Right now, odds are that one in every four diamonds on sale around the world is a blood diamond – mined in a war zone and sold to finance armed conflict and civil war. And for those wanting to steer clear of such a commodity, it’s becoming nearly impossible to figure out the difference between a clean and a dirty diamond.
Which is why the market for lab-made diamonds is slowly but surely growing, offering a cheaper, more environmentally friendly, and ethically sound option that looks just as pretty as its natural counterpart.
“To a modern young consumer, if they get a diamond from above the ground or in the ground, do they really care?” Chaim Even-Zohar from Tacy, an Israel-based diamond consulting firm, points out to Bloomberg Businessweek.
And nope, these artificial diamonds are nothing like those cheap, lab-grown imitation diamonds, such as cubic zirconia – they have the exact same physical structure and chemical composition as a diamond that’s been pulled out of the ground.
The process works by placing a tiny fragment of diamond (called a carbon seed) into a microwave along with varying amounts of a carbon-heavy gas – methane is most commonly used.
The gas mixture is heated to very high temperatures in the microwave to produce a plasma ball, and inside this, the gas breaks down and the carbon atoms crystallise and accumulate on the diamond seed, causing it to grow.
The process can take up to 10 weeks to produce a marketable diamond, but it works so well, experts reportedly need a machine to tell the lab-grown gems apart from natural ones sourced from mines or riverbeds.
So far, synthetic diamonds make up a tiny fraction of the US$80 billion global diamond market, with Bloomberg reporting that in 2014, an estimated 360,000 carats of lab-grown diamonds were manufactured, while about 146 million carats of natural diamonds were mined.
But if the results of a recent survey – which showed less than half of North American consumers aged between 18 to 35 said they’d prefer a natural diamond – are anything to go by, this is set to change in a hurry.
It’s estimated that by 2026, the number of lab-made diamonds will skyrocket to 20 million carats, with Wal-Mart and Warren Buffett’s Helzberg Diamonds already starting to stock the synthetic versions.
Not that the mining companies are willing to let that slice of the market go without a fight. Bloomberg reports that they won a major victory against the labs back in July when the International Organisation for Standardisation ruled that their gems had to be labelled as either “synthetic”, “lab-grown”, or “lab-created”, and never “real”.
The companies behind the natural diamonds are hoping their customers will continue to be sold on the ‘romance’ of a stone borne from nature, and will be marketing the unique history of each one over the ‘cookie-cutter’ feel of the lab-grown diamonds.
But with price tags as little as half that of natural diamonds – Bloomberg reports that in a New York jewellery store, a 1-carat synthetic diamond can cost about $6,000 there, compared with $10,000 for a similarly sized natural stone – and no ethical questions, the demand will surely be there in some capacity in the future.
“We are creating a new industry,” Vishal Mehta, CEO of IIA Technologies in Singapore, which is reportedly the most prolific producer of synthetic diamonds in the world, told Bloomberg.
“Consumers today really resonate with the idea of an eco-friendly and a conflict-free choice for diamonds. That’s been a sticking point.”
A version of this article was originally published in October 2015.