When one thinks of buying an engagement ring, the first image that comes to mind is the classic combination of a gold ring plus a centred diamond. Of course, that diamond was formed in a faraway country, its formation took millions of years, it had to be dug up by special machines and only then could it be crafted and polished into what is the diamond centred on top of your ring of choice.
There is one more type of diamond that does not need to go through this process and it can take as little as a week for it to be produced. That is the lab grown diamond.
How did lab grown diamonds come to be? What is their history and what are their advantages and disadvantages compared to naturally mined diamonds?
What are Lab Grown Diamonds?
Lab grown diamonds are essentially diamonds created not in nature under natural conditions, but in a laboratory, under simulated conditions. Briefly speaking, the necessary conditions in order for carbon to form a diamond are extremely high temperature and high pressure. In nature, this is only possible deep underground – hundreds of miles deep, actually.
Technology has improved to the point that we can now replicate those conditions in a controlled environment, such as a lab, and produce diamonds that exactly the same as mined diamonds.
The First Man-made Diamonds
Evidence related to the first ever lab grown diamond is conflicting. Some sources point to a period as early as the end of the 19th century, but the evidence of this is indeed flimsy.
Some convincing reports related to Sir William Crookes in 1909, but this claim has since been debunked several times.
Arguably the most reliable first account of lab-made diamonds dates back to 1953 when a team from the Swedish electrical equipment company ASEA managed to produce a number of small-size diamonds by using extreme pressure and temperature for its experiment.
Other resources point to General Electric as being the pioneer with synthetic diamonds produced in 1954.
It is reported that the reason some sources point to General Electric rather than to ASAE is that the latter did not shed light upon their discovery to the public until the 1980s.
Lab Creation Process
The process of creating a diamond in a lab has evolved over the years. ASEA first used a large device that represented a split-sphere within which the team of scientists maintained a high temperature and high pressure.
There have been many reports of artificially-created diamonds in the past, and many methods related to those reports, but few of them actually hold up to the test of evidence.
Nowadays, there are two main processes for producing lab grown diamonds: the CVD method (Chemical Vapour Deposition) and the HPHT method (High Pressure, High Temperature). The CVD method is considered by some experts to be the generally better method; it involves the usage of an actual small piece of diamond put under specialised conditions and exposed to carbon gases which are then heated to the point that they start ionising. When that process reaches a certain point, the carbon gases merge with the already present diamond piece and start forming layers of a diamond. The HPHT method is more “traditional” and straightforward, it requires the usage of carbon pressed in a metal cube and then exposed to extreme temperature so as to simulate the actual natural conditions under which diamonds are formed.
The former method is distinguishable by the fact that it grows the diamond in a single- direction pattern, while the latter does the same in multiple directions. As an additional note, HPHT exposes the future diamond to interaction with metal which may lead to certain imperfections in its structure, but these imperfections are absolutely minimal and invisible to the naked eye. Both methods produce diamonds considered real diamonds and are classified in the same way as natural diamonds.
It is worth pointing out that the first lab grown diamonds were formed by the HPHT method, but most modern synthetic diamonds are formed by the CVD method.
Other Modern Methods
There are two other reported methods for producing man-made diamonds: the detonation of explosives and ultrasound cavitation. The former involves using explosives containing carbon and detonating them in a controlled environment. The explosion exposes the carbon to high pressure and temperature, thus forming a diamond.
The latter relies on exposing graphite chunks to ultrasound cavitation in an organic liquid.
This method’s cost is rather low, but the results are often not of high quality.
Lab grown diamonds introduced a sort of revolution in the diamond industry, and this is all the more evident nowadays. That is mainly because synthetic diamonds are significantly cheaper than mined diamonds, mainly because the process of creating a diamond in a laboratory requires much less energy, manpower and machinery. Even if one wanted to point out some quality difference between the two types of diamonds, one would not be able to. The opinion that lab grown diamonds are “not real diamonds” is getting less and less popular. It is also not true – the scientific consensus is that this type of diamond is as real as they get. And the reason for that makes sense – there is nothing in the mineral creation method that differs in principle. The heat and the pressure needed to turn carbon into a diamond have a lab-made source, but that essentially does not matter.
With everything said so far, modern lab grown diamonds are a go-to choice for many customers who want to buy engagement rings or other diamond jewellery. For the naked eye, there is no distinction.
Modern technology does have the capability however to actually differentiate a synthetic diamond from a mined one, and it is getting all the more complex in that regard. The main reason this type of technology is developing is the need to identify the origin of diamonds if needed. Many batches of diamonds do not have specific identification.