Diamonds From the Lab: Cheaper, But Are They Just as Good?

One gem takes a billion years or so to make, the other about 10 weeks. Other than that, they are indistinguishable to all but experts with special equipment.

New techniques are producing laboratory-made diamonds that are difficult even for experts to tell from natural diamonds. The synthetic stones cost 20 percent to 50 percent of the price of similar natural diamonds, and they’re free of the ethical issues associated with mined diamonds. Still, there’s been no great rush to purchase the man-made gems — at least not yet.

One couple’s story

Would you buy, give or wear a synthetic diamond? New Orleans businessman Calvin Mills, Jr., would — and did. He made a very public halftime proposal of marriage to his fiancée on the field of the 2014 Bayou Classic matchup between his alma mater, Southern University, and Grambling State. As he proposed, Mills slipped a 2.62 carat, pear-shaped synthetic diamond ring onto fiancée Brittany Ramsey’s finger. Bloomberg says the stone cost $22,000.

Ramsey told The New York Post that she appreciated the savings over the cost of a comparable natural stone. “I’d rather put that money toward our future together,” she said.

Manufacturers have synthesized diamonds for industrial uses for a long time. But the lab-made jewelry diamonds are of an even-higher quality. So far, they represent a small fraction of the overall diamond market, but demand is growing, a Tel Aviv diamond trader tells Reuters.

Not cubic zirconia

These are not your mom’s cubic zirconia. Laboratory-produced stones must be labeled synthetic, lab-grown or lab-created. But, to a layperson, it’s hard to distinguish between lab-created and mined diamonds, New York diamond jeweler Adam Gil tells The New York Post.

Bloomberg tells how the stones are created:

They’re made from a carbon seed placed in a microwave chamber with methane or another carbon-containing gas and superheated into a glowing plasma ball. That creates particles that crystallize into diamonds, a process that can take 10 weeks. The technology has progressed to the point that experts need a machine to tell synthesized gems apart from those extracted from mines or rivers.

Reuters adds:

Chemically, physically and optically the two kinds of diamonds are the same, said Tom Moses, chief laboratory and research officer at the GIA, which grades and evaluates diamonds.

The only thing differentiating them is how they are formed — one underground over a couple billion years, the other in a lab over two to three days.

The romance factor

Some in the traditional diamond trade dismiss talk of synthetic stones as serious competition. Diamonds’ romantic history and earthy origins give them a unique emotional cache, they say. Also, while you may be able to recoup some of your investment by selling your diamond ring, that’s unlikely with a synthetic diamond.

Just to be safe, though, as The Wall Street Journal reports (subscription required), the diamond industry is spending $6 million annually on marketing to strengthen the appeal of natural diamonds in the minds of American consumers, who make about 40 percent of diamond purchases.

Three reasons to buy a synthetic diamond

There are a few powerful reasons for consumers to prefer a synthetic stone:

1. Ethics: Some buyers — Calvin Mills, Jr., was among them — worry they might be sold a “blood diamond” or “conflict diamond,” natural diamonds sold to fund devastating conflicts in several countries in central and western Africa. Amnesty International explains:

Profits from the trade in conflict diamonds, worth billions of dollars, were used by warlords and rebels to buy arms during the devastating wars in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Sierra Leone. Wars that have cost an estimated 3.7 million lives.

Reuters says, “International pressure on governments and the diamond industry to take action to eliminate conflict diamonds from international trade has had some success although the problem has not been wiped out entirely.”

2. Cost: As Brittany Ramsey pointed out, there’s plenty else a young couple can do with tens of thousands of dollars than spend it on a rock. Here is Bloomberg’s comparison of prices for natural vs. comparable synthetic diamonds:

  • A 1-carat synthetic diamond costs around $6,000 compared with a $10,000 price tag for a 1-carat natural stone of the same quality.
  • A 3.04-carat synthetic diamond sells for $23,000 while a mined stone of similar size and quality costs about $40,000.

3. Trust: This third reason for buying a synthetic stone may seem counterintuitive at first.

The quality of synthetics is so high that the diamond industry acknowledges that it’s difficult even for experts to distinguish synthetics from natural stones.

“In the past two years reports have popped up of undisclosed mixing, breeding a level of mistrust within the diamond supply chain,” Reuters writes.

In 2012 the lab of the International Gemological Institute in Antwerp found 600 man-made stones among a group of 1,000 small diamonds thought to be natural. The lab-made stones even contained impurities that apparently had been added to make them appear natural.

So think about it: Buying a frankly synthetic diamond at a price much lower than a comparable natural stone is protection against unknowingly paying full price for a counterfeit.

We’d love to hear your thoughts. Would you buy a synthetic diamond? Would you wear one? Post a comment below or at Money Talks News’ Facebook page.

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