In the journalism business, there was once lots of talk about a “pivot to video.” The lab-grown diamond version of that is the “pivot to tech.”
According to Al Genis (pictured), one of the people involved in lab-grown pioneer Apollo Diamond, early companies felt they would infiltrate the gem market, then use the cash made in jewelry space to produce ultra-useful industrial diamonds.
“We saw gems as our cash cow,” he says.
Or, as diamond grower John Janik crassly put it in the Showtime documentary Nothing Lasts Forever: “I gotta do what I gotta do, which is to make money by destroying [the] gem industry to create a new industry.”
Yet, not only has the gem industry not been destroyed, but that tech industry remains in its infancy. Last year Dick Garard, CEO of the International Grown Diamond Association, told me that diamond-based semiconductors remain “quite a ways away.”
Now, some admit, the original plan was flawed. Apollo (later Scio) originally focused on gems, struggled to win trade and consumer acceptance for them, then wound up financially strapped.
Today, there’s a lot more acceptance of lab-grown diamonds, but that’s brought up another problem: The gem business has become a big moneymaker. Why invest in a hard-to-achieve goal when easy money is at hand?
That has postponed the pivot, Genis says, which has left him “distraught.”
Last week, Genis, who has founded a new company, Single Crystal Diamond, expressed his frustration with what’s happened to the diamond-growing sector in a post on LinkedIn. He elaborated on his thoughts in an interview with JCK Wednesday.
“The technology market has been held back by the gem market,” he says. “If this were just another semiconductor market, we wouldn’t have this problem.“
He rattles off a list of tantalizing possible applications for industrial diamonds: faster computers, which would decrease energy use (and help to slow global warming); MRIs “the size of a cell phone”; water purification; even the ability to store “the entire Library of Congress on a single diamond.”
There’s another, more controversial use for industrial diamonds: Their hardness makes them well-suited for arms. That’s one reason the U.S. government has long been interested in them. Norinco, a subsidiary of the Chinese military and a major lab-grown gem producer, has also eyed industrial lab-grown diamonds for use in advanced laser weaponry. Genis worries the United States has fallen behind on that front.
He’s not the only one who feels the gem market may be impeding progress.
On a recent Rapaport webinar, Marty Hurwitz, CEO and founder of The MVEye and a consultant to several lab-grown companies, said the industry has “opportunities in scientific materials, advanced materials, industrial materials.
“Every time you change the chamber to do something else, it takes six months to configure it. It takes a lot of wisdom and human capital to figure out how to do that.
“If you want to do research and development in quantum computing…you have to shut down a bunch of chambers to do that research and development and have no revenue from [that]. Meanwhile, people are throwing money at you for the gem-quality product.”
On the same webinar, Amish Shah, president of ALTR Created Diamonds, noted that Chinese HPHT presses once used for industrial diamonds now churn out gems. And, of course, Element Six—the De Beers subsidiary that has long been one of the biggest producers of industrial diamonds—has also entered the gem market.
Not everyone agrees this is a problem.
William Holber, president of Plasmability–a company that was originally interested in the semiconductor market, but is now producing only gems—believes the jewelry business has fueled investment in the tech sector.
“Until lab-grown CVD gems became a viable business, there were a couple of people floating around and a little bit of equipment. This has poured hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars of investment into growing material. That generates talent, it generates equipment, it generates interest.
“[The gem business] is great for electronic materials. Whether we do electronic materials or not, the core technology that everyone is working on will accelerate industrial applications.”
Of course, no one can say definitively. But Genis, who’s been around since the beginning, sees a lot of missed opportunities. He says the generation he came up with—“semiconductor guys,” often trained by the military—is going away.
“I spent my whole life developing this technology, and it’s sitting here in my living room,” he says. “I have people who want to invest with me, and they say, ‘Can you make gems?’ I can make gems all day long. But that’s not going to help you, or your future, or your kids.”
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