Until a few years ago, it was still considered the fundamental way, technologically speaking, to be able to make gemstone-quality diamonds in a laboratory. Scientists have been trying to make lab-grown diamonds since the 1950s, with only limited success: The results were small (under a carat) and industrial-grade—great for use in cutting tools, given the hardness of diamonds, but not high-quality enough for engagement rings.
The machines and processes used to make man-made diamonds have become more refined in recent years, finally able to simulate the extreme pressure and temperatures deep within the Earth’s core that created organic diamonds over billions of years. Today’s lab-grown diamonds are finally of sufficient quality to be certified by third-party institutions, such as the Gemological Institute of America, as real. They have the exact chemical composition and structure—carbon atoms arranged in a cubic crystal formation—as mined diamonds.
What is a Diamond?
Clear, crystalline, and sharp, diamonds are known for their hardness. They’re actually the hardest naturally occurring substance in the world and, although they’re solely composed of the element Carbon, diamonds themselves are considered a mineral.
Diamonds are revered and are commonly seen as a symbol of commitment, being the stone of choice for engagement and wedding rings. Only 30% of natural diamonds make the cut to be considered “gem quality” for jewelry, according to the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). The rest are used for industrial purposes, mostly as an abrasive, a tool to polish or sand other materials. But the vast majority like 98% of diamonds don’t come from these natural byproducts and are mostly synthetic. Diamonds are found about 100 miles deep within the earth. But to form naturally, they require precise conditions.
What are Lab-created/ Lab-grown Diamonds?
Lab-created diamonds are known by many names: lab-grown diamonds, cultured diamonds, man-made diamonds, synthetic diamonds, etc. Regardless of what you call them, they certainly have created a wave in the diamond industry.
Simply put, they are diamonds grown in a lab. These labs use cutting-edge technology to replicate the natural processes that create diamonds found on the earth. The end result is a lab-created diamond that is the same as a mined diamond chemically, physically, and optically.
Are lab-grown diamonds real diamonds?
Yes, the only thing that makes a lab-created diamond different from a natural diamond is its origin. A lab-created diamond is “grown” inside a lab using cutting-edge technology that replicates the natural diamond growing process. The result is a man-made diamond that is chemically, physically, and optically the same as those grown beneath the Earth’s surface.
“Lab-created diamonds are not fakes. They’re not cubic zirconias. They have all the same physical and chemical properties as a mined diamond.” Stephen Morisseau, a spokesman for the GIA, a nonprofit organization that oversees the international diamond grading system.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) defines a diamond as pure crystallized carbon in the isometric cubic system, whether it is mined from the earth or grown in a lab. The FTC has chosen this definition of a diamond as both lab-grown diamonds and mined diamonds have the same chemical, optical and physical properties. This means that regardless of the origin, crystallized carbon is a gemstone known as a diamond.
Lab-grown diamonds are identical to diamonds found on the earth in every way. Both share the same qualities and characteristics such as:
- Chemical Composition: C
- Crystalline Structure: Cubic
- Refractive Index: 2.42
- Dispersion: 0.044
- Hardness (MOHS): 10
- Density: 3.52
So whether it is mined or grown in a lab, a diamond is a diamond.
How are Lab-grown Diamonds created?
Before we learn about how lab-created diamonds are made, it’s important to understand how mined diamonds are formed. The processes are extremely similar – only one happens naturally while the other occurs in a lab. Mined Diamonds Geologists believe that diamonds formed deep within the Earth between 1 billion to 3 billion years ago. Carbon must receive 725,000 pounds per square inch of pressure, which only happens within the earth over the course of billions of years. While they don’t know exactly how those diamonds came to be, they believe the process starts with carbon dioxide that is buried roughly 100 miles beneath the Earth’s surface.
The carbon dioxide is exposed to heat in excess of 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit and put under extreme pressure of roughly 727,000 pounds per square inch. The diamonds are then transported from deep within the Earth’s core to the surface by way of deep volcanic explosions. There are two processes labs use to grow diamonds – High Pressure-High Temperature (HPHT) and Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD). HPHT diamonds are made using one of three manufacturing processes: a belt press, the cubic press, and the split-sphere (BARS) press. All of these processes create an environment of extremely high pressure and temperature conducive to diamond growth. An HPHT diamond begins as a small diamond seed that is placed into carbon. Using one of the manufacturing processes above, the seed is exposed to temperatures of about 1500 degrees Celsius and pressurized to approximately 1.5 million pounds per square inch.
The pure carbon melts and starts to form a diamond around the starter seed. It is then carefully cooled to form a pure carbon diamond. A CVD diamond begins as a thin slice of diamond seed, which is often an HPHT-produced diamond. The diamond seed is placed in a sealed chamber and heated to around 800 degrees Celsius. The chamber is filled with a carbon rich-gas, like Methane, and other gases. The gases are ionized into plasma using technology similar to that of microwaves or lasers. The ionization breaks the molecular bonds in the gases, and the pure carbon adheres to the diamond seed and slowly crystallizes.
Whether it’s a ring, a bracelet, earrings, or a necklace, diamonds can easily take your look to the next level. You can go from simple to glam in seconds with the help of a few dazzling adornments. Here are some terms you need to know in order to understand lab-grown diamonds’ manufacturing process.
HPHT – When the HPHT method is used, a small diamond seed is placed into a piece of carbon. Then using either a belt press, cubic press, or a split-sphere (BARS) press, the carbon is pressurized to approximately 1.5 million pounds per square inch. Additionally, the carbon is also exposed to temperatures over 2,700 Fahrenheit. This pressure and heat begin to melt the carbon, forming a diamond around the initial diamond seed. The newly formed diamond is then carefully cooled.
CVD – Like HPHT, CVD uses a small diamond seed (often an HPHT diamond). This seed is placed inside a sealed chamber that is heated to over 1,400 Fahrenheit and filled with carbon-rich gases (typically methane and hydrogen). These gases are then ionized into plasma using a technology similar to lasers or microwaves. This technology essentially breaks down the molecular bond of the gas. Once the molecular bond is broken down, pure carbon begins to stick to the seed, and a new diamond forms. Additional treatments may be used (heat or irradiation) to enhance or change the diamond’s color after it is grown.
How Long Does It Take To Grow Lab-Grown Diamonds?
Unlike the billions of years it takes to create mined diamonds, lab-grown diamonds typically take less than a month to grow. White diamonds take the longest time to grow, with it taking 2+ weeks to grow a 1-carat diamond. On the other hand, yellow and blue diamonds take 5-10 days. It is important that the growing process is not rushed when making diamonds. If the process is rushed the crystal will fracture.
How are Lab-grown Diamonds certified and graded?
Lab-created diamonds are graded and certified using the same process as mined diamonds. Diamonds are sent to a gem lab that specializes in grading diamonds. A diamond is evaluated using the 4C’s – cut, clarity, color, and carat. Basically, they judge the diamond on how well it has been cut down from its raw form into a jewel, how flawless and clear it is, and its size. The majority of these labs grade using the 4C’s, however, a select few use their own criteria.
The most popular diamond certification labs are:
- Gemological Institute of America (GIA)
- Antwerp World Diamond Center (AWDC)
- American Gem Society (AGS)
- International Gemological Institute (IGI)
- Gemological Science International (GSI)
The diamond grading process is roughly the same for all of the diamond certification labs. Each diamond is graded independently by several gemologists at the lab. The individual grades are compiled and analyzed to determine the final grade. This process is designed to provide each diamond with an unbiased grade. However, it’s not uncommon for a diamond to get a different grade, not only from a different lab but from the same lab if sent back for a second grading.
For this reason, there are a lot of differing opinions amongst consumers and diamond retailers as to which lab is the best. But, it’s important to keep in mind that those opinions are completely subjective. Each lab has its pros and cons. A diamond retailer chooses which lab they use because they trust that lab to grade diamonds fairly. Like mined diamonds, lab-grown diamonds come with a grading report.
Benefits of Lab-grown Diamonds
Lab diamonds are different from natural diamonds in that they are artificially created – man-made in a laboratory, instead of naturally produced on the earth, like regular diamonds. Fundamentally, this is the only difference. Lab diamonds look and feel just like natural diamonds. They’re available in all kinds of shapes and sizes, and if you had a lab diamond and a natural diamond in front of you, it would be virtually impossible to tell the difference. They even have almost identical chemical structures. Despite all the similarities, there is a growing gulf in price, resale value, and overall desirability for lab-created diamonds vs. natural diamonds.
Natural diamonds are created by nature, as a result of intense heat and pressure, formed over the course of billions of years. Lab-grown diamonds are created in a laboratory, and often produced in just a matter of weeks. There is a tiny chemical difference between the two, as natural diamonds often contain a very small amount of nitrogen, while synthetic diamonds do not. This is the only inherent difference though – even the US Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, classes man-made diamonds as “real” diamonds, due to the gem’s carbon-based chemical makeup.
To the look, to the touch, and chemically, lab-created diamonds are almost identical to “real” or natural diamonds. Following is the comparison:
- Lab diamonds are different from natural diamonds in that they are artificially created – man-made in a laboratory, instead of naturally produced on the earth, like regular diamonds.
- There is a tiny chemical difference between the two, as natural diamonds often contain a very small amount of nitrogen, while synthetic diamonds do not.
- They are also cheaper, and some consider them a more environmentally conscious choice. However, the long-term value of lab diamonds is significantly lower than natural diamonds.
- Lab diamonds are as strong and as hard as natural diamonds, both scoring a 10 on the Mohs scale of hardness.
- Lab diamonds carry the same shine and sparkle, the same color and clarity as mined diamonds.
There is no difference, other than the creation process. Diamonds that are grown in a lab feature many different benefits that add to their value and are equally as beautiful as diamonds found on the earth. But beauty isn’t the only thing that lab-grown diamonds have going for them. Lab-grown diamonds have many benefits that appeal to consumers.
Less Manufacturing Time
Lab-grown diamonds are created with a process that mirrors what occurs in nature, but without the massive environmental and ethical harm. What happens beneath the Earth’s surface is replicated in a lab using advanced technologies. The process takes between six and ten weeks, and yields diamonds that are ready to be cut and polished, then graded and certified by the same gemologists at organizations that certify mined diamonds. Lab-grown diamonds are created in a tiny fraction of the time it takes natural diamonds to form, which results in lower costs.
The price of lab-created diamonds tends to be less than mined diamonds. However, this does not mean that a lab-created diamond is “cheap.” In fact, the capital costs for lab-grown and mined diamonds are pretty similar. The cost of lab diamonds is still in constant flux. Just 3-4 years ago, we found lab diamonds on average 23-25% more expensive than natural diamonds. Today, lab diamonds are coming in significantly cheaper than natural diamonds. From 50-60% cheaper, or even more in some cases.
Mined diamonds and lab-created diamonds have the exact same costs when it comes to cutting, polishing, and inspection. However, up to that point, the costs and processes are very different. Mined diamonds have a long supply chain.
Getting a diamond from its raw form to a retail-ready gemstone requires miners, distributors, cutters, polishers, jewelry manufacturers, and retailers. On the flip side, the lab-created diamond supply chain is much shorter by skipping the mining process. To put it simply, a lab-created diamond touches fewer hands, making it ultimately less expensive. The lab-grown diamonds can be up to 40% less expensive than traditionally mined diamonds of the same quality. In fact, it is actually in the interest of the growers to minimize the amount of energy they use in the process to save money and decrease their costs.
Better Quality for the Price
Lab-grown diamonds are made in a controlled environment, although each diamond will differ in a quality similar to mined diamonds. Every lab diamond is graded using the 4Cs of Diamond Quality: cut, color, clarity, and carat weight. This is true for both lab diamonds and mined diamonds. The price of a diamond is determined based on how it performs in each of these categories. So while no two diamonds will be exactly the same, whether lab-grown or pulled from the earth, you can get better quality for the same amount you would spend on a mined diamond. Synthetic diamonds are now cheaper, easier to produce, and likely more sustainable and ethical than mined ones. But some consumers still prefer traditional gemstones.
Better design and lower prices are the top reasons why customers pick lab-made diamonds over their naturally occurring counterparts. While working for General Electric in 1954, physical chemist H. Tracy Hall created the first synthetic diamonds that could be reproduced commercially. They weren’t meant for jewelry, but rather as industry-oriented abrasives. Since then, the technology to “grow” lab-made diamonds has become more advanced and less costly. Lab-grown diamonds of “gem-grade” are easier than ever to manufacture and make up a small but steadily growing portion of the diamond trade — about 4-6%, according to Zimnisky.
The difference in resale value between natural and synthetic diamonds is even greater than the difference in price. While natural diamonds often retain around 50% of their initial value, lab-created diamonds are almost impossible to resell without accepting pennies on the dollar. You lose a massive percentage of its value the moment you make the purchase.
One of the major benefits of lab-grown diamonds is that you know exactly where the diamond originated. Many traditional mined diamonds come from conflict regions. This has raised both ethical and humanitarian concerns. The diamond industry has been linked to child labor, poor working conditions, human rights violations, and funding for armed conflicts. With lab-grown diamonds, you can have peace of mind knowing your diamond wasn’t involved in the blood diamond trade.
Indeed, the environmental and humanitarian harms of diamond mining are closely intertwined. Some diamond mines employ miners for low wages in unsafe conditions. Even diamonds extracted in accordance with the Kimberley Process, established in the early 2000s to reduce the trade in conflict diamonds, can have obscured origins. A source in the conflict resources team at the non-governmental organization Global Witness, who wishes not to be named to protect their identity, says that there are many holes in the process. “The definition of a ‘conflict diamond’ as the Kimberley Process sees it is a diamond which is funding an armed group which is trying unseat a legitimate government,” she says.
Over the years, the links between mined diamonds and human rights abuses have evolved far beyond that definition. “The Kimberley Process has failed to keep up,” she adds.
Further down the supply chain, things get murkier still, as once a stone is cut and polished it is no longer tracked by the Kimberley Process. Diamonds pass through multiple trading hubs on their journey from mine to shop and often end up mixed with diamonds from other countries of export. The result is that even among diamonds with Kimberley Process certification, many companies cannot trace the diamonds they use back to their country of origin. A 2018 report from Human Rights Watch, which investigated major jewelers including Bulgari, Pandora, Cartier, and Tiffany & Co, says, “None of the companies can identify all of their diamonds’ individual mines of origin.”
But there is also concern that the demand for lab diamonds could take away jobs from resource-rich developing countries.
Smaller Environmental Impact
Mining diamonds has a tremendous impact on the environment. Between 88,000 and 176,000 pounds of dirt must be sifted through to find a single 1-carat diamond. While the diamond industry, or rather one company, in particular, has pushed the false belief that diamonds are rare, we now know the truth. Diamonds are not rare. Never have been and never will be thanks to advanced technology.
However, lab-created diamonds are inherently and significantly less detrimental to the environment as it takes considerably less energy to grow a diamond in a lab than it does to dig it out of the ground.
A report from the Diamond Producers Association claims that natural diamonds are, in fact, better for the environment than synthetic diamonds, due to the carbon-intensive process of producing lab diamonds. All in all, it appears there is not a consensus just yet on whether lab diamonds are actually a more sustainable option.
Through careful controls of its CVD production, WD Lab Grown Diamonds was just granted a Certification Standard for Sustainable Diamonds by the global audit and standards firm SCS Global Services. The first certificate of its kind granted, gives WD the authority to use claims of “Certified Sustainable” and “Certified Climate Neutral” for their as-grown diamonds.
The largest US producer, Diamond Foundry, says its process is “100% hydro-powered, meaning zero emissions”, by using renewable energy sources.
But lab diamonds are not without fault. A distinct lack of transparency makes it difficult to source accurate data to compare the carbon footprints of mined and lab diamonds, but the energy needed to produce a lab diamond is significant. One report on the topic, commissioned by the Diamond Producers Association, suggests that the greenhouse gas emissions produced by mining natural diamonds are three times less than those created when growing diamonds in a lab.
Figures published by Diamond Foundry suggest that the total environmental footprint of mined diamonds is much higher than lab diamonds. “It takes an entire factor more energy to extract an underground diamond from Earth than it takes to create one above ground… On top of this, the energy used in mining is generally dirty diesel versus renewable energy in our above-the-ground production,” says a blog post on their website.
But the environmental damage from diamond mining goes further than simply its carbon emissions. Diamond mining has been linked to the pollution of water sources used by local people due to acid mine drainage. This occurs when minerals from the mined rocks seep into the water supply. The University of Waterloo in Canada describes it as “one of the mining industry’s top environmental liabilities”. Although acid mine drainage is not exclusively a problem for the diamond industry – it occurs at many metal and coal mines too – researchers at the University of Waterloo have been working with the Diavik diamond gem mine in Canada’s Northwest Territories to reduce this pollution from waste rock. Mining has also caused the destruction of habitats in Canada and beyond. In 2016, The Wall Street Journal reported that De Beers had killed over 18,000 fish draining a Canadian lake for diamond mining. In India, diamond mines have been blamed for placing highly endangered tiger populations under further pressure.
Lab-grown diamonds are identical to mined diamonds. Even to the trained eye, it is impossible to tell the difference between a diamond grown in a lab and an earth-mined diamond. Distinguishing between the two requires a trained gemologist and sophisticated equipment specifically designed for identifying lab-grown diamonds. Traditional observations and diamond detectors cannot tell the two kinds of diamonds apart from one another since they are identical both chemically and optically. So, a lab-grown diamond and a mined diamond will look the same and you won’t be able to tell the difference because they’re identical in every way.
Are Lab-Grown Diamonds Forever?
There are plenty of reasons to choose lab-grown diamonds or natural ones, but experts say that neither will win out any time soon.
First produced in the early 1950s, synthetic diamonds are cheaper to manufacture and purchase than ever before.
- Meghan Markle even sported lab-grown diamond earrings on a London outing.
- Leonardo DiCaprio, meanwhile, has thrown his weight behind a lab-grown diamond company, the Diamond Foundry.
The market for lab-grown diamonds increased as much as 20% in 2019, according to Bain and Company, a management consulting firm. Still, it remains unclear just how synthetic diamonds will carve out their place in the jewelry world —- but diamond experts harbor strong opinions.
Many of the world’s manufactured diamonds also come from countries that mine them. According to Niraj Sojitra, they’re here to stay. Sojitra manages a lab-grown diamond business called Unique Lab Grown Diamond. They grow their gemstones in India and have offices in four countries. When Sojitra started the business seven years ago, they saw it as the future of diamond jewelry. “In the world population, how many people can afford a natural diamond? It’s like, 2-5% maximum,” he says. “So we were thinking about the largest scheme for people who cannot afford natural diamonds.”
Recently, lab-grown diamonds have gained legitimacy as:
- Bigger companies like De Beers and Pandora began selling them.
- GIA, a major accrediting body, began to certify lab-grown diamonds.
The traditional diamond industry argues that natural diamonds provide jobs for people in developing nations, and emphasize lab-grown diamonds’ environmental toll (the energy used to power diamond plants). This business plans to transition into solar power to run the India-based labs within the next few years. And there are people handling the machines. So, it is better to work in an air-conditioned office and handle the machines, rather than going down and digging in the earth.
However, the marketing of the “natural” diamond still influences our collective imagination and stirs our desire for a good story.
- Michael Fried, CEO of an online diamond exchange called The Diamond Pro, says that customers who choose natural diamonds want to feel like they’re buying something special. “They’re driven to the story of something that’s been in the ground for billions of years that’s been forged over time,” he says. “It all pulls on people’s heartstrings in a certain way.”
- Coan, meanwhile, feels that synthetic diamonds won’t be able to fulfill that need. “I don’t think natural diamonds will ever lose their place above synthetics, because in the mind’s eye we equate it with Frankenstein,” Coan says. “Diamonds truly appeal to the mystery, the lore. Diamonds truly are forever — nothing comes close to a diamond.”
Though younger diamond buyers at his online store are interested in making a more “ethical” purchase, ultimately it’s not always up to them — but rather, who is paying for it. Millennials and Gen Z are 100% more interested in lab-grown diamonds. More and more young people are interested in making what they see as a more ethical choice. It’s pocket-friendly for most people, especially the millennials.
- Major companies have started selling synthetic ones, possibly sensing that the tide has turned. The market says otherwise: As synthetic sales grew in 2019, Bain & Company predicted that rough and polished diamond sales would decline by 25-10%.
Even if certain consumers’ preferences for the natural version linger, the Earth has a finite amount of profitable diamonds which some speculate may run out by around 2050, or at least bring dramatic supply gaps in coming decades. In 2019, Bain & Company foresaw an 8% annual decrease in natural diamond supply beginning in 2021, a shortage now likely amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. Ultimately, the natural diamond industry can’t possibly keep mining forever.
There is no question that lab-created diamonds are enticing. After all, you can get a stunning 2.15ct diamond like this for less than $7,000. And while it will look the same as this gorgeous natural 2ct diamond, the doubt is whether it will stand the test of time the way natural diamonds have. Both of these are beautiful 1.01ct H VS2 Excellent cut diamonds. One is lab-created and costs $1,250. One is mined and costs $4,940. Choose the diamond you like better and see if you are a pro!
Emotion trumps Economics
People don’t buy diamond jewelry only for its investment value. It’s an emotional purchase and that is where its true value lies.
“The industry has consistently sold diamond jewelry based on the concept that the diamond is consistently appreciating. That is absolutely false,” ALTR’s Shah states. “It’s the emotional value. That value is retained in the individual piece of jewelry and it is not the sum of the individual parts.”
To consumers, there is no visible difference between a mined or lab-grown stone in terms of quality. The only observable difference is in size and cost and lab-grown beat natural in that regard. Perhaps the mined diamond industry has nobody to blame but itself that consumers perceive the bigger the stone, the greater the emotional investment. And that is why more jewelry retailers are carrying lab-grown and more consumers are looking for them.
He adds that at least 50% of independents and nearly all the major retailers now offer lab-grown and many high-end and premium brands will be selling them soon. “That’s because they are a great value for the consumer and more margin for the retailer,” he concludes.
Hence, we believe that natural diamonds and lab-grown diamonds can wonderfully coexist and grow the overall diamond market. There’s a clear demand for each type of product.
When it comes to jewelry, Neuhaus says that the real value in diamonds, mined or lab-grown, is not really about price or rarity. “It’s more about the emotional value,” she says. For this reason, as long as diamonds hold their emotional resonance, jewel
ers will continue to sell them, both lab-grown and mined.
Consumers want an alternative: Lab-grown diamonds
Consumer confidence in the product has been growing on a consistent basis, leading to where the industry is today. Acknowledging that diamonds of all kinds are an aspirational product, with offerings from luxury brands out of reach for about 95% of consumers, the attention lab-grown diamonds are getting in the market and the excitement they are generating will only be good for the entire industry. This reduction in cost and increased availability to a wider audience is going to increase the width of the consumer base. It opens a new category for the customer and the industry. That is a beautiful thing.
Jewelers and retailers need the extra margin that lab-grown diamonds offer and he sees the next five to ten years as a pivotal time as costs continue to decline. Right now the margins remain good for lab-grown and demand continues to grow, especially among younger consumers who are increasingly concerned about (ESG) environmental, social and corporate responsibility. Lab-grown diamonds are a rapidly growing trend in the industry. Young diamond buyers are drawn to them by price, transparency, and environmental reasons, with this segment of the market increasing by between 15% to 20% annually, according to the AWDC report.
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