubic zirconia (CZ) or moissanite, for example.
In the 1930s, Russia experimented with ways to create artificial diamonds as both scientists and business people recognized there were beneficial applications besides industrial use. Soviet scientist Bolotowsky discovered how to make diamonds using a plasma discharge of carbon atoms in 1952. This method remains one of the primary methods manufacturers use to this day.
The process starts with an artificial diamond “seed” that is placed in a vacuum chamber and heated to extreme temperatures (between 1800-3500 degrees Fahrenheit) while rotating at nearly 2000 miles per hour, which forces carbon atoms to form on the seed (allowing for film deposition). A metal catalyst is typically applied to the diamond seeds to promote consistent growth during the growing phase. It then moves into high pressure/high temperature or HPHT conditions created by heating it with additional hydrogen gas, which becomes even more stable. Stones made through this process are the most common commercially available stones on the market today.
There’s also a CVD, or chemical vapor deposition process that involves creating a carbon plasma (similar to that of Bolotowsky), which forms on the diamond seed and deposits carbon atoms into a stone. This is how stones were created by Apollo Moon Enterprises of Derry Township, Pennsylvania, and Apollo Diamond Inc., in Washington State. Stones created through this method look and feel like mined diamonds and will likely be the most flawless and purest of all lab-grown diamonds. They can, however, only reach about 60 percent of the size of naturally occurring diamonds due to limits on crystal growth rates during the manufacturing processes known as “pulling.” However, this may change given advancements in technology, such as Element Six.
Currently, lab-grown diamonds are used by the diamond trade to bring costs down on stones that may have been shaped or treated in other ways, which reduces their value or desirability. For example, an elongated stone would be more cost-effective to create than a round and brilliant cut. They also provide the manufacturer with the ability to control specific types of coloration, such as yellow (which can be achieved through irradiation). Lab-grown diamonds were hailed as a wonder product when they first began hitting store shelves in the late 1990s; since then, however, it has become evident that these stones do not command the same price as naturally occurring diamonds – at least not yet. And while consumers aren’t willing to pay the same price for lab-grown diamonds, manufacturers and jewelers still rely on the stones to profit due to demand. The diamond market typically works like this: supply and demand decide the value. Due to the lower availability of stones relative to demand (such as during the holiday season), there is an increased value placed upon natural diamonds; likewise, when supply outweighs that of demand (such as following the holiday rush), then prices decrease due to devaluation of the product.
There are currently over 100 businesses involved in producing lab-grown diamonds, which include both public and private companies such as HPHT Diamonds Inc., Apollo Moon Enterprises, Apollo Diamond, Gemesis Corporation, C3 Jianali Ltd., Pure Grown Diamonds Ltd., LeLacheur FACTORY, Vitro Diamonds, and Algordanza. The largest manufacturers are Apollo Moon Enterprises in Pennsylvania, Element Six in the UK, C3 Jianali Ltd. in Australia, LeLacheur FACTORY in Switzerland, Pure Grown Diamonds Ltd., based in Hong Kong, and China’s Harries & Bates Pty Ltd.
While these companies have proved that lab-grown diamonds are just as valuable as mined stones in terms of chemical composition, it is unlikely that they will become more expensive than natural diamonds anytime soon due to several factors, including but not limited to the availability of the product (or lack thereof), placement within the supply chain, consumer demand for value/not cost, discounts/incentives offered, and increased automation of the process which will lead to cost decreases. But what about conflict diamonds? Can lab-grown diamonds help stop the atrocities associated with them? While some would say no because the demand for these stones perpetuates wars in Africa, others believe that by creating a market for lab-derived gems, prices of mined gems will decrease, thus engendering less demand on an international scale. So while they may not be able to eradicate blood diamonds, this process has allowed manufacturers to create more ethically sound stones with positive origins providing consumers with an alternative option when purchasing precious stones. There are also concerns about environmental issues surrounding mined vs. lab-created diamonds. Still, so far, research suggests that it takes about one to four weeks for mined diamonds to become diamond dust while laboratory diamond crystals require about six months to create (however, it is essential to note that the process of creating “diamond dust” itself has no detrimental environmental impact; this act refers to the time frame in which specimens are broken down via superficial erosion, etc.). With all things considered, lab-grown diamonds may provide better value than naturally occurring stones. Perhaps with increased supply (or more efficient manufacturing techniques), they will command a higher price tag. Only time will tell how long it will take for these stones to become standard. Until then, expect discounts on artificially made gems just as you would receive any other promotional item or holiday savings.