Diamonds are forever

This month’s Wired Magazine cover story, “The New Diamond Age” is quite a read, merging Wired’s standard breathless technology-is-changing-everything fare with James Bond-style meetings and secret labs complete with Russian scientists. At the root of the story are two labs that make synthetic diamonds. These aren’t simulated gemstones like Cubic Zirconia (CZ) but real diamond gemstones that have been created in the laboratory rather than mined from the Earth. Gemesis, based in Florida, uses high pressure and temperature chambers that mimic how diamonds are created in the Earth. Apollo Diamond, based near Boston, uses chemical vapor deposition to grow diamonds. These labs, Wired hints, might just bankrupt the diamond industry.

To those within the jewelry industry, however, synthetic diamonds are business-as-usual. Gemesis and now synthetic gemstone-maker Chatham have been producing synthetic diamonds for several years, and the process was even the subject of a Nova back in 2000. Apollo’s technique has produced some recent advances, but to hear Jeweler’s Circular Keystone report it this is all just steady technological progress. It would seem the only important point to jewelers is whether gemologists can scientifically distinguish synthetics from natural gemstones, not whether the synthetics are “as good as” diamonds in any other way. And according to the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), it is fairly straightforward to identify even the new Apollo diamonds. They also note that Apollo is working with the GIA “to ensure that these CVD laboratory-grown diamonds are correctly identified before being introduced into the market.”

The key is that the price of diamonds, and gemstones in general, are governed by the laws of fashion rather than some objective standard. Certainly diamonds are pretty, but then so is Cubic Zirconia. There are two things that keep diamonds in high demand over substitutes like CZ. First, the De Beers cartel goes to great lengths to remind us that the only way for a man to prove his love to a woman is by giving her diamonds, and you can bet that De Beers won’t let synthetics in on that little bit of spin. As Jef Van Royen, a senior scientist at the Diamond High Council put it to Wired: “If people really love each other, then they give each other the real stone. It is not a symbol of eternal love if it is something that was created last week.” The second reason reaches the heart of fashion: diamonds and natural gemstones are expensive. This is why people will still buy natural emeralds, even though they are some 300 times more expensive than synthetic emeralds. Or more accurately, they buy natural emeralds because they are 300 times more expensive than synthetics. Like luxury cars and designer-brand clothing, the point is not the product itself so much as the ability to say “I can afford this and you can’t.” As long as people can still say “happy birthday, Honey — it’s a natural diamond” I don’t see synthetics destroying the diamond market anytime soon.