Can man-made diamonds compete with the real deal?
(CNN) — “That,” says Clive Hill of a white, carat-sized diamond, “is a milestone. This stone is unknockable, unignorable.”
Indeed, the stone, and those that have followed, are making waves in an industry whose product appeal has been built on carefully controlled supply and artfully manufactured notions of romance.
Hill is the CEO of WD Lab Grown Diamonds. But his are not the kind that come out of the ground. His are created in a lab.
A slither of carbon material – known as a seed – is put into a chamber. Gases, including carbon, are added. They’re heated until a plasma forms, such that the gases break down and carbon molecules attach to the slither and, in a few days, it’s cracked open to reveal what nature takes billions of years to make.
Naysayers – and Hill expects the traditional diamond industry to offer up many of these – claim that it is not a real diamond. They call it synthetic.
But, he stresses, it’s chemically exactly the same as the mined variety, but has the advantage of being flawless, some 25% cheaper (and set to get cheaper still as the technology improves), and free of the ethical and environmental dilemmas associated with mining.
“Their worry,” as Hill puts it, “is purely commercial.”
That worry might well be set to grow.
WD Lab Grown Diamonds is not the only game in town. Scio Diamond Technology Corporation and Pure Grown Diamonds (formerly known as Gemesis) are among the other companies leading the field.
Pure Grown Diamonds, founded by retired US general Carter Clarke in 1996, pioneered this fledgling industry. While visiting Moscow to buy a new electronic security device, Clarke was taken aside by one Boris Feigelson, who showed him a washing machine-sized device developed for the Soviet space program.
It was a machine for making diamonds. (If ever someone is in need of a farfetched plot for an espionage thriller, there is it.)
In the short term, the question seems to be one of how quickly lab-grown diamonds will be accepted by the mainstream.
On one side is the argument that the difference between lab-grown and mined diamonds is no different to that between deep-dive and cultured pearls, where the latter – after some resistance – has become the standard choice for even the most upmarket of jewelers.
The mined diamond industry may not be too concerned because supply is good, but that’s now. Unless new technology allows access to untapped pipes, that may not always be the case.
On the other side, argues Neil Duttson, founder of London-based independent ethical diamond dealers Duttson Rocks, there will always be demand for the natural product, however much that is a product of marketing.
“Despite some fear in the industry that lab-made diamonds will somehow take over, they are just different. A different product for a different customer,” says Duttson. “All that’s really important is that lab-made is not passed off as natural.”
Building a market
Much of the natural product’s proposed superiority may come down to how lab-grown diamond makers build a market for their gems.
Tom Chatham of lab-grown gem producers Chatham notes that we have been here before.
His father developed one of the first processes for creating lab-grown emeralds, decades before diamonds were attempted. Russian makers soon over-produced them, pushing up the appeal of the natural variety, much as Chinese makers did after uncovering how to make cultured pearls.
“Still,” Chatham notes, “a lot of kitchen secrets go into the making of quality lab-grown diamonds. It’s not just about buying a diamond-making machine and switching it on. There’s a lot of physics, chemistry and special touches to make it work.”
Besides, in the longer term, the bigger impact of lab-grown diamonds may not be on what you have on your finger, so much as the speed of your computer.
Some 7 billion carats of softer, lower-grade diamonds are already made each year for industrial purposes, but diamonds of the quality now being proposed could, within a decade, be used to revolutionize such widespread technologies as water purification, high-powered lasers and optical devices.
They could also be a major step toward replacing the silicon chip with the diamond chip, which in turn might make quantum computing a reality.
“One reason I got into this business was that I have a touch of geek about me,” Hill says. “The potential for lab-made diamonds in applications are extremely exciting. It gives me goose bumps. They could really change the world.”
Top: These diamonds were grown in a lab. Photo: CNN
Inset: WD Lab Grown Diamonds founder Clive Hill inspects a rough lab-grown diamond. Photo: CNN
SOURCE: CNN’s Josh Sims