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Are we ready for synthetic diamonds made by science rather than nature?

Written by Sabrina Maddeaux

Illustration by Deshi Deng

 

There are few things in this world that compare to the dazzling beauty of a diamond. It’s why these rare stones have been worshipped for centuries by societies spanning every continent. In the first century AD, Roman naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder proclaimed, “Diamond is the most valuable, not only of precious stones, but of all things in this world.” Little has changed since then—until now.

 
 

For better or worse, humans have always been determined to play God. We’ve genetically engineered food, cloned sheep and learned how to edit DNA to eliminate disease and, more superficially, choose whether our offspring’s eyes are blue, green or brown. Now, we’re seeing the rise of lab-grown diamonds.

Not imitation diamonds. Real diamonds.

Known as engineered, synthetic or cultured diamonds, these stones are identical—if not superior—to the real deal. While the technology to create synthetic diamonds has been around since 1954, it’s only recently that diamonds made in a lab have become commercially viable and sought-after by discerning consumers. While lab-grown diamonds currently only account for a tiny portion of overall market share, they’re predicted to rise by almost 100 percent in the next eight years, totaling US$28.8 billion by 2023. The potential for disruption is huge.

Like diamonds harvested from the Earth, they’re pure carbon and shine just as bright. They also often have fewer impurities and defects than their natural counterparts. “They are visually identical to the highest quality mined diamonds; an experienced jeweler cannot tell them apart. Anyone who says otherwise is lying,” says Ada Diamonds CEO Jason Payne.

While there are several methods used to create synthetic diamonds, the most popular way is called Chemical Process Distribution (CVD). Essentially, scientists begin with a miniscule diamond “seed” and then use a microwave plasma oven or reactor to gradually grow a diamond one atom at a time. Creating a batch of commercially viable diamonds usually takes between ten to 12 weeks. They’re then cut into desired shapes by a high-powered laser and, like natural stones, polished by workers.

The best part? Engineered diamonds cost an average of 30 to 40 percent less than the real deal. Moreover, you can get more bang for your buck. Lab-grown diamonds offer increased opportunities for bespoke design, including not just shape and colour, but even inserting valued items like a lock of hair or a photo. Going a step further, companies like Ada Diamonds can create a custom diamond out of any meaningful item that’s carbon-based. This could include anything from your wedding bouquet to wine corks, documents or the cremated remains of a loved one. Ultimately, man-made diamonds can cost a whole lot less while actually increasing in sentimental value.

There are also the more intangible aspects of diamonds to consider—those you don’t see when glancing at the sparkling rock on your finger. The diamond industry has long been plagued with ethical and sustainability issues. Most people now know the term ‘blood diamond,’ partly brought into the public consciousness by the 2006 Leonardo DiCaprio film of the same name. Blood diamonds (also called conflict diamonds) are mined in war zones, often by slaves, and are used to finance invading armies or warlords. In contrast, well-paid scientists produce engineered diamonds and their proceeds benefit companies, not war criminals.

When it comes to sustainability, any sort of mining simply isn’t sustainable or eco-friendly. Mines often contribute to loss of habitats for both land and water-based animals, along with the emission of greenhouse gases. According to the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, northern communities in Canada have experienced the ill-effects of diamond mining, resulting in irreversible changes in water quality and destroyed habitats for fish, caribou and bears. This occurs even though Canada is a country with stricter mining regulations than most.

“Grown diamonds don’t undermine the sustainability of natural systems or our environment, allowing future generations to have the natural resources they need,” says a spokesperson for Pure Grown Diamonds, a company that claims to have grown the largest lab-made diamond in the industry, clocking in at 3.04 carats with a US $23,012 price tag. “They’re grown in a technologically advanced facility, using modest amounts of energy.”

Even with all the evidence pointing to engineered diamonds being a more viable option quality-wise, ethically and environmentally, it can be hard for consumers to digest the idea that something lab-made can be better than the version found in nature. It’s the opposite of what we’ve been trained to think when it comes to quality food, fashion and beauty products.

We’ve been conditioned over decades to place value on so-called natural products. This has led to a slow, verging-on-reluctant acceptance of similar man-made items; like faux fur, faux leather and lab-grown meat—even if they’re more ethical, sustainable and healthier than the real deal. It’s this mentality that the natural diamond industry hopes to capitalize on to fight off the rise of the synthetic alternative.

According to the 2016 global diamond industry report prepared by the Antwerp World Diamond Centre and Bain & Company, “Diamond industry participants are determined to reduce the threat from synthetics by marketing the emotional attributes of natural stones.” In this vein, key players recently formed the Diamond Producers Association (DPA) to promote the notion that natural is better. Many of their campaigns are targeted at millennials—the generation most likely to convert to engineered diamonds—and use slogans like #RealisRare while promoting paid content on YouTube alongside leading lifestyle websites. It’s campaigns like these that have some industry experts arguing that synthetic diamonds need a better name to succeed on a large scale in our authenticity-obsessed culture. Just hearing the words “synthetic” and “engineered” are enough to turn many potential customers off.

The increasing appeal of engineered diamonds has also influenced companies that mine diamonds to focus more closely on natural resource preservation, biodiversity, workers’ rights and their carbon footprint. Competition from labs hasn’t only disrupted how the natural diamond industry markets itself, but how it must manage its impact on communities and the environment to stay competitive.

Ultimately, engineered diamonds present jewelry buyers with a philosophical choice about what constitutes a diamond’s true value. Is it the sparkle and quality? Is it how the methods used to produce it impact the world? Or is it a deep-seeded instinct to value rare materials found in nature? As much as one can argue degrees of perfection and sustainability, for some consumers there’s just something that doesn’t feel right about man-made replicas. This is one area where the largely well-intentioned ‘green’ movement falls short. While, in many cases, natural and organic products are superior, it’s impossible and harmful to apply a one-size-fits-all mentality to all consumer goods.

By forcing us to ask ourselves these questions, synthetic diamonds not only have the potential to disrupt the diamond industry, but how we think about luxury, authenticity and consumption as a whole.