Not So Set in Stone

Photo courtesy of Precious Metal Twsane

How lab-grown diamonds might disrupt and steer the market toward sustainability

The diamond trade has earned a reputation in recent history for unethical practices. And yet diamond jewelry is still as classic and beautiful as when Marilyn Monroe sang, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” Now, some companies may have found a solution to keep the jewelry without the trouble of the jewels: Lab-grown diamonds.

The bad rap that natural diamonds have is due to their origins; “conflict” or “blood” would be a more appropriate epithet than “natural” for the precious gemstone. Blood diamonds are known as such because they are used to fund wars in countries such as the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone, among others. The diamond trade has led to violence, human rights abuses and displacement for decades, according to Global Witness. While there have been several legislative measures taken to prevent the trade of “blood diamonds,” some jewelry buyers are still wary of purchasing natural diamonds for fear of unwittingly supporting these conflicts.

Enter a possible alternative: Lab-created diamonds. Many gem experts are quick to point out that lab-grown diamonds are not new; lab-created diamonds have been used for industrial purposes since they first appeared in the 1950s, and gem-quality ones have been commercially available since the 1980s. But with younger buyers focusing on ethical brands, lab-grown diamonds may be the latest way that consumers push the fashion and accessory markets in a more socially — and environmentally — conscious direction. Not to mention cheaper.

How They’re Made
One brand that claims to have the perfect lab-grown diamond is ALTR, a New York City-based company that manufactures the gems in only 60 to 120 days. Since it creates its own crystallized carbon, ALTR can produce the purest possible jewels, classified as Type IIA diamonds.

As with all lab-grown diamonds, ALTR diamonds are real diamonds. Both lab-grown and mined diamonds have the same chemical and structural composition. The only difference is that diamonds created in a lab (such as the one that ALTR uses) are exposed to conditions that mimic the way that the earth naturally produces diamonds.

To create its diamonds, ALTR uses a “seed,” or a sliver of a pre-existing diamond, to spark the formation of a new gem. Using the process Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD), the lab exposes the “seed” to other carbon compounds and, through intense heat and pressure, new layers of the diamond form.

How They’re Identified
To keep up with all the innovations in the field, organizations like Gemological Science International (GSI) take diamond grading and research beyond the traditional hand-and-eye assessment. Instead, GSI uses software and various lab services to judge the quality of the gems.

“From a gemological perspective, lab-grown diamonds are graded the same way as natural diamonds, using the same scales for the four “C” s — color, clarity, cut and carat weight — [as well as] cut grade and light analysis,” said Debbie Azar, co-founder of GSI. “They have the same optical and physical properties all-natural diamonds do. The only difference is concerning the disclosures on the grading report; GSI’s grading report for lab-grown diamonds clearly states that the diamonds are lab-grown.”

Many of GSI’s breakthroughs have been in detecting lab-grown diamonds, since they are, for all intents and purposes, identical to natural diamonds. Azar emphasized her belief that consumers need to not only know what they are getting when they buy diamonds and other lab-grown stones but also to understand the distinction between the two.

“The differences are where they were formed and over what period of time,” she explained. “Natural diamonds are formed over billions of years, hundreds of miles beneath the earth’s surface; no two are ever the same. Lab-grown diamonds are manufactured in factories over the course of days, weeks or months.”

How Much They Cost
Robin Williams, vice president of H Tim Williams Jewelers in San Diego, approaches the subject of lab-created diamonds from an economic standpoint. While some consumers think about the quality and composition of the diamonds, others might be attracted to lab-grown diamonds because of their low cost.

“The distribution process for mined diamonds is a complicated and controlled process,” Williams explained. “Production is based upon demand and has a direct effect on the availability of diamonds, thus controlling the price.”

Think of basic economics, Williams urged. As long as there’s low supply and high demand for natural diamonds, they will retain their value. On the other hand, lab-grown diamonds may face an entirely different, volatile economic climate.

“Currently, you can purchase a lab-grown diamond for approximately 40% less than a mined diamond,” Williams said. “As more and more companies begin producing lab-grown diamonds, the prices will fall. There’s no mechanism to control the output of lab-grown diamonds; the supply will be endless.”

While this also means that, even though a consumer may pay less for a lab-created diamond, it is possible that lab-grown gems may not retain value as well as natural ones.

“The jewelry industry has seen this with other simulated diamonds, like cubic zirconia and synthetic moissanite,” Williams continued. “Cubic zirconia is now essentially worthless, and synthetic moissanite — which was the most recent gemstone to ‘replace’ a diamond — has dropped to about $200 for a one-carat stone. Consumers may opt for a lab-grown diamond to save money, but they should’nt expect their stone to hold its value.”