Buying a diamond that has none of the negative human or environmental impact often associated with mining is appealing to anyone concerned with the provenance of luxury items. However, as with many sectors, including fashion, the situation isn't always clear-cut.
Can lab-grown diamonds replace the real thing?
Lab-grown stones aren't new. They've been around since the 1940s, though the big breakthrough is generally dated to December 16, 1954, when General Electric (GE) produced the first commercially successful synthetic diamond -- for the manufacturing and tech industries. These stones had all the hardness and high levels of conductivity of mined diamonds but, because they weren't made to be seen, flawlessness and color weren't priorities.
It was only during the 1970s that diamond labs became interested in trying to produce stones that looked more like natural ones. Finally, by the 1980s lab procedures became refined enough for the output to rival mined stones when it came to the famous four cs for pricing and choosing a diamond: cut, clarity, color and carat.
Diamonds made in a laboratory aren't fake, they are chemically and structurally real, unlike cubic zirconia or mossanite, which look similar to diamonds but have different chemical and physical properties (and which you can easily spot if you breathe on one of these gems -- it'll fog up).
The only difference with lab-grown stones is that the intense heat and pressure required to form them doesn't happen naturally, but is instead simulated via two chemical processes. Both start with a flat slither of another diamond, known as the seed, then the first option is high pressure high temperature (HPHT) and the other is chemical vapour deposition (CVD).
The former places the seed in among pure graphite carbon and then exposes it to extreme heat -- around 1,500ºC -- and extreme pressure of approximately 15 million pounds per square inch. The other option involves placing the seed in a chamber filled with gas enriched with carbon and heating it, which forces the carbon atoms in the gas to stick to the seed; the build-up of which grows the diamond. After this, you get your stone.
The superior quality of this new breed of lab-grown diamonds means that fine jewelers now have a choice. It is a choice that, despite there being no visible difference in the two types of stones, has led people to take very firm stances on which type of diamond they prefer -- and the reasons are often positioned as ethical ones.