As a symbol of expressing love, romance and commitment, very few precious stones come close to diamonds. Whether brilliantly sparkling on a newlywed’s finger, glittering on a collarbone, or confidently twinkling on an earlobe, diamonds dazzle with their luminous beauty. They imbue the wearer with glamour and style and symbolise a sense of permanence to any union. For generations, they’ve always been favoured family heirlooms with high resale value.
BUT FIRST, SOME HISTORY
Formed deep within the Earth for billions of years, where conditions of intense heat and pressure cause carbon atoms to crystallise, each diamond has a distinctive look. Tiny “birthmarks” called inclusions set one gem apart from another – just like fingerprints – making diamonds all the more precious.
The earliest diamonds were mined in India around 4BC and were common commodities on the Silk Road trade route between the East and the West. In addition to being used as prized adornment, diamonds were also used for cutting tools and were regarded as potent talismans to ward off evil and provide protection in battle.
In South Africa, diamonds were first discovered in 1867 along the Orange River in the Cape Colony, triggering a frenzied diamond rush by prospectors dreaming of fabulous riches. Soon Kimberley became the epicentre of diamond mining. By the 1880s, the town had a large concentration of wealth and was also the stage for fierce rivalries between Cecil John Rhodes and Barney Barnato, the two larger-than-life randlords who profited handsomely from diamond mining.
What’s taken the earth billions of years to create in the harshest of environments; it takes roughly two months to create a diamond in the lab from start to finish.
Today, the diamond trade is as lucrative as ever. More than 10 million people are directly employed in various roles of the trade from mining and polishing the gems, to distributing them and in retail. Major diamond-producing countries include Sierra Leone, Namibia, Botswana, Angola, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Russia and Canada. Dominant diamond mining firms include Alrosa, the De Beers Group and Rio Tinto.
AND THEN THE DEBATES KICK OFF…
Today, mined diamonds and those produced in the laboratory divide opinion in terms of authenticity and value. Diamonds produced in the lab, also known as synthetic diamonds or lab-grown diamonds, are remarkably similar to natural diamonds. In fact, sometimes the naked eye battles to tell the difference between these two kinds of stones. That’s because the creation of synthetic diamonds mimics the formation of natural diamonds deep below the Earth’s crust.
To create a synthetic diamond, using specialised equipment, scientists place carbon under high-pressure and high temperature to form a diamond crystal. Another process of lab-creating a diamond is through chemical vapour deposition, whereby scientists take a small “seed” of diamond crystal and grow it, layer by layer, in a chamber. In the end, lab-grown diamonds have the same physical, chemical and optical properties as mined diamonds.
The technology used to create diamonds in the lab has been around since the early 1950s and was mainly used to create enhanced cutting tools. Due to decreased costs and technological advancements, this ground-breaking technology can now be used to create jewellery. What’s taken the earth billions of years to create in the harshest of environments; it takes roughly two months to create a diamond in the lab from start to finish.
But are lab-created diamonds real? Can consumers adorn themselves with these manufactured gemstones and still feel proud? Natural diamond enthusiasts highlight the rarity and enduring value of the gemstones. The fact that they have been embedded in the soil for billions of years and provide a huge positive socioeconomic contribution in diamond-producing countries are also enduring draw cards for natural diamonds.
However, gemologists and other proponents of lab-grown diamonds believe their physical properties make them desirable alternatives. “From our perspective, synthetic diamonds are diamonds,” says Stephen Morisseau, a spokesman for the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), a non-profit organisation that oversees the international diamond grading system. “They’re not fakes. They’re not cubic zirconias. They have all the same physical and chemical properties of a mined diamond.”
More than 10 million people are directly employed in various roles of the trade from mining and polishing the gems, to distributing them and in retail.
For some, the creation of diamonds in the lab is a sparkling idea for a variety of reasons. Many consumers, particularly of a younger generation, consciously opt for lab-grown stones in favour of natural ones because they worry about the harm that diamond mining does to the environment. Secondly, lab-made diamonds minimise the problem of consumers buying gemstones bloodied by strife – also called blood diamonds.
Diamonds produced in the lab, also known as synthetic diamonds or lab-grown diamonds, are remarkably similar to natural diamonds
In 2003, the diamond industry established the Kimberley Process, which requires that any diamond purchased by gemstone dealers or jewellers are accompanied by a certificate guaranteeing that said stone doesn’t originate from an illegitimate source.
Thirdly, some lab-grown diamond businesses claim that their products address, to a degree, the problem of middlemen, who stand accused of exploiting poor miners in developing countries by paying far less for the stones they buy. Lastly, in a depressed global economy, lab-grown diamonds are attractive because they’re significantly more cost effective than natural diamonds.
The De Beers Group, which sells both laboratory-grown diamonds, through a subsidiary called Lightbox Jewelry in the US, and natural diamonds, strongly asserts that natural diamonds generate far greater positive impact than laboratory-grown ones, and offer far better long-term value – both to consumers, and to the countries and communities from which the diamonds were recovered.
They’ve made their stance crystal-clear by stating: “It’s a common misconception that lab-grown diamonds are more ethical or environmentally friendly than natural diamonds. The natural diamond industry generates more than US$16-billion of net socioeconomic and environmental impact in the world each year, while the lab-grown diamond sector provides nothing like this level of positive impact. Whether it’s supporting the livelihoods of millions of people each year, managing hundreds of thousands of hectares of conservation land, investing in community development or supporting socioeconomic progress in diamond-producing countries, the natural diamond industry is a huge force for good globally.”
But are lab-created diamonds real? Can consumers adorn themselves with these manufactured gemstones and still feel proud?
IT ALL COMES DOWN TO DISCLOSURE
Advocates of lab-grown diamonds and natural ones agree that disclosure to consumers about the origin of diamonds is critical. The De Beers Group launched Lightbox Jewelry "to help address widespread consumer confusion about lab-grown diamonds – what they are, what they aren’t, how they are valued, and so on – and to help ensure that consumers weren’t misled into believing that lab-grown diamonds were the same as natural diamonds. Lightbox is focused on being clear and honest with consumers about selling a product that is different from natural diamonds.”
In recent months, the US government wrote to the manufacturers of lab-grown diamonds demanding that they disclose in their marketing whether their diamonds were mined or synthetic.
When it comes to long-term value of the two kinds of stones, the balance of forces in this great diamond debate tilts towards natural diamonds.
Again, the De Beers Group in unequivocal in stating that “when it comes to our most precious moments and emotions, there is an innate human need to have something equally inherently precious to mark them. Natural diamonds offer this because they’re finite and rare. Each one is unique, they predate life on our planet and carry secrets of the Earth’s journey through time, and they endure in value.
“While lab-generated diamonds are pretty and sparkly, they’re not meaningful in the same way as natural diamonds, and their value doesn’t endure. People don’t desire crystallised carbon to celebrate life’s key moments – they want diamonds. They want something that has enduring value in the same way as their feelings.”
Not even the reasonable price tag of synthetic diamonds has made any real dent in the appeal or pricing of natural diamonds. At the moment, very few jewellers will buy back your lab-grown diamond. According to the De Beers Group, “natural diamonds are finite in supply and so their rarity influences their pricing. With lab-grown diamonds, there’s a potentially limitless supply. As products of technology, their prices are expected to fall as production costs decline and supply increases.”
In the end, whether you opt to declare your love with a masterpiece forged by nature or made by a guy in a lab coat, what you can afford will always inform your decision-making.