Image Courtesy of Goldworks
When you compare lab-grown diamonds vs natural diamonds, the difference isn't in the way they look. Lab-grown diamonds are composed of crystallized carbon just like natural diamonds so the two have the same appearance and the same physical, chemical and optical characteristics. But lab-grown diamonds are manufactured by man, they didn’t form naturally on the earth. And that difference is important: here’s why.
How Natural Diamonds Form
The journey of natural diamonds to your finger is long and difficult. Natural diamonds formed billions of years ago deep in the earth under tremendous heat and pressure. They traveled to the earth’s surface in volcanic pipes, ascending a hundred miles in a column of molten rock, more than three times the depth of the average volcano.
So many factors had to align just perfectly for diamonds to form in the ancient earth and be carried up to the surface. Those conditions no longer exist: all the diamonds the earth will form already exist.
These almost indestructible gems survived their journey remarkably unscathed. Inside they carry tiny time capsules of the earth’s crust a billion years ago: crystals from the deep earth, tiny cleavages from the pressure, and atoms from the mantle that came along for the ride. These brilliant billion-year old crystals are the oldest thing you will ever touch.
Because their journey is so difficult, the vast majority of diamonds found are not gem quality. This rarity is why real diamonds have significant inherent value, which will continue to increase as the number of diamonds naturally available gets lower and lower. All the gem-quality diamonds ever mined would fit in one London double-decker bus. Diamonds are really rare.
How Lab-Grown Diamonds Are Manufactured
Diamonds have been manufactured by man for decades but only in the past five years have they been practical to market in jewelry. Until then, most diamonds were manufactured for industrial use and didn’t have the size, clarity, or affordability that would make them attractive for jewelry use.
Synthetic diamonds are manufactured one of two ways: HPHT (high pressure, high temperature) or CVD (chemical vapor deposition). HPHT uses extreme temperature and pressure to mimic the environment within the earth that naturally creates diamonds. CVD feeds energized gasses onto a substrate in a vacuum chamber similar to a microwave.
Marketers say that these stones are “grown” in a “laboratory” but it’s probably more accurate to say they are precision manufactured in a high tech factory. One single diamond-producing factory in Singapore is 200,000 square feet: it produces 300,000 carats of lab-grown diamonds every year.
Diamonds crystals form in these controlled conditions in a few weeks. Inside they show evidence of the factory conditions under which they formed. Lab-grown diamonds display visual characteristics such as color zoning, metallic inclusions, weak strain patterns, and colors of ultraviolet fluorescence.
After the rough is made, lab-grown diamonds are cut and polished in the same way that natural diamonds are. However because lab-grown diamonds are not rigorously graded for a cut like natural diamonds are, they generally aren’t cut to the same standards and proportions for maximum light performance.
How You Can Tell the Difference
The differences in the way natural diamonds and lab-grown diamonds form create the characteristics that gemologists use to tell them apart. You won't be able to tell just by looking at a stone in a ring.
The characteristics of a lab-grown stone are used to identify them in simple detectors that jewelers can use to separate lab-grown from natural. But most diamonds already have a grading report from the GIA or other labs that confirm their origin.
Although lab-grown diamonds can have the same color and clarity as natural diamonds, GIA doesn’t grade them in the same way.
If a diamond is found to be laboratory-grown, GIA issues a Synthetic Diamond Grading Report, which looks distinctly different from the standard grading report. The Synthetic Diamond Grading Report also offers a more general description of color and clarity. After a lab-grown diamond is graded, the diamond’s girdle is laser-inscribed with its report number and a given statement that the stone is laboratory grown.
According to the FTC, laboratory-grown diamond manufacturers cannot use the word “diamond” to describe a product unless the word is immediately preceded by the word laboratory-grown, laboratory-created, or (manufacturer name)-created.
It isn’t just lab-grown diamonds that can be promoted in confusing ways. It’s also very common to see diamond simulants that are marketed to make them seem like they are lab-grown diamonds and not imitation diamonds.
Marketers like Diamond Nexus and MiaDonna market inexpensive imitations like cubic zirconia and moissanite in a way that makes it seem like they are lab-grown diamonds.
Lab-Grown Diamonds, Prices, and Value
Although lab-grown diamonds cost a lot more than diamond simulants, they may not hold their value like natural diamonds do.
Laboratory-grown diamonds don’t have enough of a track record to determine what consumers are willing to consistently pay for them. There isn’t a secondary market yet for lab-grown diamonds since there is so much uncertainty about them holding value.
It's likely that laboratory-grown diamond production will continue to get cheaper and cheaper as competition grows, forcing producers to keep lowering their sales price for these stones.
Lab-grown diamonds have already shown price instability. Until 2018, lab created diamond were selling for about 30% less than natural diamonds, using the grades of natural diamonds to make comparisons.
Then in 2018, a new De Beers-backed brand of synthetic diamonds called Lightbox began selling lab-grown diamonds for a fixed price of $800 per carat. The price dropped almost 80% in just a few months.
We’re not sure if lab-grown diamond prices will continue to fall or even drop dramatically.
What Do Diamonds Mean to You?
Your purchase of a natural diamond helps support 10 million people globally. Diamond revenues give every child in Botswana, the second largest diamond producing country in the world, a free education. For every acre mined, De Beers donates five acres for conservation. This is just a small portion of the good that is being done in the diamond industry.
Buying a lab-grown diamond is often marketed as a greener choice. Although mining the chemicals used in diamond manufacturing require less earth moving than mining diamonds, manufacturing synthetic diamonds requires large amounts of energy. Both impact the environment. Although lab diamonds are arguably better for the environment, many mined diamonds are responsibly sourced and actually do good for the developing country where the mines are located.
Ultimately, for all these reasons, we can’t recommend buying a lab-grown diamond. You don’t know if it will lose its value completely in a short time. If the way a product looks is all that matters, why not buy a cubic zirconia that costs a fraction of the price of a lab-grown diamond?
We also believe that the value of diamonds also comes from their powerful symbolism as a rare gift from the earth. We wear diamonds because of what they mean, not how they look. Diamond comes from the ancient Greek adamas, meaning unbreakable. The extreme pressure and heat a diamond endures for billions of years to come out looking so beautiful is a truly incredible thing.
It is because of a diamond's unbreakable spirit they have come to be the ultimate representation of love, commitment, and achievement against the odds and a legacy that lasts generation after generation.