Can Lab-Grown Diamonds Replace Mined Stones?

Christmas and New Year’s tend to be popular times for proposal, and that means that you’ll likely be seeing a lot of engagement bling in the next few weeks — and maybe wearing some of your own. That makes this winter a particularly good time to talk about an issue that just won’t go away: diamonds, and where they come from.

Diamonds hold a fascinating — and largely manufactured – appeal for humans: They’re sparkly; they’re very hard; and they’re, as the ads like to tell us, forever.

Unfortunately, diamonds are also associated with terrible environmental practices and human rights abuses — the price paid for the stones that adorn many fingers, wrists and ears is very high. But there’s an alternative offering all of the beauty and none of the suffering: lab-grown diamonds, sometimes called “synthetic,” much to the frustration of the industry that produces them.

Once grown for technical and industrial uses, lab-grown diamonds are beginning to break into the very lucrative jewelry market, but will the sales pitch succeed?

It’s taken a number of decades to perfect the process of producing diamonds in the lab. The process takes place in a device called a plasma reactor, which looks like something out of science fiction.

Highly efficient equipment can grow diamonds in a matter of hours, and unlike stones of old, these would pass the harsh sniff tests applied by ornamental consumers. They’re flawlessly clear and can be cut in a dazzling array of styles available in an assortment of sizes.

Lab-grown rocks can be the giant centerpieces of an engagement ring or the tiny seed gems that run along the edges of a design. They’re chemically indistinguishable from diamonds extracted from the earth, though there are microscopic signs that can be identified in a lab.

And this is what seems to be the crux of the problem for the industry, which is attempting to brand itself as more environmentally and socially ethical than the mined diamond trade. Producers want to distinguish their gems, while underscoring that they’re just like “the real thing.” You may hear lab-grown diamonds called man-made, pure grown or synthetic — and those terms seem to make consumers uneasy.

The mystique of the diamond is apparently less compelling when it comes out of a plasma reactor, even though many people are well aware of the problems with the diamond industry. It highlights the growing tension between technology and culture — as we discover better ways to make things, the process can sometimes remove their romance at the same time.

The jewelry industry is certainly targeting a more conscious and ethical market, but it may need to come up with more assertive branding to convince people to abandon mined stones.

The symbolism of a diamond engagement ring is quite potent, whether it’s an heirloom or a new piece of jewelry commissioned for the occasion. Lab-grown diamonds don’t seem to carry quite the same mystique — after all, anyone can grow them, right?

As it is, producers suspect that lab-grown gems have already snuck into the market labeled as the real deal, so people may be paying a premium for something they’re not even getting.

At the same time, ditching the conflict diamonds for those produced in the lab misses another problem: the sources of the metals used in jewelry – gold in particular.

Like other precious metals, gold is mined and processed in terrible conditions that harm the environment, as well as workers, and those problems can extend to recycled gold. Those changing their buying habits when it comes to stones — lab-grown versions of other gems are available as well — might also want to consider where the metal in their jewelry is coming from, and who is handling it along the way.

Photo credit: Aaron Jacobs

92 comments

Jack Y
Jack Y6 months ago

thanks

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Jack Y
Jack Y6 months ago

thanks

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John J
John J6 months ago

thanks for sharing

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John J
John J6 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Marie W
Marie W1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Stephen Brian
Stephen Brian1 years ago

For central stones, no. Lab-grown diamonds may be very numerous, but also very tiny. It takes time, and I mean on a geological time-scale, to get the large crystals that we see and like. As for inclusions in the crystal, last I checked modern technology could not reproduce those.

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Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiran2 years ago

living in a crime ridden country where criminals have no qualms with busting a woman's mouth open to steal her gold slit has knocked the urge to buy real gold or diamonds out of me.

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Andrea H
Andrea H2 years ago

ty

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Janis K
Janis K2 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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