I get questions about this often and thought I would present something of an answer. Simulants are a different thing, and most of them ARE pretty cheap, but colorless and near-colorless lab-grown diamonds are pretty close to the prices of their natural counterparts. This often comes as a surprise, because people have seen or read things to the contrary, and because the whole synthetic gemstone business has precedents. Synthetic sapphire and ruby have been on the market for over a century and in most cases are very inexpensive. Synthetic emeralds are lovely, reasonably priced, and have been around for decades. Synthetic versions of spinel, amethyst, chrysoberyl and many other gemstones are plentiful and inexpensive. When lab wizards figure out how to make a stone in the lab, it is usually extremely high quality, as large as you want, and a fraction of the cost of the natural equivalent. Why are diamonds so different?
Cutting Synthetic Diamonds
The first has to do with cutting. Converting a diamond from a piece of rough into a finished gem that you can wear is hard. It’s much more difficult than with other gems. Gemstones are cut by using smaller, harder stones as an abrasive. That works with everything else but diamonds, since they’re the hardest abrasive available. Diamonds must be cut with other diamonds. It doesn’t seem like that would work at all but there’s a slight difference in hardness depending on direction in the crystal, so cutters are able to exploit this difference by a very tricky dance and by paying careful attention to the grain while they work. It’s labor intensive hand work and the same for synthetics as it is for natural. It takes very specialized equipment and some very specialized talents. Robots, lasers, et al. have become tools for the cutters, but diamonds are still cut one at a time by highly skilled artisans.
Growing Synthetic Diamonds
The second is the way diamonds are grown. Synthetic sapphires start out HUGE. We’re talking the size of a potato or even a soccer ball. (see below) Corundum, the base mineral that makes up both sapphire and ruby, can be grown the same way a stalactite grows in a cave. A factory can make a thousand of them at once if they want. The cutting house, which can be largely an automated affair, is slicing it down to whatever size the customer wants. Waste is irrelevant. The cost of a kilo size piece of rough is 1000 times the cost of a gram and if they lose 90% to the cutting process, that’s fine. They’ll make more.
Yeah, but what if….?
What if synthetic diamonds really do become available cheaply and by the bucketload like they’ve been predicting for the last 100 years or so? Stranger things have happened. What will that do to the value of natural diamonds? Will there be a catastrophic collapse in the diamond market? It’s an interesting question, and although it seems edgy, this is actually a well-trodden path. Synthetic rubies, cultured pearls, synthetic spinel, and synthetic alexandrite are examples where the products from the labs are superb and are available for a fraction of the cost of their natural counterparts. Technological advances tend to make better and better things available cheaper and cheaper. And the engineers in the labs routinely do miracles. A lot of what was impossible 50 years ago is passé today, and prices do occasionally plummet because of it. It’s happened before with other industries, but it HASN’T happened with gems. People who want an awesome 3-carat natural Kashmir sapphire simply don’t consider the lab stones to be an acceptable alternative no matter how pretty they are. Similarly, the people who are buying a $30 synthetic sapphire because it would look great with a particular outfit are usually not seriously considering a $30,000 mined stone as an alternative, even if it’s a bargain at that price. In that regard, not all that much has changed.
There are other examples. Large natural pearls are extremely cool, extremely rare, and extremely expensive. So much so that people who think of pearls are almost always thinking of the cultured product. Even so, there IS a market for natural pearls, and there are customers who want them who are willing to pay the prices. If anything, the prices have gone UP in the face of plentiful alternatives. Lab-grown emeralds are a fantastic product that have offered competition for the lower end goods by offering a better looking alternative for the same money, but top tier natural emeralds are more expensive now than ever before. It’s actually already happened in fancy-colored diamonds. Natural fancy-colored diamonds in red, blue and pink are bringing in record prices at auction even though there’s a booming market for synthetics in these colors at a fraction of the prices. In fact nearly all synthetic diamonds for the gem industry are in fancy colors. Neither market is driving the other.
Synthetics vs. Natural Diamonds?
So, are advances in synthetics a problem for diamond shoppers? I think not. People buy diamonds for emotional reasons and because they are one of nature’s miracles. People buy synthetics, because they like the idea of an incredible product made by some brilliant people, and they like the history of knowing it came from a lab. They see it as a feature, not a problem. These are complementary markets, not competitive ones. With proper disclosure, both sides can be happy with their purchase for generations to come. Failure to provide disclosure is a problem with the dealer, not the product. If the dealer is lying, it’s a problem whether they are lying about the origin, the grading, the treatments, or even whether or not it’s a diamond at all.
by Neil Beaty
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