When General Electric first announced its successful synthesis of diamonds in 1955 and then gem-quality diamonds in 1971, some people proclaimed the end of the natural diamond industry; it remains to be seen if they were wrong or just half-a-century premature.
The large-scale production of gem-quality synthetic diamonds seems to have begun in earnest in 1985 with Sumitomo’s products that weren’t originally intended for the jewellery industry. In the case of the General Electric diamonds, the cost per carat of synthesis far exceeded the cost to extract comparable natural stones, so simple economics ended that ‘threat.’ The Sumitomo diamonds were primarily intended for the electronics industry and were fancy orangey-brown and brownish yellow in colour. Diamonds in those hues are a specialized market and they posed little economic challenge for the industry at large.
The next few decades saw ‘improvements’ in the quality and economic viability of gem-quality synthetic diamonds, but technological limitations continued to restrict their availability. For nearly 50 years, high pressure/high temperature (HPHT) techniques were the only methods used to produce synthetic diamond. The nature of the HPHT process makes small fancy colours much more economical to grow, and with the proliferation of the technology within the last decade, there has been a surge in the use of fancy-coloured melee diamonds by jewellery manufacturers. Coincidence? Everything changed in 2003 when Apollo Diamond, Inc., announced the successful growth of single-crystal diamonds using the chemical vapour deposition (CVD) process.
Although a relatively new process, CVD seems poised to knock down the technological and financial barriers that have kept synthetic diamonds mostly on the periphery of the jewellery industry. As the number of growers continues to increase, the last remaining hurdle may be broad-based customer acceptance of the product. De Beers Diamond Promotion Service spent countless millions of dollars marketing the emotional and intrinsic value of diamonds to consumers around the world. For the time being, synthetic diamond manufacturers seem to be reaching out to the socially conscious consumer. The persistent blood diamond issue, combined with growing awareness of the environmental damage caused by mining activities, seems to be resonating among that group of diamond buyers.
Lab-grown diamonds are, indeed, free of those stains. However, they have other ‘issues’ to deal with, and it’s important to remember that no manufactured product is free of environmental and social costs. ‘Value’ as an economic and perceptual concept related to diamonds and gemstones is based on the relationship between desirability and rarity. Synthetic stones can never claim to have economic value, since rarity is only related to manufacturing capacity; perhaps that explains the push to emphasize their ‘social’ versus ‘intrinsic’ value. They will have a ‘price,’ since there are many costs associated with their production and sale. Over the next several years, we’ll find out if diamond growers can reduce the price sufficiently to overcome the perceived lack of inherent value. In the meantime, individual gemmologists and appraisers are left with the challenge of simply trying to identify the product.