Let me guess. You’re on the hunt for a diamond engagement ring or other special jewelry and you’ve come across the term “lab-grown diamond.” Wait—what?! What’s a lab-grown diamond? And what’s better, lab-grown diamonds or real diamonds?
Don’t worry, I’ll tell you everything you need to know about real diamonds and lab-grown diamonds so you can feel confident when making your next purchase.
What Are Natural Diamonds?
When I refer to “real” diamonds I’m actually talking about natural diamonds formed deep within the earth organically.
Real diamonds are rare, naturally occurring minerals formed under conditions of high pressure and high temperature deep within the earth’s mantle. Diamonds are composed of pure crystallized carbon that dates to between 1 billion and 3.3 billion years ago. Of all known substances, diamonds have the greatest number of carbon atoms per unit volume and have the highest level of thermal conductivity of all natural materials. Diamonds also have a high density and are so hard that they can cut through glass.
How are natural diamonds made and where do they come from?
Natural diamonds, or mined diamonds, are found in alluvial deposits formed from materials deep within the earth’s mantle. They are naturally made when carbon-containing fluids dissolve various minerals in the rocks below, and through a process of high pressure and temperature, organic diamonds form.
Over the years volcanic activity and eruptions disturbed diamonds formed deep within the mantle, which pushed the diamonds up, closer to the earth’s crust. After reaching the earth’s surface, diamonds deposited themselves into various igneous rocks.
From time to time erosion can expose naturally occurring diamonds that have surfaced, usually through rivers, waterways, and on beaches. Can you imagine going for a walk and finding a diamond? (You don’t have to imagine, this can actually happen and has! Check out this article about a woman who found a four-carat diamond while visiting a national park.) But, normally, earth-grown diamonds have to be mined.
What Are Lab-Grown Diamonds?
Lab-grown diamonds are exactly that, diamonds grown in a lab. With today’s technologies, scientists are able to mimic the same essential conditions needed to make a natural diamond and grow a synthetic diamond in a lab in a fraction of the time. The end result possesses all the same optical and chemical properties as naturally mined diamonds, they just got there in a different way.
How are lab-grown diamonds made?
Lab-grown diamonds, also referred to as synthetic diamonds, are made in highly controlled laboratories by scientists. They are grown using advanced technology that mimics the same environmental conditions that regular diamonds form in. Just like in nature, they use extreme pressure and heat that reacts with pure carbon to create diamonds.
In the lab, two different processes are used to create diamonds: High pressure, high temperature (HPHT) and chemical vapor deposition (CVD).
In HPHT, like the name suggests, high pressure and temperature are used just like in the natural process, but in the lab this procedure starts with a small diamond seed. Graphite, which is a softer form of the carbon element, is added with the diamond seed and together they are placed inside a chamber where high pressure and temperature go to work. As the graphite heats up it turns to liquid carbon and in these perfect, man-made conditions, over a few days a diamond forms.
When it comes to CVD, this technique uses gas, such as methane, inside a chamber. With different technologies, scientists are able to break down the gas and separate the carbon so that it accumulates onto a plate inside the chamber. This isolated carbon is then used with a diamond seed, just like in the HPHT method, to create a diamond.
Although both forms of lab-created, man-made diamonds are a cheaper alternative to naturally mined diamonds, chemical vapor deposition diamonds are the most cost efficient to produce.
Lab-Grown Diamonds vs. Natural Diamonds
Lab-grown diamonds are gaining popularity more and more every day and for good reason. To understand the debate between natural and lab-grown diamonds, you must first look at such factors as cost, sustainability, and appearance. A lab-created diamond and a mined diamond are both evaluated by the “four C’s,” that is, cut, clarity, color, and carat. But beyond that, there are differences.
One of the biggest factors when it comes to buying a diamond is price.
As is the case with many resources and commodities, because natural diamonds are so rare, they are expensive. And if you’re looking at purchasing a colored diamond, you should know that they are even rarer than regular diamonds, so they’re even more expensive.
Another factor in price is labor and processing. Natural diamonds take a lot of work to mine and process before they can make it to the market.
On the other hand, lab-created diamonds have their production costs too. Even though lab diamonds don’t have the extra costs of mining, laboratories can be expensive, especially when it comes to advanced technologies and machines designed specifically for duplicating the natural diamond-making process.
Despite the costs associated with laboratories and technology, when it comes to price, a natural diamond will always be much more expensive than a lab-grown diamond with the same color and clarity, based on their rarity and the time and effort put into removing them from the ground. In fact, according to some estimates, lab-created diamonds may be as much as 40%–50% cheaper than real diamonds.
There’s a big difference between someone picking up a raw diamond that’s been washed up on a beach somewhere and corporate companies that mass-mine natural areas for diamonds in order to meet market demands.
Natural diamonds and the environment
Because diamonds are found embedded in igneous rocks scattered throughout the earth, mining companies use machines to dig deep down into the earth’s crust to extract rocks. They then sift and process through raw materials to find diamonds.
Big diesel machines used for mining end up releasing exhaust fumes into the atmosphere while also leaching pollutants into the soil and water sources. These negative environmental impacts end up polluting water, reducing air quality, damaging ecosystems, and harming wildlife.
Natural diamonds and human rights
It’s not just the environment that’s affected by diamond mining. The diamond industry can be a very cruel world, with most mine employees working under extremely dangerous conditions with little to no safety training, all while being severely underpaid.
A huge issue in diamond mining are so-called blood diamonds. They are regular diamonds, but it’s the circumstances under which they are obtained that give blood diamonds their name. Blood diamonds, also called conflict diamonds, are basically diamonds mined in a war zone with the profits driving the war efforts even further. The working conditions in these kinds of mines are usually the worst of the worst.
Lab diamonds and sustainability
Lab-grown diamonds are much more sustainable than natural diamonds, due to the fact that they are mine free! Because they are made in laboratories, there’s no need for intense labor of ripping through rocks, soil, and waterways trying to find them. The diamonds are exactly where you made them—in the lab. Because of this, the carbon footprint for lab-created diamonds is considerably lower than that of mined diamonds. Mined diamonds can produce more than 125 lb of carbon emissions per single carat, while lab diamonds produce less than 5% of that.
When it comes to appearance, natural and synthetic diamonds are pretty much identical. They both appear clear and colorless, transmit light, and even have the same sparkle. Even with the help of special equipment and techniques, experienced jewelers can sometimes have a hard time distinguishing between the two.
The qualities that certified professionals use when evaluating diamonds are the 4 C’s:
Although many people think more about carats and colors, the cut of a diamond is the most important feature. How a diamond is cut determines how much it will sparkle and shine and really, isn’t that what draws us to a diamond in the first place?
Have you ever noticed how many surfaces a diamond has? This is the specific cut of the diamond. How much sparkle you get out of your diamond relies heavily on how deep and wide these cuts are.
Professionals use a 1–5 grading system from excellent to poor for diamonds to determine the different quality cuts and how much light they reflect. Higher-quality diamonds on the scale reflect the most light (which means they sparkle the most), while diamonds on the lower part of the scale reflect the least amount of light.
The color, or really lack of color, when it comes to diamonds determines the grade it receives and the value of the gem. The higher the grade, the higher the price.
Certified professionals use the Gemmological Institute of America (GIA) color scale to determine which grade each diamond receives. The GIA scale starts at the letter D, being the highest graded diamond with absolutely no color, and ends at the letter Z. As you go down the scale so does the color of the diamonds. Starting out completely colorless, diamonds become more and more yellow as you move down the scale, eventually becoming a yellow brown color when you reach the lowest grade of Z.
Colored diamonds do occur in nature and are also grown in the lab but have to be graded differently than colorless diamonds. Because natural colored diamonds are a lot more rare, they can be quite a bit more expensive.
When looking at diamond clarity, professionals are actually looking for flaws in the diamond itself. Imperfections can be deep inside the diamond (inclusions) or on the surface area (blemishes). Because mined diamonds grow in nature it’s impossible to guarantee a flawless diamond, but ones with the least visible flaws end up costing the most money. Because these flaws cannot be seen by the naked eye, it doesn’t normally affect the appearance of a diamond.
When it comes to lab-created diamonds, it is much less likely to have any flaws. Because the laboratory is such a controlled environment and the growth of the diamonds is so closely monitored, imperfections are almost impossible—and really, if there is a flaw, they can just make another one!
When speaking about carats, it’s not about the size of the diamond but the weight of it. When broken down, one diamond carat ends up being the equivalent in weight to 200mg or 0.2 grams.
Carats are one of the most important factors people look at when it comes to buying diamonds. The amount of carats in a natural diamond depends on the weight of the rough diamonds found in the ground. Because larger, heavier diamonds are more rare in nature, carat has a big influence on price. So basically, a heavier diamond equals more carats, which in turn means more money.
Although lab-created diamonds and mined diamonds are analyzed the same way when it comes to carat weight, a lab-grown diamond will always be cheaper than a natural diamond.
How Do You Tell the Difference?
Telling the difference between a lab-grown diamond and a natural diamond is actually a lot harder than you’d think. Methods and tools like diamond testers are great for detecting if a diamond or stone is fake, but because of their similar makeup, lab diamonds and natural diamonds appear the same on a diamond tester.
Both types of diamonds are composed of carbon and appear identical to the naked eye, but because of their different growth processes the carbon atoms end up taking different structured shapes inside the diamonds. Because customers receive diamonds after they’ve already been cut and polished, they don’t get to see their original form. But advanced technology and devices can magnify deep inside a diamond to reveal its unique carbon shapes, making the two diamonds distinguishable from one another.
Which Is Better?
There’s never been a better time than right now to start living sustainably and making better choices.
Now that you’re more informed, the next time you’re shopping for jewelry you can make the more ethical choice and choose a lab diamond over a mined one. Not only will you be buying a more affordable diamond, but you’ll also be helping to reduce the demand for natural diamonds, thereby reducing the negative impacts that natural diamond mining has on human life as well as the environment.
If everyone decided to buy lab diamonds over mined diamonds, imagine how quickly we could put an end to the inhumane, damaging effects of mining natural diamonds.
Where Can You Buy Lab-Grown Diamonds?
Now that you know the facts and differences between both types of diamonds, you’re probably wondering who sells lab-created diamonds and where you can buy one.
Most jewelry stores that carry earth-mined diamonds now carry lab diamonds too. Because of their growing popularity it’s not as hard to find lab-grown diamonds in stores as it once was, and every day new businesses are popping up promoting this new sustainable stone. There are now even websites that sell only lab-created diamonds, not even offering mined diamonds at all.
While most people shopping for diamonds are usually looking for engagement rings, many other pieces of fine jewelry incorporate diamonds. And many of these pieces that were once made to display natural diamonds now include an option for lab-grown diamonds too!
If you’d like to know more about where to buy lab-grown diamonds and don’t know where to start, check out my article on the six best lab-grown diamond retailers, where I have already done all of the work for you.
So, lab-grown diamonds or real diamonds? You may have heard the term “blood diamond” before and you’re reading this article because you don’t want to contribute to that calamity, or any of the other negative effects of diamond mining.
Now when you go to choose your next diamond, if it’s for a diamond engagement ring or something equally as special, you have all the information you need to know to choose the right diamond for you and your special person.