Laboratory-Grown Diamonds: Myths And Reality

Manmade diamonds entered the market with a very unfortunate reputation as imitations of natural diamonds. This failed to inspire confidence in the idea as a whole, like any small-scale scam. But a lot has changed recently.

The issue of lab-grown diamonds has been heating up for the past decade. And the only question on the public’s mind is: “How are they different from natural?”

The correct answer is that they are no different than natural.  Pure carbon is compressed by millions of years of geological processes or by vapor deposition in the laboratory, and in either case it takes about the same amount of time – two to three weeks – to form a diamond. The chemical structure is the same. The crystal structure is the same. 

The only difference is that at the base of every synthetic diamond is a “seed” around which the crystal grows. Usually a tiny piece of carbon (charcoal) is used to preserve the chemical identity, but the seed can be anything – a hair, a fingernail, ashes. The theme of mourning and sentimentality has been a subject of experimentation in some American laboratories, and not without success. 

In terms of visual identity, colorless man-made diamonds are indistinguishable from natural diamonds.  However, during the cutting process, an expert cutter can easily tell whether the diamond in front of him is a natural diamond or a lab-created diamond. De Beers has set up its own laboratory – Element Six – to study the grown diamonds in detail.

Today, most lab-grown diamonds attempt to pass as natural. The bad news is that if a fake can’t be detected at the production level, it can’t be detected in the store. The good news is that you’ll never know you’ve been fooled. The possibility of being fooled tends to make jewelers and appraisers nervous, rather than buyers.

Dozens of labs produce diamonds. Some of them are American. They are distinguished by their fundamentally environmentally friendly approach to growing stones – using renewable energy, etc. In addition to them, many Chinese laboratories have quickly mastered the technology and continue to improve it, supplying the market with more and more interesting stones of blue, green and pink colors. They are not close to the expensive eco-friendly approach: they are powered by standard electricity or, as they joke in the industry, burn coal.

Before De Beers entered the market with the Lightbox brand, jewelry with lab diamonds was sold by several American companies (who also produced them) at a price only 30% lower than natural stones. The main marketing difference and attraction for buyers was the ecological and ethical nature of the lab stones. In everything else, the new players tried to play on the same field – they used the same idea of “something valuable for valuable moments of your life”, the same design, the same cuts. Simply put, lab-grown diamonds were trying to play on the field of natural diamonds. That is, to take a piece of the market that De Beers had been building for years, with the help of expensive advertising campaigns to educate buyers to spend much more on diamonds than their real value.

Laboratory diamonds have evolved rather quickly from a banal deception and attempts to hide them in batches of natural stones to small jewelry brands that advocate ecology and ethics. The most famous are Diamond Foundry (investors Leonardo DiCaprio and Miroslava Duma), ORRO, Gordon Max, Innocent Stone, Carat, the Atelier Swarovski line actively promoted by Penélope Cruz, and a dozen others. Most of the production facilities are located in America and Asia. The idea of the uniqueness and value of cultivated diamonds reached journalists and then consumers through joint efforts.

Not so long ago, ethics was the main competitive advantage of laboratory stones – they were made by people in white coats, working in compliance with all labor laws. Not like the “bloody” natural stones that are mined in secret and serve as a bargaining chip for illegal military dictatorships in African countries.  

Today, diamantaires honestly admit that only about 4% of rough diamonds on the market are of dubious origin. All other miners are rapidly joining the Kimberley Process, introducing stone tracing, and a Tiffany customer buying a diamond ring will be able to trace the history of the stone down to the time it was mined and the name of the miner.

Diamond mining companies banded together to try to educate the public that the mined stones had “no soul and no divine touch. Slogans like “real is rare, real is a diamond” came into play. But the more jewelers and mining companies talked about the difference in properties, “rarity” and “uniqueness,” the more they poured water on the popularization of laboratory stones. The press changed its tone from condescending to respectful: instead of “synthetic,” which always carries a certain negative connotation of something fake, they began to be called “human-grown,” which, you must agree, is much more attractive. And the diamantaires became seriously worried.

When launching Lightbox, De Beers had two simple goals. 

The first was to create a reputation for lab diamonds at the level of rhinestones: fashionable, cheap, not serious. And the second, much more important, was to lower their value. 

The second goal was achieved quite quickly – within six months, prices for lab diamonds were hovering around 50% of the market for natural diamonds. After another six months, however, the prices of natural stones also began to fall – the over-saturation of the market has never produced a different result, and for most consumers the issue of price turned out to be much more important than all the marketing hype about “real is rare”. Moreover, it turned out that consumers are also interested in large stones, especially colored ones, first of all in price and then in naturalness, environmental friendliness and other claims.

The only disadvantage is that the reputation of laboratory stones is still not excellent. They are good enough to buy and wear, but not yet interesting enough to admit with pride.

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