This is how diamonds are changing the world we live in
3 October 2018 /
Tales of the alchemical quest for the philosopher’s stone and the determination of the ancients to turn base into precious is, you might say, the stuff of fiction, film and legend. Yet, in laboratory settings across the globe, real-life alchemists are now actively synthesizing one of the worlds most precious substances out of low cost cost graphite, while others are growing breathtaking, huge, jewels from thin slivers or seeds of the real thing.
The Magnus Opus in question, however, is not dazzling the world with gold and silver but something even more precious…diamond.
Cultured or lab-grown diamonds of a calibre worthy of the Hollywood lights are now, at long last, a reality and this new industry couldn’t have come into its own at a better time.
Millenials think differently, connectivity and mass-media have made them conscious of the necessity for ethical sourcing and sustainable growth in all aspects of industry.
A far as diamond goes, the cultured option is providing exactly that and that’s exactly why the lab-grown diamond industry is set, in the next decade, to take the world by storm.
How General Electric started the synthetic diamond revolution
It was 1955 when General Electric announced that it had successfully created the world’s first synthetic diamonds, with the same lattice structure, chemical composition and physical properties as the ‘real’ thing, only considerably smaller in size. These lab-grown diamonds would be perfect for industrial applications but the truth was, they were still a long way from jewelry viable.
The methods used during this first synthesis have since been painstakingly perfected and articulated to the point that we can now securely replicate the extreme temperatures and pressures that take place deep within the earth’s mantle, to ‘grow’ jewel quality diamonds in a laboratory setting in a mere number of weeks.
From those modest initial offerings of 1/10 carat pinhead diamonds to Augsburg University’s 155 carat, 92 mm showstopper, the technologies involved have improved by leaps and bounds.
The centuries old dream of creating flawless un-mined diamonds for use in dazzling jewelry and engagement rings, as well as in a staggering number of industrial applications, has now been fully realized, the only remaining hurdle is the influencing of market mindset, to embrace, rather than scorn this fresh, ethical, affordable and far less time consuming option.
While according to Forbes.com contributor Pamela N. Danziger some enterprises are dedicating their forces to this all new market and selling man-made gems as ‘ the space age alternative for an instant gratification culture’ other names in the industry are playing both sides of the fence…
Cultured diamonds sparkle brighter?
The last decade has been a nail-biter for the natural diamond and jewelry industry’s old blood…with ‘blood’ being a word that, since the release of DiCaprio’s ‘Blood-Diamond’ in 2006 has been a bane to diamond sales.
Following 2015’s disconcerting diamond value slump, the industry fought back by brainstorming the Diamond Producers Association’s no-holds-barred ‘Real is Rare’ marketing campaign, which sought to make natural diamonds more accessible to free-thinking millennials through a series of provocative ads.
The result was a marketing shift from traditional ‘old school’ romanticism to more bohemian relationship ideals, which might appeal to those millenials who weren’t being swayed. The thing is, the minds behind the campaign were only addressing a fraction of the issue.
In this Financial Times article, published in January 2018, what may be the leading issue is addressed in no uncertain terms. Millenials at large are far more concerned about ethical sourcing than they are about ‘diamond at all costs,’ bohemian ad campaign or no.
It turns out, in the words of FT journalist, Henry Sanderson, that ‘the global agreement to prevent trade in blood diamonds from Africa has failed to reassure consumers that their gems are not tainted by human rights abuses.’ Millennials aren’t about to take anyone’s word for it…that’s the long and short of it.
Firstly, in answer to the question of a place for cultivated diamonds…and this may be the reigning factor in swaying the market mindset, in favour of flawless, synthesized diamonds: with a cultivated diamond, the end-buyer is 100% assured of its conflict-free status.
Secondly, in answer to that same question…in spite of modest sales growth forecasts, demand for rough diamonds is still far outweighing supply expectations. Bain and Company’s 2017 report on diamond market trends predicts a 1-4% demand growth per year until 2030, with only a 0-1% supply growth forecast.
Thirdly…synthesized diamonds are cheaper, far cheaper, yet they still exhibit the quality and, indeed, are often even more flawless than natural diamonds. Synthetic diamonds offer the industry an open door to a market that’s more casual, more ‘everyday,’ more popular!
With synthesized diamond prices running anywhere from 30% to 1000% cheaper than their natural counterparts, diamonds will now be accessible to consumers who’d never dreamed of owning a flawless diamond before.
Distinct value of natural diamonds will shine through
Eric Mor from Abe Mor Diamond Cutters says that he sees this exploding new industry as “filling the void for a specific market. Most recently a lower end of the market and a lower price point”, he goes on to say that: “ the distinct value and exclusivity of natural diamonds will shine through in the long run.”
Mined Diamond Manufacturers Are Stepping In
Man-made diamonds have become such a hit, manufacturers are growing these lab-made gems at a fiendish pace the world over. Even the big name diamond industry giants are for the very first time creating their own lines of cultivated gems and synth-gem jewelry:
Synthetic diamonds, man-made diamonds, cultured diamonds, created diamonds, lab-diamonds, cultivated diamonds…we haven’t quite settled on a name yet. The industry is new and until a reputation of elegance and immortality is garnered, the cultivated diamond industry is a growing child.
To draw comparison to another budding industry, that of e-cigarettes, Big Tobacco spent a few years savagely opposed to the idea and…when it dawned on the minds in question that the e-cig trade was here to stay, when a massive drop in cigarette sales proved it, Big Tobacco hopped on board with their own e-cigarette offerings. In fact big names in tobacco attacked the new market with such force and financial backing that a couple of short years later James Ockenden, publisher of Blue Skies China, says that the e-cigarette industry has quickly become dominated by traditional tobacco companies.
I draw this comparison because just as the e-cigarette trade offers a healthier alternative to the old market, so the synthetic diamond industry offers a less environmentally invasive, 100% ethical and much cheaper alternative to mined stones. This on top of the fact that the cheaper alternative is awakening the dreams of a demographic that natural-diamond prices have always blacked out of the equation.
According to Paul Zimnisky’s article, long-time industry major De Beers has finally decided to enter the lab-grown diamond jewelry business, perhaps an indication that the lab-grown diamond trade is here to stay. With advances in technology, the quality of the stones being produced is rapidly improving and most lab-grown diamonds cannot be distinguished from natural diamonds without specialized industry equipment.
Women are buying diamonds for themselves now!
As Lindsay Kolowich describes on HubSpot’s blog, times have changed immensely since the initial ‘Diamonds are Forever’ campaign a far reaching marketing scheme which effectively made diamonds the status symbol they are today. It’s interesting to note that in 2018 women are no longer relying on the popping of a once in a lifetime question in order to get their hands on a diamond.
In 2018, self-purchasing females are an accepted demographic, featuring in the strategies and reports of every tide-fearing diamond manufacturer, lab-diamond growers and retailers in particular. One big name in the industry conducted a study in 2016 which, to the industry’s surprize, revealed that a full 31% of all women’s diamond jewelry sold in the US in 2016…was sold to women who were buying for themselves.
With the increase in female incomes and in female independence, marketing jewelry lines to women, for themselves is now one of the most important points on the agendas of players in the diamond game.
It’s not all about engagement rings anymore, which makes sense as a women only plans to marry once but she may have a long list of diamond-worthy events to attend in any given year. It’s a good thing the jewelry industry is now able to provide a cheaper alternative, with that same breathtaking sparkle.
What the experts say
The thing is, if you do your research, you’ll soon uncover that diamonds are, in fact, amongst the most common gemstones on the planet. This reality hits home in the outspoken and wholly controversial article “Diamonds are Bullshit,” by Huffington Post and Pricenomics’ Rohin Dhar, who also drives home the fact that, in his words.
“Diamonds are bullshit, not only is the demand for diamonds a marketing invention but diamonds aren’t actually that rare. Only by carefully restricting the supply, has De Beers kept the price of diamond high.”
Reading this groundbreaker, it becomes clear that the natural diamond’s allure is, itself…man-made. Does anybody else detect the irony?
The article instantly throws the ‘real is rare’ concept out the door…diamonds are the HARDEST gems, they are FOREVER…but, keep in mind, these qualities are also shared by synthesised diamonds.
While the ‘Real is Rare’ campaign is not openly anti-cultured, every word chosen, especially in the title, must be seen as purposeful. As Forbes Magazine reported, the DPA’s chief MO, Deborah Marquardt describes the campaign as a ‘purposeful departure…a 180 in tone from what we’ve seen before.’ The question: WHY? The answer: millennials operate by different standards to the old market.
Dutch Bank, ABN AMRO, commenting on the new ‘lab-kids on the block’ in their report on DB’s foray into the realms of synthesis, says that the strategy amongst key diamond industry players like De Beers, appears to be a sharp price differentiation between mined and lab-created stones, so as to split the industry in two. The last thing the big names want is for the cheaper, bigger, more flawless option to be in direct competition with their pricey forever-stones of yore.
Still, some believe that they’ll be fighting a losing battle. Consumers want bigger, cleaner and cheaper and that’s the end of it. Martin Rapaport, chairman of the Rapaport Group, is sternly opposed to the synth-trade, as is to be expected. He confirms our suspicions that no matter the marketing tactics of big brands in their attempts to secure a fork instead of a take over, lab-diamonds are and will continue to be direct competition for the natural diamond industry. Fact of the matter, created diamonds are a threat to the existence of the natural diamond trade, especially if environmentally and socially conscious millennials have their way.
Now, ‘Real is Rare’ players may be deliberately marketing their natural stones as the ‘luxury alternative to man-made diamond but some experts have highlighted the fact that price remains such a deciding factor in diamond purchases that this strategy is unlikely to work:
Global strategy consultancy firm, Stax inc. conducted a massive, 40 000 strong data survey that, in no uncertain terms revealed the importance of a low price point for purchasers.The company spokesman noted:
“Price remains the main decision driver with 50% of consumers acknowledging it as one of their top three considerations.”
In the same way that cultured stones tend to be value-measured against mined ones, mined diamonds, for the reasons stated in the above expert quote, will likely be prone to a steady decline in value, as lab gems gain in popularity.
Punit Shah, chief marketing officer at MyTrioRings.com, shared the following snippet:
“Lab-made diamonds are the result of a technological process which means their prices will drop like any other technological innovation, an effect described by Moore’s Law. Our team predicts that as the prevalence of lab-created options increases in the market, their wholesale rates could drop 20-40% – due primarily to the prospect of unlimited supply and increasingly lower production costs,”
Citigroup, #32 on the Fortune 500 list, has gone so far as to list synthetic diamonds as one of the ‘disruptive technologies’ set to upset the mining industry and while, currently, lab gems only account for about 2 percent of the market supply, Citibank analysts say this figure will likely rise to 10% by 2030.
Scott Selby, a trademark attorney and author who wrote about the battle over nomenclature between the different ways that diamonds are formed, titled: ‘Flawless: inside the biggest diamond heist in history’ said:
“The reason Americans buy diamonds for engagement rings and believe them to be valuable is because of marketing done by De Beers. It is not an ancient tradition. So De Beers has pushed the natural unique characteristics of a diamond shaped by the earth but again it’s all marketing.”
And…as with all marketing strategies, it may all rest on a name.
New jewelry and cultivated diamond guidelines
So sure is the market for cultivated diamond that early in 2018, the Federal Trade Commision expanded its definition of ‘diamonds’ to include the cultured variety. Where the definition used to be “ a diamond is a natural mineral consisting essentially of pure carbon crystallized in the isometric system,” the new definition simply omits the word, ‘natural…much to the chagrin of ‘real is rare’ advocates the world over.
Now, although the word, ‘synthetic’, is, by definition, an accurate term for use in the case of lab-made stones, the FTC notes that buyers often mistakenly assume that ‘synthetic’ means ‘fake’ and should therefore be avoided at all costs. The FTC, in its ‘New Jewelry Guides,’also neglected to ban the term ‘cultured’ for use in the case of lab-grown minerals, a jagged little pill for natural-diamond advocates who clearly felt the less romantic ‘lab-created’ and ‘man-made’ terms more aligned with their own, sought ends.
This constitutes a massive win for cultured-stone manufacturers, who are now free to use this term in their marketing, provided they clearly reference the diamond’s above-ground origin in the fine print.
Millennials mostly love lab-grown diamonds (but hate them a little too)
#Cultured diamonds are fake and lustreless
‘Fake’ is not a term relevant to synthetic diamonds. Lab-created diamonds are real in every way, they aren’t cubic zirconia, glass or visually similar, lesser gems. Created stones are 100% diamond, they are as immortal, as lustrous, as useful and wholly as deserved of favour, especially in light of the ethical and environmental pros associated with them.
In other words, the basis of this ‘con’ couldn’t be further from the truth.
#Lab stones just don’t have the same street cred as mined stones
Many buyers are concerned that lab-grown just isn’t as special, doesn’t have the same timeless appeal and indefatigable status as the ‘real-thing’ but nothing could be further from the truth.
Some consumers might consider the countless millennia, depth and untold ‘chance’ involved in the formation of natural stones to be reason enough to choose a natural-diamond over a cultured one but think on this:
The same countless millennia of chance and opportunity, the cultural, industrial and technological evolution that needed to occur in order for us to garner the knowledge and muster the means to create stones that are on a par with, larger and more flawless than earth’s own…that is a richness and a poignance in and of itself.
#Cultured diamonds are going to cost miners their jobs
This is a sore subject that can only be likened to to the argument that we should continue our exploitation of fossil fuels in order to preserve the jobs of miners and drillers. A factor to note is that for every 1 carat of rough natural diamond produced, approximately 2000 tons of raw earth needs to be extracted, method dependent.
The con of job-losses poses an interesting ethical question but ultimately its one that each consumer must make for him or herself as they weigh the pros and cons listed here.
#Trendsetting with cultivated stones
In a generation of ethically-minded consumers, purchasing a cultivated diamond is not only conscientious, it is also trendsetting. In an industry that seldom sees change, cultivated stones are effectively breathing fresh-air into the market. Purchasing a cultivated diamond is not only the economical thing to do, it’s also the trendy thing to do.
#Your bank balance will thank you
Cultivated diamonds sell for an average of 20-40% cheaper than their deep earth counterparts. Not only is this a factor making diamond engagement rings and jewelry accessible to a broader and younger demographic, it also means that those who CAN afford natural diamonds can now afford much larger stones, if they choose to spend their money on the cultivated option instead.
#You now have a choice of colors
While clear, natural diamonds aren’t the rarest of gems, colored diamonds are few and far between. The rarity of naturally sourced colored diamonds means that their prices are phenomenally high…not so with vibrant hued, cultured stones. The addition of trace elements during the manufacturing process allows for a full spectrum of hued, lab-grown gems, a treat for fashionistas and jewelers who fancy a little something different.
#Rest assured your cultured stones are Conflict Free
A pro that’s of increasing importance, amongst the buying age population, is a diamond’s conflict free status. Since the coining of the term ‘blood diamond’ during the film by the same name, which influenced Leonardo Dicaprio’s outspoken cultured stone advocacy, consumers have grown increasingly wary of both recycled and mined diamonds. Millenials, in particular, are an untrusting consumer base and studies, like this one from MVI Marketing, now show that as much as 70% of millennial females would consider purchasing a lab-grown diamond. The fact that cultivation assures the buyer of a diamond’s conflict-free status is evidently among the reasons.
#Environmental sustainability is now a reality
While a large amount of grid sourced energy is used during the manufacture of cultured stones, Anna-Mieke from “The Greener Diamonds mentions” that earth displacement isn’t amongst one of the environmental impacts for synthetic diamonds. This makes lab-diamonds the more sustainable amongst the two options and it has become a deciding factor amongst potential buyers.
As Alan Frampton, managing director of Cred Jewelry insists, “they have better environmental credentials.”
How man-made diamonds are made
There are two distinct methods of cultivation now in use amongst the world’s diamond manufacturers, as Roslan Md Nor, Suriani Abu Bakar, Tamil Many Thandavan, and
Mohamad Rusop Mahmood mention, namely: the HPHT and CVD methods. The consumer might encounter these acronyms when shopping for the perfect cultured stone and knowing more about the processes involved, as well as any variation in results, may assist them in coming to a final decision.
The older of the two methods is HPHT, which stands for ‘High Pressure, High Temperature’ and which name pretty much says it all. This is the method which most closely replicates the deep earth processes involved in natural diamond formation.
Long story short: graphite is converted, in a controlled, lab setting, to diamond, using the forces of high pressure and high temperature.
This was the method employed by General Electric, when they first synthesized diamonds for industrial use, in 1955.Here follows a rundown of the process, in bullet form…
- Graphite compressed in an hydraulic press, in the presence of a suitable metal catalyst, such as Ni, Co or Fe
- These catalysts are able to dissolve graphite at pressures of between 5 and 10 Gpa
- High temperature is added by passing an electric current through the sample
- Temperatures range between 1300 and 2300 degrees Celcius or 2372 and 4172 Fahrenheit
- The dissolved carbon then recrystallizes at normal temperatures and pressures, with a volume decrease of roughly 43%
The newer and less costly technique of manufacture is the CVD method, which stands for Chemical Vapor Deposition. This method makes use of gas phase precursors and the entire process occurs at low temperatures and pressures. The process is as far removed from the natural and HPHT processes as can be imagined.
The first successful use of this method was reported in 1962, so while it is the newer technique, it is not THAT new and, like the HPHT method, has been honed and perfected in the decades since inception.
Long story short: This process is the origin of the terms lab-grown and cultivated or cultured, as diamonds are effectively ‘grown’ from seeds using specialized substrates and an enclosed growth chamber.
This method fast became the most commonly used one in the cultivated stone trade and being that the method involves numerous steps in a long chemical process, there are far more variables than there are during HPHT and many of the particulars are closely guarded trade secrets. Here follows a bulleted breakdown of the CVD process…
- A plate containing numerous diamond seeds or diamond matter slivers is placed inside a specialized metal chamber
- Gases, being a mix of Hydrogen gas and a carbon-containing compound like Methane Gas, are superheated within the chamber
- The temperature is raised to between 900 and 1200 degrees Celsius or 1652 and 2192 degrees Fahrenheit
- Diamonds then ‘grow’ in the chamber over a period of weeks, using the superheated gases as substrate
Synthetic diamonds will enable mass-producible quantum computers
The evolution of diamond synthesizing tech has even further reaching benefits than the casting of more affordable sparkle in your jewelry. Doors really start to open when we look at how diamond synthesis is speeding progress in the realms of quantum computing.
For those of you not yet familiar with this new branch of information technology, what makes the field so essential is the capacity quantum computing has for surveillance-proof communication and information storage. As explained in Inverse’s article on the subject, quantum computing makes use of real electron spins, in order to store and relay information in a quantum computer.
These electrons need to be positioned in a stable 3D matrix, such as diamond, in order for this information to remain stable. According to Neel Patel from Inverse, the information is measured in units known as qubits and because the tiniest imperfection or irregularity in the storage material will undermine this qubit storage potential, synthetic diamonds become far more valuable than the mined kind.
That, coupled with necessary modifications to the storage material that couldn’t possibly be done during the formation of natural diamonds, makes a pretty good case for cultured diamonds.
A few years ago, before some of the technological developments that lead to the standard of synthetic stone and customizability we now enjoy, scientists at work on quantum optics development had to rely on a single, high quality natural diamond (property of Russia), which displayed the characteristics necessary to achieving their computational goals.
Slivers of that single stone were shaved off and distributed amongst practitioners of the science…a high maintenance and high risk system indeed. Thankfully, times have changed and scientists are fast becoming adept at the cultivation of specially formulated quantum computing diamonds that will open whole new worlds in the realms of communication and information storage and technology.
Finally, diamonds are set to change the world we live in, in ways we have never imagined possible
Since the diamond industry is now able to offer consumers a lower priced, more sustainable option…and reach more consumers in the process, retailers can finally enjoy a higher profit margin and an answer to supply shortages. It’s no wonder then, that consensus on the positive nature of diamond cultivation is slowly but surely becoming a reality.
For consumers who never saw the high price of mined diamonds as a deciding factor, they can no doubt appreciate the fact that only 2% of mined stones will ever reach the level of purity attainable from cultured stones. According to Sebastian Naturski from “Your Diamond Teacher”, they are now available in IF clarity. Annie and Mike from Resident Diamond Experts says they are available as Excellent cut, while Rian Mulcahy says the rare carat D color and a breathtaking 10 ct size is now realistic. These are all specifications that are almost impossible to meet in a mined diamond.