A human test tube baby created in a laboratory through the in-vitro fertilisation process is no less natural or real than the diamonds grown in a laboratory. Lab-grown diamonds, born in high pressure, high temperature containers, replicating the earth’s forces hundreds of feet underground, have the same optical, physical and chemical structure as a mined diamond. This awareness has escalated enormous consumer acceptance for Lab-grown diamonds. Even technological progress is keeping pace with increased acceptance.
Clive Hill, founder and chairman, Washington Diamonds, a US-based producer of Lab-grown diamonds, tells BDI, “Customer feedback is good. Our customers mostly sell to end consumers and the lab grown business is growing steadily.”
Price – The Real Difference
Most retailers also sell natural diamonds along with Lab-growns, which are duly inscribed as such. The consumer gets to choose.
Says a high-end diamond consumer, “Both natural and Lab-grown diamonds look identical and have the same brilliance. I understand that the only difference between Lab-grown and mined diamonds is the place of origin and the price. About 25-35% is a big price differential for the same product. My girl gets a higher quality product for a lesser price. Price speaks to me, even if the diamond doesn’t.”
Diamond retailers say that the price difference is even greater for fancy coloured stones, which can go up to 80%. They believe this differential will get bigger because roughs are a limited edition and its eventual scarcity will push up the prices of a mined diamond.
Besides price, consumers are also attracted to the ‘clean’ label of a Lab-grown diamond. These diamonds are eco-friendly and conflict free, besides being environmentally and socially responsible, easily fulfilling the goals that the mined diamond industry has strived to achieve for hundreds of years.
Born in technologically advanced laboratories, the development process of producing Lab-grown diamonds has undergone advanced change. For a hundred years, even as we experimented with alchemy to convert iron into gold, researchers worked to successfully produce a diamond in a laboratory, using the traditional high pressure high temperature (HPHT) process, which tried to imitate the earth’s natural process of subjecting carbon to more than 2,200 degrees of heat and 50,000 atmospheres of pressure. Later, the more advanced CVD technique was developed which used a diamond seed. However, even under the CVD process, “the growth of the diamonds could not be controlled and the process yielded diamonds of various grades, colours and sizes, which were used largely as industrial diamonds with less than 30% per cent of the stones being of gem quality and used for jewellery,” says Vishal Mehta, CEO – IIa Technologies.
More recently, the Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD) technique has evolved using the microwave plasma (MPCVD) process to grow diamonds, in which the MP refers to the power source. In this technique, a diamond seed, either natural or grown, is placed within a low-pressure microwave chamber, where hydrogen and methane gases are introduced. With microwave energy, the gases ignite into a glowing plasma ball and carbon molecules rain on the seed, which initiates carbon crystallisation. The carbon atoms bond to each other to result in diamond growth. This technology has refined the process and yields Lab-grown diamonds which are colourless and even superior in quality to mined colourless diamonds. The difference between a Lab-grown diamond and a natural mined diamond is hard to tell and detectable only by sophisticated equipment.
Time For Growth
It takes anywhere between 6 to 10 weeks to grow a diamond with thickness of 3mm to 5mm. The largest Lab-grown diamond, recently produced by IIa Technologies, is a colourless 3.04 carat stone. Although the growth process is still unpredictable, researchers are experimenting to produce thicker, gem quality crystals, by extending the growth time.
Dr. Robert Linares of Integrated Diamond Technologies, LLC., and an expert in crystal growth technologies, informs that while the older CVD chambers enabled growth on only one seed at a time, today, some CVD manufacturing systems are reportedly capable of growing more than 50 seeds simultaneously and this number is likely to increase over time.
IIa Technologies, is stated to have the largest MPCVD diamond research facility in the world with over 50 MPCVD reactors producing gem quality diamonds. “The reactor seed capacity is usually a closely guarded secret,” Linares admits.
Another guarded secret is the production figures. “For these companies, production figures are commercially sensitive information,” admits Clive Hill. Today, Lab-grown diamonds produced by only a handful of companies, account for less than 2% of the global diamond market.
Yet, the popularity is on the rise. For instance, a survey, conducted by Frost and Sullivan on 1,200 consumers across six countries, including India, found that nearly half of the 200 Indians surveyed were interested in buying ‘manmade diamonds’. This shook a dismissive diamond industry looking on the Lab-growns as the new kid on the block.
With a new generation of producers, focused on increasing production, with sustained aggressive marketing, perhaps the time for Lab-grown diamonds is now.
As Clive Hill predicts, “Ultimately diamond is a new super material that will be used far more widely than for merely gemstones. In ten years’ time, most people will own something with diamond within it. The non-gem uses will dwarf the gem uses.”