Before we look at the fascinating story of the rise of lab-grown diamonds in the jewellery industry, we should establish what diamonds actually are. Naturally occurring diamonds are forged only when carbon is compressed under incredible crushing pressure that is combined with immense heat. These previously existed only in the Earth’s mantle at a depth of around 100 miles. Most diamonds were formed in a period stretching from 1 to 3 billion years ago when the Earth was even hotter on the inside than it is today.
The story of lab-grown diamonds, on the other hand, goes back to 1797 when it was first discovered that the much-coveted stones are composed of nothing but pure carbon. As countless wide-eyed alchemists had done before them when trying to create gold from other materials, scientists now began attempting to create artificial diamonds.
These efforts continued more or less unsuccessfully until the 1940s when diamonds were finally created artificially using methods known as ‘chemical vapour deposition’ and ‘high-pressure, high-temperature’. ’CVD’ and ‘HPHT’ for short. Both of these methods are still widely used today, especially when producing lower-grade diamonds for practical applications. Both involve ‘growing’ larger diamonds on the minuscule slither of an existing one, either by exposing pure graphite carbon to 1,500 degrees Celsius (HPHT) or by sealing the slither in a chamber filled with carbon-rich gas and heating it to 800 degrees Celsius (CVD).
The initial aim of producing artificial diamonds was primarily for their use in industrial settings. Being uniquely resistant to electricity and thermal conductivity they represent a tool that cannot easily be matched by other materials. Diamonds are famed for their unequalled hardness and optical transparency. It is part of what makes them so desirable as striking adornments but these are also highly useful qualities in industrial settings of all kinds. If you have ever scored your name onto an object to better identify it if stolen then the chances are it was a low-grade diamond that did the cutting for you.
Advancements in lab-grown diamond technology
These have been rapid and significant over recent years and companies can now produce much higher-quality stones for lower prices. It was initially costing them around $4,000 USD to produce 1 carat. That figure is now closer to $400.
In the history of synthetic diamonds, the giant American corporation, General Electric is credited as the first company to create significant quantities of lab-grown ones, which they did from the 1950s onwards. The endeavour was codenamed ‘Project Super-Pressure’ and it had begun in the 1940s, but was interrupted, as so many things were, by World War II.
Gem-quality synthetic diamonds
The diamonds that General Electric produced were far too small to be used as gemstones but in the history of synthetic diamonds, their work was profoundly important. They forged the path for those that followed and went on to improve the technique and its results. Producing the stones was initially way too expensive for them to be a viable alternative to mined ones and the industry was slow to take off but advancements in lab-grown diamond technology continued to evolve and the process slowly became more and more viable.
An interesting side note is that those first stones had some curious properties of their own. They had a yellowish appearance that nobody could explain at first and often had particles of other materials, known as ‘inclusions’ contained within them. This rendered them much less valuable as potential gemstones and they were downgraded accordingly. It transpired that an excess of nitrogen was the cause of the yellow tint that the stones had and work continued apace to rid them of those troublesome issues.
The rise of lab-grown diamonds in the jewellery industry
Gem-quality synthetic diamonds finally became more widely available in the 1980s and today, lab-grown diamonds are generally 20% to 30% less expensive than their mined counterparts. The costs per carat dropped to around 1/10th of what they had previously been and will presumably continue to drop further. It is no surprise that so many of the world’s premier diamond companies are now investing heavily in the industry. Lab-grown and natural diamonds are identical in terms of these properties:
Environmental and other concerns
Since they have the exact same properties as each other, the synthetic versions represent the smarter choice for many consumers, especially those who are concerned with the dubious ethical and environmental considerations involved with mining diamonds the traditional way. Advancements in lab-grown diamond technology make the synthetic versions ever more appealing to some people as time passes. Around 70% of young people now say that they would consider purchasing lab-grown diamonds over mined ones.
Studies suggest that the overall environmental footprint of sourcing mined diamonds can be enormous and highly damaging if not done responsibly. Researchers have been working on projects that aim to reduce the carbon footprint of mined diamonds and they aim to capture carbon dioxide inside kimberlite, a highly porous rock.
The Kimberley Process
The Kimberley Process is one that was introduced in the early 2000s with the intention of reducing the trade in ‘conflict’ diamonds and those acquired by workers experiencing inhumane conditions. Many of these issues were brought to light and enhanced by the popularity of movies like Blood Diamond. A spotlight was shone on the industry, exposing its questionable ethics and unsustainable methods of acquisition.
But the subject is a complex one as it undeniably provides valuable employment for individuals struggling in developing countries. It is estimated that at least a million people rely on diamond mining as their sole source of income but it is an industry that is ripe for exploitation and is always surrounded by humanitarian concerns.
Changes in the diamond business
Lab-grown diamonds are ethically and environmentally preferable to traditionally mined ones but they do not come without their own costs. It is rather difficult and complicated to compare the carbon footprints of lab diamonds and mined ones but all sides agree that the amount of energy required to produce them is not insignificant.
Environmental concerns are high among the motivating factors for many Millennials who perceive lab-grown diamonds as being more socially conscious and environmentally responsible. Certainly, they do not come with a price tag of mass deforestation, soil erosion, and water pollution.
The future for synthetic diamonds
These factors are all part of the trend that we are now witnessing towards an ever-growing market for synthetic diamonds. In fact, the share is growing by 15-20% per year and has not failed to catch the attention of companies like De Beers, who now have their own lab-grown diamond line. There is no reason to suspect that the growth will stall anytime soon as more and more jewellers and their clients recognise the quality of lab diamonds and their superior ethical considerations. On the contrary, the growth is actually expected to accelerate.
The history and evolution of lab-grown diamonds is surely a long and complicated one. Here at Bejouled, we take all ethical and environmental concerns very seriously and are dedicated to featuring sustainable lab-grown diamonds and jewellery containing recycled precious metals.
Should you have any questions or comments, please do not hesitate to contact us and a professional member of staff will be only too pleased to assist you. In the meantime, why not browse our extensive collection of beautiful jewellery?