Complicating carbon: The not-so-simple world of diamonds

August 15, 2019

By Sonja Sanders

[1]I’m curious about how jewellery merchants of long ago could buy diamonds and know for certain they were purchasing the ‘real thing’ and not another variety of cut, colourless gemstone. How often did they worry about that?

In the 1400s, the wealthy of Europe would wear diamonds brought back from India by merchants with caravans filled with interesting and exotic items, sometimes acquired over years of travelling. These days, people can fly to a vacation destination and return home a week later with beautiful diamond jewellery. Sure, acquiring these stones has become simpler, but our concerns surrounding diamonds moved away from the ‘simple’ some time ago.

I was a little girl when I first heard a jewellery store clerk say to a customer, “If a stone can cut glass, it’s a diamond.” Do we put faith in that test? The notion remains instilled in many. Recently, a client approached me and asked if I would test her diamond; before I could reply, another customer interjected with, “If it cuts glass, it’s a diamond.” I couldn’t believe what I’d heard.

As it turns out, the customer who was asking me about her diamond was actually wondering if the stone was natural or synthetic.

Making sparkly waves

Maybe I’m making assumptions, but the diamond industry of yesterday seems much simpler than how it exists in the modern era.

In the 1500s, jewellery makers didn’t have a lot of choice in diamond cutting styles; most stones were either table-cut, with a flat top and a few facets, or a rose-cut, with the flat bottom and a dome of facets.

By the 1700s, the cutting techniques used for gems and diamonds had become more advanced, but the finished products were still far from the expertise we have come to expect today. As these techniques evolved through the Victorian era, the industry saw the introduction of step cuts, old mine cuts, and old European cuts (the latter of which preceded the modern brilliant cut). Machinery was progressing at a rapid rate, which allowed gem- and diamond-cutters to develop more refined skills.

Synthetic diamond screeners can be used by retailers, manufacturers, and appraisers to identify lab-grown diamonds. <br /> <span style="font-size: 10pt; font-family: arial, helvetica, sans-serif;"><i>Photos courtesy Jewellery by Sanders</i></span>[2]
Synthetic diamond screeners can be used by retailers, manufacturers, and appraisers to identify lab-grown diamonds.
Photos courtesy Jewellery by Sanders

Entering the 1900s, the cut of a diamond became more important. Designers began creating platinum-set luxury jewellery for the elite; the royalty of the Edwardian era appreciated the high fashion of the time and enjoyed showing their wealth. As more and more homes became fitted with electricity and lighting features, socialite ladies were excited to show off their diamonds in complimentary light—and, of course, sparkly diamonds attracted plenty of attention. In 1919, Marcel Tolkowsky’s development of the round, brilliant-cut diamond—with specifics for the placement of facets, their angles, and the ideal depth of the stone—was good timing.

By the 1930s, the use of platinum had slowed and white gold increased in popularity. Married women were encouraged to sport a wedding set, complete with both an engagement ring and a wedding band, and pretty soon the industry was selling more diamonds than ever before.

Quality assurance

Behind the scenes, the 1800s saw the introduction of an industry-established grading system that determine diamond quality using grades like A, B, and C. However, this system soon allowed classifications such as ‘double A’ and ‘triple A,’ which, even regionally, made grading confusing and inconsistent.

This was remedied in 1919, when Robert M. Shipley, the founder of the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), made it his mission to academically and scientifically develop a grading system for diamonds that would bring integrity to the industry and establish good faith with the public. In the decades that followed, a diamond grading system was developed and internationally accepted in countries across the globe. Education in diamonds and the world of gemstones at large was becoming a must to the various tiers of the jewellery industry.

Of course, GIA is not the only institute or association that promotes the ongoing education of gemmologists and jewellers, and we are so very thankful to them all. Dealing in diamonds is in no way simple; in the years that I have worked in jewellery and gemmology, I have seen how much of a challenge it is to remain on top of new developments, which have only become more complex with today’s rapid automation.

Imitations need not apply

The PL-Inspector (PhotoLuminescence Inspector) by Gemetrix (left) uses ultraviolet (UV) illumination to identify synthetics, while the unit on the right can be used with a microscope to view internal strain patterns in diamonds.[3]
The PL-Inspector (PhotoLuminescence Inspector) by Gemetrix (left) uses ultraviolet (UV) illumination to identify synthetics, while the unit on the right can be used with a microscope to view internal strain patterns in diamonds.

How did jewellers feel when, in 1970, General Electric (GE) announced the synthetic diamonds it had created were actually gem-quality? Despite their existence, however, the stones were too expensive to produce and could not compete in the jewellery market—whew! That was a relief.

Nonetheless, designers and retailers had to contend with an array of imitations (for the moment). Anyone remember Strontium Titanate or the Yttrium Aluminum Garnet (YAG)? Do you recall the spreading ‘fear factor’ we experienced when cubic zirconia (CZ) first entered the market? And, of course, let us not forget synthetic Moissanite, which now is available with improved white colour.

There have been countless imitations through the years. We learned how to identify and deal with all of them through educating ourselves, as well as investing in electronic probe instruments and picking up knowledge of other quick tests along the way.

Our home and native land

We are lucky to live in Canada, which is an incredible source of non-conflict diamonds. Now more than ever, it pays to sell our own natural diamonds with confidence.

Many associations ask their members to promise the diamonds they sell and the suppliers they work with are in no way associated with terrorist or rebel groups that finance violent missions with the illegal movement and sale of diamonds. We should be grateful for the Kimberly Process (KP), an international certification scheme whereby members certify shipments of rough are conflict-free and that ‘blood diamonds’ do not enter our trade.

Of course, the diamonds we sell carry other potential concerns. Many years ago, we learned of irradiation and other altering treatments. Florescence in diamonds is not something that can be romanticized; depending on its severity, the degree of florescence can cause can cause a diamond to lose a percentage of value.

Further, gone is the notion that synthetics are too expensive to produce for the commercial market. Today, these stones can be created cheaper than ever before and have become an aspect of everyday business. As such, gemmologists must educate themselves on the testing available for synthetics (i.e. if a lab-grown stone was created via high-pressure, high-temperature [HPHT] or chemical vapour deposition [CVD]).

Growing and changing

In the early 1900s, jewellers did not have to wonder if a line bracelet, with its multitude of small diamonds, was set with anything but natural, untreated diamonds, but, nowadays, we need assurance our jewellery is not ‘salted’ with synthetics (‘salting’ refers to adding synthetics to parcels of natural diamonds—most often small melee). Are you equipped to do the preliminary tests on your stock so you know for sure if you are buying natural or lab-grown diamonds?

To keep up with an ever-changing industry, we have to invest in different equipment, some of which is expensive and requires its user to have some degree of training to understand the results. Are you ready for these changes? Do you know how to test with short wave and long wave ultraviolet (UV) units? Will you be looking at words such as ‘requires further testing’ in the years to come?

Simultaneously, we need to relax, enjoy the industry we chose to work in, and look for how the business of diamond buying and selling could become simpler than it is right now. Education, without a doubt, is very important for our industry. If you are selling to the end consumer, you will want to make diamond dealing as straightforward as possible, so stay educated. Look into courses which are offered by associations, gemmology institutes, and educational leaders.

When it comes to simplifying the world of diamonds, no one can help you more than you can help yourself. While we can’t be expected to know everything, we should prepare for everything we may encounter and remain aware of the best way to deliver confidence in our diamond products.

[4]Sonja Sanders grew up in a jewellery industry family, and learned goldsmithing and gem appreciation as a teenager. She now operates her family’s jewellery business with her husband Joe and two of their children—the store’s third generation. She is a master goldsmith, Graduate Gemmologist with the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), and teaches appraisal courses in Toronto. Sanders also enjoys her work with the Canadian Jeweller’s Association where she is involved with the Accredited Appraiser Program and education. She is a lover of antiques and estate jewellery, and can be reached via e-mail at[5].

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