By Mina Phillips
It’s all about time. Yep, time is the obvious factor that separates laboratory-grown, or cultured diamonds from mined ones. Mined diamonds take a few thousand years to grow, while cultured diamonds are produced within a matter of weeks. But there are, of course, additional aspects which separate them: for example, laboratory-grown diamonds are increasingly becoming known for being sustainably and ethically superior to mined diamonds. But it’s not the differences between these two types of stones that’s really shaking up the diamond industry – what they have in common is. The fact is that cultured diamonds are, essentially, real diamonds. And here’s why.
A bit of background
If you’re a conscious consumer and a diamond lover, you’ve most likely heard of the Kimberly Process. It’s a certification process which seeks to trade only conflict-free diamonds amongst its members, but unfortunately, it’s not a perfect system. The Kimberly Process leaves plenty of room for a great deal of human rights violations and environmental damage.
Moreover, mining diamonds involves moving huge quantities of earth, harming ecosystems and animal habitats in the process. Some may argue that lab-grown diamonds take up a lot of energy and thus produce a lot of CO2 emissions, but according to Laura Chavez, creator of luxury jewellery brand Lark & Berry, “lab-grown/cultured diamonds produce 99% less carbon emissions and waste 99% less minerals than mined diamonds do. The process of growing diamonds in a lab also means 85% less water is being used as well as 53% less energy.”
“For example”, explains Chavez, “if we were to put the CO2 emissions into perspective, a 1 carat mined diamond produces the same amount of CO2 as a Mini Countryman 1.5l driving from London to Prague, approximately 57,000 grams. A cultured diamond of the same carat weight produces a mere 0.028 grams. Which means the Mini wouldn’t even get off the driveway. A human personally expels more CO2 in a day than is produced by a single carat cultured diamond.”
Perhaps most importantly for the majority of consumers, though is the fact that with cultured diamonds you can also be assured that they are conflict free, says Laura. There is zero child labour involved in the process of growing them and zero bonded labour.
Can you tell the difference?
Of course, then there’s the question of quality. The value of a polished diamond is measured by what those in the industry call the “Four C’s”: colour, clarity, cut and carat. The colour of each individual diamond is influenced by its chemical composition, and therefore varies. The clarity of a diamond can be affected by the intense heat and pressure that creates them, sometimes resulting in minor imperfections.
The cut is the process that diamonds go through for the sake of presentation. This is when raw diamonds are cut to fit a specific design. A popular cut is the “brilliant” cut, a circular design with a pointed top, formed to reflect light in an attractive manner.
The carat describes the weight of the diamond, which some jewellers may also describe in points, which add up to each carat.
These “Four C’s” are what diamonds are graded by, whether they are natural or man-made. Not only do lab-grown diamonds achieve the grades of natural diamonds in these areas, they are more likely to exceed them.
In the diamond industry there is a term for the purest form of diamond. They are called type IIa, and only 2% of mined diamonds meet the qualifications for this rating. No wonder they’re so highly valued. And guess what? Lab-grown diamond producers are now able to consistently grow diamonds to this standard. Chavez confirms this, stating, “whatever qualities a mined diamond has, a cultured one does as well. In fact, cultured is even better in terms of purity, as you can control the environment in which they grow.”
Because cultured diamonds are made up of the same properties as natural diamonds, their colour, clarity, cut and carat occurs the same way. The colour and presentation of both mined and cultured diamonds can be treated to change their appearance. According to a study published by the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), lab-grown diamonds can be over 10 carats and are making progress in the large diamond market.
“Natural diamonds and laboratory grown diamonds have essentially the same physical, optical and chemical properties”, states Dr. James Shigley, a distinguished research fellow of GIA. “Differentiating laboratory grown diamonds from natural diamonds requires specialized equipment; it is not possible using a loupe or gemological microscope.”
Both natural and cultured diamonds are made up of carbon atoms. Lab-grown diamonds are made by recreating the way that mined diamonds are formed. There are two ways in which this is done.
A diamond is born
The first, High Pressure, High Temperature (HPHT) method, is carried out under “temperatures and pressures designed to approximate the conditions of mined diamond growth.” Explains Dr. Shigley.
Basically, a carbon source is placed in a holding chamber along with a diamond seed. The chamber also holds molten metal. A higher temperature is created for the carbon source than the diamond seed, resulting in the carbon dissolving into the molten metal and moving toward the, cooler, diamond seed. From there, a diamond crystal is formed.
Dr. Shigley describes the second method, Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD), as one which “involves growing synthetic diamond as thin-film layers at moderate temperatures and low (i.e., below atmospheric) pressures.”
It’s a method where a gas rich in carbon is placed in a vacuum chamber and broken down into hydrogen and carbon atoms. The diamond seed is then covered by these carbon atoms. Following this, diamond crystals begin to form.
“Cultured diamonds grow in the same way mined diamonds grow, therefore they are 100% diamonds”, approves Chavez.
The bottom line
Because these man-made, or cultured, diamonds hold the same optical, chemical and physical properties as mined diamonds, they look no different. According to GIA, even trained gemologists cannot tell the difference between lab-grown and mined diamonds. The diamonds are so identical machines have been designed to tell the difference between them, by looking at the different circumstances in which they were formed.
It’s the time and ethics that make the difference. Cultured diamonds can be produced in an extremely short space of time. They are also an environmentally friendly option which can be guaranteed as being 100% conflict free.
In terms of quality, cultured diamonds are held to the same standards and grading process as mined diamonds. The man-made process by which they are created doesn’t de-value them – it just means that the final result of the diamond can be more easily controlled.
So yes, cultured diamonds are real diamonds. They are grown the same way, hold the same properties and are graded the same way. Of course, the exciting part is that they’re a highly ethical and eco friendly alternative to mined stones.
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