Man-made diamonds – has the allure been lost?
With the technology now in place to produce perfect diamonds in a lab, will this spell the end for the most expensive rock on the planet? EDGAR investigates.March 5, 2015
Here is a recipe: take a seed, the tiniest slither of carbon material and put it into a chamber. Add varying amounts of gases, including a carbon source. Heat to a very high temperature to produce a plasma, in which the gases break down and carbon molecules attach themselves to the seed, causing it to grow.
Let your CVD, or Chemical Vapour Deposition, simmer for anywhere between a few days and a few weeks. Remove gases. Remove the now larger seed from the chamber and crack it open. Congratulations, you have now done what it takes nature billions of years to do: you have made a diamond.
The theory has been understood for over a century: one Henri Moissan attempted to make diamonds back in the 1890s. But in recent years it has become a reality, and in 2013 just such elemental cookery was used to produce the first virtually flawless, white, carat-sized stone. “And that makes it a milestone,” says Clive Hill, the CEO of its maker, Washington Diamonds.
“A lot of people in the diamond industry have been keen to view such lab-grown diamonds as marginal. But this stone is unknockable, unignorable. Quality lab-grown diamonds have arrived.” Such is the cachet derived from the rarity of diamond – the product of long searches for sites of potential, followed by intensive mining to find maybe very little (not to mention its mystique of being the hardest and one of the most thermally conductive substances known to man) – that the idea of being able to grow one seems the stuff of science fiction, or a Hollywood thriller.
Certainly, the story of how the idea had its modern revival reads like it too: a retired American army officer visits Moscow to buy a new electronic security device, but while he is there a scientist, Dr. Boris Feigelson, takes him aside to show him the blueprints for something else, something developed for the Soviet space programme: a tumble-dryer-sized device that, yes, makes diamonds. General Carter Clarke cannot believe his eyes, immediately buys three, ships them back to America and founds Gemesis Cultured Diamonds, making it a market pioneer.
The problem of the initial process was that, as a consequence of the nitrogen content of the gases used, it could only produce coloured diamonds – canary yellows, sometimes lavenders and pinks. If that could be called a problem – after all, in nature coloured diamonds are rarer than the white variety. But now that has been overcome.
In 2012 Gemesis also broke some ground by producing the largest, whitest, lab-created emerald-cut diamond to date – at 1.29 ct, E colour and VVS2 clarity, for those who like their gemstone specs. In more layman’s terms, and in the alchemist’s dream, this is precisely the kind of diamond that is extremely hard to find in nature. Indeed, every lab-made diamond has one characteristic lauded in mined diamonds: each is flawless. And, what is more, each is around 25% the cost of its mined equivalent.
Add in that lab-made diamonds have none of the environmental impact of mined diamonds, nor are associated with devastating African wars, and, unsurprisingly, those few companies that make their money from mined diamonds have been less than supportive of the idea. They often, for example, inaccurately refer to lab-made diamonds as ‘synthetic’ diamonds, despite the fact that they are not cubic zircona or glass, but chemically identical to diamonds out of the ground, as court cases have had to underline.
So is that it for the almost supernatural aura with which we have imbued a substance which, bar a small twist of chemistry – carbon atoms connecting in super-strong, ultra-hard 3D bonds rather than in layers – is little different from the soft graphite in your pencil? Neil Duttson, of London-based independent ethical diamond dealers Duttson Rocks, is not so sure. He argues there will always be a demand for natural diamonds – indeed, some clients are banking on it, buying them up as long-term investment vehicles.
“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, but there are already machines to tell one from the other.” In the longer term, there is likely to be increased acceptance of the lab-made variety: there was, to draw an illustrative parallel, similar resistance to cultured pearls when they were first created, and now they, not deep-dive pearls, account for the vast majority of all pearls sold.
But in the short term, the diamond market will divide: between those shoppers for whom increasingly influential green-thinking or price is a leading consideration, for which lab-grown diamonds might be said to have a democratising effect, and those for whom the emotional content of a mined diamond – the fact that it has been created by awe-inspiring natural forces over countless eons – remains important.
It is, perhaps, akin to the commonly-made distinction between a factory-made and a hand-made product. “A real man buys a real diamond”, as one rather misleading ad campaign has put it. Protecting some of the fragile magic that society has imbued diamonds with – from Marilyn Monroe singing about a “girl’s best friend”, to Superman forging them with his bare hands, to rap culture and bling – will be important for the lab-made variety too, in order to keep prices up to sufficient levels to cover the costs of what remains an expensive manufacturing process.
One fear, as Tom Chatham suggests, is that there is also the potential for the new lab-grown diamond sector to implode – through makers after a quick buck rushing out large quantities of low-quality lab-made diamonds rather than, as the mined diamond sector and DeBeers in particular has so successfully done, delicately managing both supply and public image alike. Chatham might well know. It was his father, Carroll, who in 1934 developed one of the first processes for creating lab-made emeralds, some decades before making diamonds became feasible. Such coloured gems are rarer in nature than diamonds (“for sheer rarity factor, we’ve put the wrong gem on the pedestal,” he says) although in lower demand relative to diamonds – thanks to propaganda building their association with expressions of romantic love and the tradition of using them in engagement rings.
But that didn’t stop Russian makers over-producing lab-made emeralds soon after the break-up of the Soviet Union, much as before them Chinese makers uncovered the technique devised by Mikimoto in Japan to make cultured pearls and short-sightedly did the same. Small wonder then that, to return to our Hollywood thriller, diamond manufacturers are highly secretive about the details of their particular processes. “The various manufacturers don’t share information,” explains Chatham.
“There have been various leaks from other companies that have helped – people like to brag about how it’s done, or they give tours of their facilities, which I wouldn’t do. But really a lot of kitchen secrets go into making quality lab-made 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 that make it work.”
The real upshot of that work may not be clear for decades. By some accounts, mined diamonds are set to become ever rarer – as no major new sites for exploration have been uncovered and the expense of removing the diamonds from the ground becomes prohibitive. “The whole market is touchy about lab-made diamonds now, even some of our oldest customers, who are OK with buying our emeralds, rubies and sapphires, don’t want the diamonds,” says Chatham.
“They don’t buy lab-made ones because they don’t have to – yet. They can’t sell a good natural emerald anyway, because it’s already way too expensive. That’s not the case with diamonds. And there is supply. For the moment. But we could be out of mined diamonds within 40 years. The supply isn’t endless. The problem for lab-made diamonds at the moment is that the industry can’t produce enough stones at the right price to take full advantage of the growing awareness of them. But we’re on the verge of cracking that.” Furthermore, the debate as to how lab-made diamonds may or may not revolutionise the jewellery industry may be missing the point. What may prove of far greater significance could be the application of diamonds in technology. According to Chatham, some seven billion carats of softer, lower-grade diamonds are already made each year for industrial purposes, their special properties making them ideal for cutting in particular. But, upgraded to the quality now feasible, diamonds could also be used more readily in semi-conductors, optical devices, water purification systems, high-powered lasers and other electronics of tomorrow.
Never mind the radical change to the world wrought by the silicon chip. The so-called diamond chip could be key to making quantum computing a reality, with machines operating at speeds exponentially faster than current hardware. “In fact, one reason I got into this business was that I have a touch of geek about me,” says Washington Diamonds’ Clive Hill, who also works in wind power generation. “And the potential for lab-made diamonds in applications are extremely exciting – it gives me goose bumps. They could really change the world. I’d say that within a decade diamond products will be part of many of the technologies we use every day.”
Such a timeline may prove ambitious. Mike McMahon is CEO of lab-made diamond maker Scio Diamond Technology Corporation, which, since launching four years ago, has run at capacity without yet having had to pitch for orders. It uses a process that super-heats the seed under low pressure, introduces methane and hydrogen and then bombards the mix with microwaves to create a plasma that releases carbon atoms, which one by one coalesce to build the diamond.
He says the trick will be less about understanding the science, nor even about making diamonds of sufficient quality or even size or shape – Scio has already devised ways of combining diamonds to create a 29-carat piece, albeit one that was two years in the making. It will be doing so at sufficient speed and in sufficient quantities to fit the hard economics of Big Tech’s business plan. “There has been a tremendous amount of R&D over the last 50 years into what is needed to take various technologies forward and the realisation is that diamond is the material that will take it there,” says McMahon.
“The knowledge is there but nobody has yet figured out a way of supplying, say, Intel with enough diamonds to make the creation of a diamond chip viable. They would want thousands, not one or two. Lab-made diamond manufacturers have gone through tens of millions of dollars understanding the science of what they do, but not how to make a business out of it. But we’re at an embryonic stage. In 50 years it could all be very different.”
By then, of course, when diamonds of sufficient quality, clarity and hardness can be mass-produced, the implications for the jewellery market will as likely be as profound as that for technology. Quite what standing the diamond will have as a gesture, status item or cultural icon then nobody yet knows. Certainly it is revealing that, for all that the mined diamond industry considers it useful now to portray lab-made diamonds as second-class, one of the players in this field, Element 6, presently a maker of diamonds for industrial use, is part of the DeBeers Group. “For now you have a tricky marketing situation if your heritage is attached to natural diamonds,” as Chatham notes.
“But I think they’re just waiting, so the next decade is going to be very interesting.” Perhaps the worst case scenario – at least for jewellers – would be a situation in which quality, cheap and plentiful lab-made diamonds transform the very way we live, while costing mined diamonds their carefully constructed allure altogether. “Lab-grown diamond is a destructive technology for many aspects of the industry,” as McMahon puts it, with the suggestion that this may not be any great shame. “Look, DeBeers and others in the mined diamond industry have done a wonderful job of making a rock out of the ground worth millions. It’s certainly cost me dearly in terms of presents for my wife and daughter. But, you know, to me it’s still just a frickin’ rock.”