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Jewelry Blog: Engagement Rings
Are you too romantic for man-made diamonds?
Jul-21-2008
Are you a romantic? Does it please you to know that your diamond was forged millions of years ago deep in the heat and pressure of the Earth? The traditional diamond industry fervently hopes so because that's the pitch they intend to use to fend off the growing availability of gem-quality man-made diamonds.

At one time, the notion of a man-made diamond gem was a pipe dream fit only for con men to use in prying loose cash from those with more money than knowledge of science. Now, however, we stand at the beginning of a huge transformation in the diamond industry, as companies such as Apollo Diamonds, Chatham Created Gems and Gemesis have begun selling gems grown in their labs. These stones are no muddy brown lumps, either; they match the best naturals for clarity, color and size.

To make these, the industry has perfected the chemical vapor deposition method. In this process, a seed crystal of diamond is placed in a chamber in a 1300ºF plasma of hydrogen and methane. This provides the carbon that allows the diamond to grow, an atom at a time, until it reaches up to 10 carats in size. With this process, a carat stone can be grown in 12 hours.

As you can imagine, the prospects of such diamonds swamping the market has caused a controversy in the gem industry.

The first issue of contention is just what to call these gems. The Federal Trade Comission has declared that selling them without mention of their source would be considered deceptive, but have remained mum about their favored sobriquet. The Gemological Institute of America has adopted the term 'laboratory grown'.

Apollo, on the other hand, has adopted the word 'cultured', no doubt hoping to equate their process with the widely-accepted cultured pearl market. The mined diamond industry, however, prefers the word 'synthetic' with its more pejorative ring.

The second controversy is one of identification. While both man-made and mined diamonds are mostly carbon, mined diamonds usually also contain some nitrogen, while man-mades don't. The lack causes man-mades to appear more transparent under UV light, a differentiation jewelers can use to separate the two. De Beers, the 900 lb. gorilla of the diamond industry, has also developed testing equipment to identify man-made gems.

The manufacturers so far are trying to work within the system by laser engraving stones over one-quarter carat, and pricing them only slightly under mined stones. De Beers has also taken to engraving I.D. info on the girdles of their natural stones.

The real battle will take place in advertising, however. Expect De Beers and the mined diamond industry to spend big bucks to convince you, the consumer, that mined diamonds remain more valuable that manufactured ones.

They face an additional hurdle in this campaign, though -- the specter of blood diamonds. Public unease about the conditions under which their gems were mined and sold has driven some to seek out man-made diamonds.

Given that diamonds were a $143 billion business in 2006, the stakes in this controversy are huge. Last year, 400,000 carats of man-made gem diamonds hit the market, versus 130 million carts of mined stones. If this increases to the point that man-mades flood the market, causing the price of diamonds to plummet, everybody in the industry loses. I'm curious to see if De Beers is able to stem the tide. I'm curious to see how much you're willing to pay to own a natural diamond.
Posted by Tom B at 7:05 AM - Link to this entry  Share this entry
< Back to Engagement Rings Archives
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