How Should We Think—and Talk—About Synthetic Diamonds?

Last week’s post on lab-grown diamonds elicited a storm of comments—some of which went over well-trodden ground, such as whether “synthetic” is a valid term. The debate at times got a little heated and divisive—which is unfortunate and really kind of pointless, because someday the natural and synthetic markets will have to coexist.

For a more balanced perspective, I turned to Eric Franklin, president of diamond grower D.Nea Diamonds, which sells its lab-grown stones on the Internet and through a retail store in Greenville, S.C. Eric has produced diamonds for years, but has kept a pretty low profile because, as he put it, he likes to “let our stones speak for themselves.” Still, he’s always open and accessible.

Here, he lays out his views on lab-grown diamonds—and how we should start to talk about this alluring, confusing, and at times frightening new product:

There has been a lot of discussion over the years about non-mined gemstones, specifically diamonds. The most discussed topic within the industry is not how to make them or who wants them and why, but rather, what to call and not call them. 

The Federal Trade Commission and various industry associations more or less agree the following can be used correctly: “synthetic,” “lab-grown,” “lab-created,” “[producer]-created,” “(hu)man-made” or “cultured,” immediately preceding the word diamond. [Note: See below.]

Initially, debate surrounded the word cultured, as to how growing a diamond may or may not relate to growing a pearl. Both natural and cultured pearls are created in live mollusks. If taken strictly literally, a “cultured diamond” should have a seed planted deep inside the earth then harvested at some point in the future. Practically though, the environment that HPHT (high pressure, high temperature) presses create resembles the conditions in which diamonds naturally grow. The CVD [chemical vapor deposition] process (low pressure plasma), however, is unlike anything naturally found on earth.

Lately, the debate surrounds the word synthetic.… To imply a CVD-grown or HPHT-grown diamond is not a synthetic diamond is incorrect and potentially misleading. By definition, “synthetic diamond” is 100 percent correct for any diamond that was not created entirely by nature. This includes all diamonds grown by CVD, HPHT, or any other method that involved humans or machinery. Expanding on that term, carbon atoms (from a gas or graphite) were combined (synthesized) under a very specific and controlled set of conditions (temperatures, pressures, catalysts, plasmas, etc.) to create crystallized cubic carbon (diamond).

Now, whether that is the best term for marketing, however, is still clearly debated, and will probably continue for some time. “Synthetic” is commonly misused and misunderstood even by jewelers, vendors and diamond producers, but is still technically right, when used correctly. Synthetic leather is an easy misleading example to point to. It isn’t leather at all and should be called (and usually is) artificial, imitation, or simulated leather. It is different from diamond though, because we have both synthetic (chemically identical) and artificial (looks similar, but chemically different) versions, while there is no true chemically identical synthetic leather.

Synthetic is also heavily used, unqualified, by [certain] vendors selling (synthetic) cubic zirconia and (synthetic) moissanite, possibly with the intent to allow an uneducated consumer to believe they are buying a (synthetic) diamond rather than an imitation. One ad I saw recently for a company selling CZs was something to the effect of “the leader in synthetic engagement rings,” which may be correct (synthetic CZ), but misleading at the same time (implying synthetic diamond). Anything that looks similar to a diamond, but isn’t cubic carbon with all the same chemical, optical, and physical properties as a mined diamond is a simulant or imitation—CZ, moissanite, YAG, etc.—and needs to be clearly disclosed and qualified as such. 

The industry should not shy away from terms like “synthetic diamond” if both parties know they are talking about a diamond created in a machine. If there is any doubt, the “created” and “grown” qualifiers explicitly state a gemstone’s origin and leave much less room for interpretation than both “synthetic” and “cultured” … 

Regardless of what term someone prefers, this is what ultimately matters:

1. All parties know it is a real diamond (not an imitation, CZ, etc.).

2. All parties know it was not mined.

Another issue recently raised is if a synthetic diamond is “better” than a mined diamond. That is very subjective and is best left up to the buyer of a given diamond to determine. Whether mined or grown, they are both ultimately cubic carbon with a hardness of 10, RI of 2.42, etc. Cut and clarity are very much up to the discretion of the cutter, so origin of the carbon here is a draw. Lab-grown whites are Type IIa, while around 2 percent of mined diamonds are IIa. That means at an atomic level most lab-whites have less nitrogen than most mined-whites. Is that relevant to most people? I would say no. Is a CVD-grown IIa I-L color (most CVDs >.7ct) “better” than a mined-Ia G color, all else being equal? The average consumer would probably say no. Is a CVD-grown, HPHT-color-treated (most CVD is color enhanced) G “better” than an HPHT-grown untreated G or a mined Ia untreated G, all else being equal? I’ll leave that to the buyer to decide.

Lab-grown diamonds do use a modest amount of electricity and resources. Mining operations use lots of fossil-fuel powered equipment to move and process massive amounts of earth. Looking strictly at power and environmental impact, lab diamonds have less of a negative impact than mined diamonds. Less impact is generally better than more impact, but is not the same as no impact or direct positive improvement to the environment.

It is also true, lab-grown diamonds do not have the social, labor, conflict, or environmental issues that can come with some mined diamonds. Comparatively though, the mining industry provides jobs, education and many other resources to developing nations. Which is better? Again, I’ll defer to the buyer. 

Lab-grown diamonds may not be the best fit for every vendor and customer, just as mined diamonds are not the best fit for everyone either. They are not going away, though, so my recommendation is to see if and how they might fit within your product lineup.

Franklin also suggests that, in the future, sales channels could add a designation of “C” (the fifth C?) for “creation,” or possibly “origin,” which could state “lab” or “nature.” I don’t think we are at the point yet, but we may be eventually.

And for an alternate view on some of these topics, see this submission to the Federal Trade Commission, from Gemesis president Suraj Mehta.

UPDATE: Cecilia Gardner of the Jewelers Vigilance Committee phones in to say that the FTC has found that for the word “cultured” to be used, it must immediately precede (or be preceded by) the terms “man-made,” “(producer)-created,” “lab-grown,” or “synthetic.” Presently you cannot use the words “cultured diamond” alone to describe a lab-grown diamond.

JCK News Director