Lab-Grown Diamonds: The New Disruptive Force

If you haven’t heard about lab-grown diamonds, you no doubt will in the coming months.

Lab-grown, man-made, manufactured, synthetic diamonds are the same thing: they are diamonds grown in a manufacturing plant (soon a plant in Oregon). They differ from natural diamonds only in that they don’t come from the ground. In fact, retailers selling lab-grown diamonds are differentiating between them by the terms “lab-grown” and “mined” diamonds.

Know the Terms: Real, Genuine, Synthetic, Lab Grown

Please, please, note: Although these stones are actually diamonds, the terms “real,” or “genuine,” are not to be used to describe lab-grown diamonds. Because the public generally recognizes these terms to be associated with natural, mined, Mother-Nature-made, out-of-the-ground, diamonds, the FTC considers the use of “real” and “genuine” to be misleading trade terms when applied to manufactured diamonds. The terms I first used in the opening of this post—lab-grown, man-made, manufactured (often with the manufacturer’s name) and synthetic—are the only terms to be used to describe diamonds that do not come from the ground but from a processing plant.

Synthetic vs. Imitation Gemstones

As another side note, synthetic does not mean fake, necessarily. Synthetic stones have the same chemical, optical, and physical properties as a natural stone. A synthetic ruby is a ruby—it’s just made in a lab.

A synthetic blue spinel, is a spinel, it’s just made in a lab. The reason synthetic has gotten a bad rap is because it’s been wrongly used when imitation was the right word. An imitation is any material—glass, plastic or even a synthetic sapphire or spinel—used to stand in for something it is not. A synthetic spinel used in a birthstone ring to imitate a diamond, ruby, or aquamarine should correctly be described as an “imitation” diamond, ruby, or aquamarine. Yet they are commonly called synthetic. Why? Who knows? Failure to learn the difference? Because imitation sounds “fake” and synthetic sounds more legitimate? No idea.

However, today, these materials make up such a large part of the market—and with the advent of lab-grown diamonds, it will only get larger—that if you are buying jewelry or you are selling jewelry with these materials in them, you must make yourself familiar with the differences, and you must either ask questions (if you’re buying) or explain them carefully (if you are selling). When in doubt, if you’re laying down serious cash, always get it in writing.

Okay, stepping down from the soapbox….

How Are Lab-Grown Diamonds Used?

Synthetic, man-made diamonds have been used in industrial cutting tools since the late 1950s. For a long time thought too expensive to produce for jewelry purposes, in the last four years, gem-quality lab-grown diamonds for use in jewelry have become an exploding reality. Many companies around the world are getting into the game. Even DeBeers, the folks who for nigh on a century and a half have had the natural, mined diamond market sewn up–until significant mines were discovered in Botswana, Australia and Canada–has lately jumped into the lab-grown diamond game.

A growing number of the stones may end up being produced in the US—or any country with reliable electric power–because it takes a lot of uninterrupted juice to make these babies. DeBeers is said to be building a plant near Portland, Oregon.

Lab-grown diamonds can be produced by the high-pressure, high temperature (HPHT) process, which produces primarily colored diamonds—yellow, orange, pink, blue–or the more time-consuming chemical vapor deposition (CVD) process which produces colorless and near colorless stones. The diamonds are usually produced in the SI clarity range and above, and the J color grade and above.

Rose gold is the perfect setting for this pink .55 ct lab-grown diamond. Pink diamonds are one of the hottest gemstones on the market right now. Photo courtesy Yates Jewelers, Modesto, California.

Rose gold is the perfect setting for this pink .55 ct lab-grown diamond. Pink diamonds are one of the hottest gemstones on the market right now. Photo courtesy Yates Jewelers, Modesto, California.

Understanding Lab-Grown Diamond Jewelry

Manufactured diamonds met lots of resistance in the jewelry trade at the beginning. One of the main problems is: how to you tell the difference between natural and man-made? The early manufacturers, and many of the current manufacturers, mark the stones with logos or number on the girdle. But this is only cost effective down to certain sizes—usually only stones 0.20 carat and above are marked. However, this is voluntary—not a requirement, not even by the FTC. Making this more problematic is that one of the biggest markets is for lab-grown melee diamonds—stones smaller than 0.20 carat. So how can you know?

Enter technology. There are a number of testing devices now available in a range of prices so that suppliers and retailers can test either loose or mounted diamonds.

It’s All About Price

The biggest draw of manufactured diamonds is the price. Lab-grown stones usually retail for about 70% of the price of natural, mined stones. Which means if you want a diamond, and you don’t care where it was born, you can get a bigger stone for the same money. That’s exactly what an increasing number of buyers are doing, even buyers of engagement diamonds, a market that was once thought to be impervious to the inroads of lab-grown diamonds. (If you want a real bargain, for smaller stones—up to 0.50 carat–DeBeers’ new division, Lightbox, is dedicated to lab-grown stones. They’ve developed fixed pricing. All the stones are set in 10k gold or sterling fashion jewelry. Stones are not available loose, in large sizes, or in bridal jewelry. At least not yet.)

So what does this mean for the future? There will always be a market for natural, mined gemstones. But it’s highly likely that people on a budget or those who want more glitz for their money will start turning more and more to lab-grown diamonds. It’s almost guaranteed that natural melee will start giving way to lab grown. You’ll begin to see a mix of mined and manufactured diamonds in the same jewelry. This, in fact, is already happening.

For buyers and sellers both, it’s going to be interesting.

Sharon Elaine Thompson is a GG and FGA who has been writing about gemstones and jewelry for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist since 1987. She also writes a line of birthstone romance novels under the name Liz Hartley.

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