fashion

If you fancy a cheap engagement ring, here's what you need to know about man-made diamonds.

It took a lot for diamonds to get here.

They started life as carbon roughly one to three billion years ago, more than 150km beneath the surface. All the heat and pressure down there squashed that carbon into a solid, and those solids were shoved toward the surface by a deep-source volcanic eruption, meaning we humans could dig ’em up, give ’em a good ol’ polish and use ’em to decorate our bodies.

But that process, literally billions of years in the making, is now being disrupted.

Technological advancements have allowed scientists to create real diamonds artificially. These gems have the same chemical and physical composition as traditional, mined diamonds, but they’re produced in a lab or factory in a matter of weeks.

Video by Mamamia

Gemmologists typically refer to these stones as ‘synthetic diamonds’, but the broader jewellery industry tends to use terms like lab-grown, man-made or even ‘created’ diamonds to avoid giving consumers the (false) impression that they’re fake.

Whatever you call them, these gems are making their mark.

Over the past five years in particular, lab-grown diamond manufacturers have been producing diamonds of such quality and affordability that the boss of one of the largest — Diamond Foundry’s CEO Martin Roscheisen — has boldly claimed that sales of lab-grown diamonds could eclipse sales of mined ones by 2030.

Big call.

Yet even De Beers, the world’s largest and best-known diamond retailer, last year launched Lightbox, a line of fashion jewellery using laboratory-grown diamonds — a move that stunned the industry.

So why are people so excited about lab-grown diamonds? And why aren’t others?

PRO: They’re hard to distinguish from real thing.

The lab process mimics those high-temperature, high-pressure conditions that allow diamonds to form in nature. As Sydney gemmologist, Karen Lindley, told Mamamia, the result is diamonds that are almost impossible to distinguish without the use of specialist equipment.

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“Because these diamonds are chemically replicating natural diamonds and because they’re clear, it’s very hard to actually spot them with the natural eye,” she said. “The quality is the same, and some manufacturers are even making them with flaws to replicate natural diamonds.”

And the manufacturing process is improving all the time. In 2016, lab-grown diamond company MiaDonna announced its partners had grown a 6.28 carat gem-quality diamond, the largest created in the U.S. at that point.

 

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PRO: They’re conflict-free and have clear origins.

The term ‘blood diamond’ gained mainstream recognition thanks to the 2006 movie starring Leonardo di Caprio. It refers to diamonds that are mined in war zones and used to fund conflicts, rebellions and insurgencies, such as occurred in several west African nations including Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Of course, many retailers offer mined diamonds that are certified ‘conflict-free’. But the more direct factory-to-jeweller nature of lab-grown diamonds is also appealing to a lot of ethically conscious consumers.

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PRO: They’re sustainable and less harmful to the environment.

While it doesn’t use as many toxic chemicals as gold mining, for example, diamond mining can result in land degradation and soil erosion that can be detrimental to the local environment. Environmentalists also point to the emissions, water usage, fuel and energy consumption of mines.

Of course, factories also produce emissions, and there’s little in the way of comprehensive, independent research into which side of the industry is better.

But Dr Saleem Ali, Professor of Energy and Environment at the University of Delaware and author of one of the few papers, recently told JCK, “On the environmental side, there is no question that synthetic diamonds will be less impactful than mined diamonds.”

PRO: They’re cheaper. A lot cheaper.

The price of lab-grown diamonds has reduced dramatically over the past few years. These days they typically cost around 30-40 per cent less than a comparable mined diamond. And as technology improves and production ramps up, they’re only going to get cheaper.

The De Beers Lightbox range, for example, asks US$800 (AU$1,146) per carat, which is roughly 90 per cent cheaper than the mined equivalent.

CON: The word ‘cheap’ has never sold engagement rings.

The simple truths is that lab-grown diamonds don’t have a story. A forged-in-the-earth-over-billions-of-years kind of story.

The story told and sold by diamond brand De Beers back in the ’50s via the slogan, “Diamonds are forever”. The kind that means that we equate someone’s wealth/status to the size of a piece of sparkly rock they wear on their finger, which is where most gem-size/quality mined diamonds end up.

“As with other luxury goods, diamonds have an enormous social value,” University of Essex marketing professor, Paurav Shukla, noted via The Conversation. “To most consumers they are not just an item of acquisition, but something to show off. And if they are being bought as part of an engagement ring there is an element of showing how much you value the other person.”

Karen Lindley, who also owns a diamond retailer, likens them to a knock-off Louis Vuitton bag: “it has the same colours, the same stitching, it has the same leather — everything looks the same, but it’s not.”

Ultimately, she said, it comes down to the individual and what about the diamond is important to them: where it comes from, or what it looks like.

“There are some people that would rather spend $15,000 on a ring, and others who would rather have a $15,000 honeymoon and are happy to spend $2000 on a ring and fool everybody,” she said.

Tags: diamonds , explainer , fashion , features , jewellery
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