When shopping for diamond earrings or a dazzling diamond engagement ring, you may come across retailers offering lab grown diamonds alongside real diamonds. From complex ethical histories to steep depreciation after purchase, it’s important to learn the basics of lab diamonds vs real diamonds before making your big purchase.
This guide will answer all of your burning questions about the synthetics and the real deal, so you can make an informed decision and be satisfied with your purchase for many years to come.
Sophistication and Sustainability
Whether they’re sparkling in the lush velvet folds of a jewelry box or adorning the stage-lit throats of Hollywood royalty, the elite appeal of glittering diamonds is deeply ingrained into our collective storytelling conscience.
Until very recently, all the diamonds that we were exposed to — either directly, or via a larger-than-life magazine spread — were mined from beneath the surface of the earth. Once discovered, these unpolished rocks would be carefully collected, screened, and shipped across the world to be further examined and cut into the mesmerizing jewels that captured the world’s imagination.
There were a lot of flaws with this process.
Science is trying to find another way. Now, more and more jewelry retailers are offering ethical, affordable, sustainable laboratory-grown alternatives to natural diamonds. These synthetic diamonds are virtually indistinguishable to the naked eye and align with a lot of positive contemporary values.
But are lab-grown diamonds really as good as natural ones? Are they a worthwhile investment? And are they truly as ethical as they claim? Let’s find out together.
What Are Lab Diamonds?
Laboratory grown diamonds are known in the jewelry industry as “synthetics”, which is honestly a bit of a misleading term because it sounds like a fancy word for “fake”. Lab diamonds are not fake. They are geologically and structurally identical to natural diamonds, only they’ve been grown in a controlled laboratory environment instead of deep within the earth.
Synthetic diamonds were first created in the 1950s, though only very small stones of very low quality suitable for industrial use. Over time, production methods and technology became more and more refined, and by the early 21st century, lab-grown diamonds had become a sustainable addition to the fine jewelry industry.
How Are Lab Grown Diamonds Made?
There are two processes gemologists use for growing synthetic diamonds:
- HPHT, which stands for “High-Pressure High Temperature”
- CVD, which stands for “Chemical Vapour Deposition”
The HPHT process most closely imitates what happens during a natural diamond formation. It begins by taking a tiny sliver of another diamond (called the “seed”) and placing it into a piece of raw carbon. Then it is exposed to intense pressure and heat of around 2000 degrees celsius. Naturally, this maturation process takes billions of years. In a controlled laboratory environment, it takes a few weeks for the diamond to fully form.
The CVD process was developed more recently and involves taking that same diamond seed and exposing it to carbon-rich gasses, like methane and hydrogen. The gas is then ionized and heated — essentially, microwaved — so that the carbon atoms stick to the diamond seed. After a few weeks of this process, the seed and the carbon atoms build up into a fully-formed diamond crystal.
As recently as thirty years ago it would have been unbelievable to imagine precise, consistent diamonds being made in the gemstone qualities we see today. Gemologists are always looking for ways to improve the development of lab grown diamonds, and we will certainly see more exciting discoveries in the years to come.
What Are the Differences Between Man-Made and Real Diamonds?
There are many different categories across which man made diamonds and natural diamonds can be compared. We’ve explored some of the common distinctions here, broken down by category.
Geologically, there is very little difference between lab grown diamonds and real diamonds. They’re both made out of pure carbon, they both share the same durability that makes them ideal for everyday wear (a 10 on the Mohs scale), and they both have the same optical properties that give them the sparkle and scintillation unmatched by other gemstones.
It is impossible to tell them apart with the naked eye, even by experienced jewelers.
The only way to know for sure if a diamond was grown synthetically is by looking at it under a microscope and examining the growth patterns. Although lab diamonds and natural diamonds are made of identical minerals, they are formed differently. Gemologists can examine these diamonds for trace evidence of the way the stone grew. Here is a picture of a rough natural diamond (left) and a rough laboratory grown diamond (right) side by side.
In terms of buying price, laboratory diamonds are the clear winner. Today, lab grown diamonds tend to be about 30% cheaper than natural diamonds of the same size and quality — and this gap appears to be increasing every year.
Resale price, on the other hand, is another story. Although natural diamonds do depreciate in value after purchase, you can count on getting back between twenty to sixty percent of your original investment if you do decide to resell it one day.
Once a lab created diamond has been sold, however, it becomes financially worth almost nothing. Although they are just as beautiful as natural ones, laboratory grown diamonds might be the worst long-term investment in luxury jewelry. This is something to consider if you think you might want a gemstone that comes with a bit of financial security.
Ethics and Sustainability
Now let’s talk about the number one reason that consumers and jewelry retailers are turning towards laboratory grown diamonds – sustainability.
The diamond industry has a rather shady history that’s impacted both the earth and the people living on it. Diamond mines are quite literally gigantic holes in the earth that can be seen from outer space, created with explosives and large-scale machinery and extremely dubious labor practices.
They’ve had a huge negative impact on local ecosystems, and money gained from diamond mining has been used to fund wars in Africa. It’s global issues like these that sparked the formation of the Kimberly Process, an organization that fights for transparency and accountability in the diamond industry.
Now, diamond miners, tradesmen, jewelers, and retailers are trying to find ways to do better… but we still have a long way to go.
Lab grown diamonds, on the other hand, use less water and energy than traditional diamond mining, and certainly less land. Most diamond labs pride themselves on the transparency of their manufacturing and supply processes.
Although the process is not flawless — diamond labs use an extraordinarily high amount of electricity — they are not damaging the earth and the many systems of life within it. For this reason, more and more young people are looking at lab created diamonds as something that aligns with their personal ethics.
And yet… it’s undeniable that natural diamonds have a grand tradition no modern alternative can match. They carry with them a legacy of prestige, of red carpets and yacht parties and heirlooms and family curses and memories of first love rendered in sepia tones by time. They create a sensory, cultural connection between the wearer and thousands of other women in the sparkling tapestry of story.
When De Beers said “diamonds are forever”, they might have meant that the durability of a diamond will ensure it lasts as long as your love. They might have meant that you and your partner will spend forever paying off the loan you took out to buy it.
Or, perhaps they meant that diamonds are forever, immutably, woven into our collective cultural memory. If being a part of this history feels important, a natural diamond might be the right choice for you.
What About Certification?
Like natural diamonds, synthetic diamond jewelry will usually come with a grading certificate. Because they are still relatively new to the market, however, the industry is constantly evolving and adapting.
When the Gemological Institute of America first began grading lab diamonds in the early 2000s it was mostly for identification purposes, to verify whether or not the stone was of natural origin. Rather than including specific grading criteria the way they did for natural diamonds — for example, “G color” — they would include a grading range, such as “near colorless”.
Around this time another gem lab, the International Gemological Institute, filled the gap by providing grading reports for lab grown diamonds. This was met with mixed relief and suspicion by jewelry retailers, since the IGI has a reputation for being less reliable in its grading standards than the GIA, the internationally accepted standard for gem grading. Today, many lab diamonds sold still come accompanied by IGI certificates.
In 2020, recognizing the shifting landscape and consumer demand, GIA announced that it would be amending its policy towards lab grown diamonds and now offers fully detailed grading reports. This is an exciting step forward for the future of the man made diamond industry.
What’s the Difference Between a Synthetic Diamond and a Simulant?
These are two very important industry terms that sound kinda similar and can easily trip you up if you’re not familiar with them.
A synthetic diamond – is a very real diamond that has been made by human beings in a controlled laboratory setting, rather than by the confluence of nature.
A simulant – is something that resembles a diamond but doesn’t share all or any of its geological properties. Glass cut to resemble a diamond is one example of a simulant. Cubic zirconia, moissanite, white sapphire, and white topaz are others. Many of these diamond alternatives have their own benefits and intrinsic values, but they are not diamonds.
So which is the right choice for you? Man made marvel or earthly treasure? A clean, ethical, sustainable jewel or a sparkling, luxurious heritage?
Lab created diamonds are on their way to overcoming the stigma around synthetics and becoming more and more popular with a new generation. If you’re shopping for a piece of diamond jewelry and want to do something to support a more sustainable direction for fine jewelry, consider a laboratory grown diamond (you’ll also save some money in the process!).
If, however, you want to be a part of a long, glittering history immortalized by people like Elizabeth Taylor and Mae West, you’ll be happy to know that more and more natural diamond retailers are looking to improve transparency in their supply chain and industry practices.
In the end, the perfect diamond is the one that you will love wearing, and that will encourage you to love yourself while wearing it.
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