Diamonds on Demand

Lab-grown gemstones are now practically indistinguishable from mined diamonds. Scientists and engineers see a world of possibilities

These rocks don’t lose their shape: thanks to recent advances, scientists can grow gems (from Apollo) and industrial diamonds in a matter of days. (Max Aguilera-Hellweg)
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Credit for the modern cult of the diamond goes primarily to South Africa-based De Beers, the world's largest diamond producer. Before the 1940s, diamond rings were rarely given as engagement gifts. But De Beers' marketing campaigns established the idea that the gems are the supreme token of love and affection. Their "A Diamond Is Forever" slogan, first deployed in 1948, is considered one of the most successful advertising campaigns of all time. Through a near total control of supply, De Beers held almost complete power over the diamond market for decades, carefully hoarding the gemstones to keep prices—and profits—high. While the company has lost some of its power to competitors in Canada and Australia over the past few years, it still controls almost two-thirds of the world's rough diamonds.

Diamond growers are proud of the challenge they pose to De Beers and the rest of the natural diamond industry. Apollo's slogan is "A Diamond Is for Everyone." So far, though, Apollo's colorless gems cost about the same as natural stones, while the company's pink, blue, champagne, mocha and brown diamonds retail for about 15 percent less than natural stones with such colors, which are very rare and more expensive than white diamonds. Meanwhile, consumers may well be receptive to high-quality, laboratory-produced diamonds. Like most open-pit mines, diamond mines cause erosion, water pollution and habitat loss for wildlife. Even more troubling, African warlords have used diamond caches to buy arms and fund rebel movements, as dramatized in the 2006 movie Blood Diamond. Actor Terrence Howard wears a diamond lapel pin with Apollo stones. He told reporters, "Nobody was harmed in the process of making it."

Half a dozen other companies have begun to manufacture gem-quality diamonds using not CVD but a process that more closely mimics the way diamonds are created in the earth. The method—basically an improvement on how scientists have been making diamonds since the 1950s—requires heat of more than 2,000 degrees and pressure 50 times greater than that at the surface of the earth. (Both the heat and pressure are more than what CVD requires.) The washing machine-size devices can't produce stones much larger than six carats. These HPHT diamonds—the initials stand for high pressure and high temperature—have more nitrogen in them than CVD diamonds do; the nitrogen turns the diamonds amber-colored. For now, though, the process has a significant benefit over CVD: it's less expensive. While a natural, one-carat amber-colored diamond might retail for $20,000 or more, the Florida-based manufacturer Gemesis sells a one-carat stone for about $6,000. But no one, Gemesis included, wants to sell diamonds too cheaply lest the market for them collapse.

Gemologists plying everyday tools can seldom distinguish between natural and lab-grown diamonds. (Fake diamonds such as cubic zirconia are easy to spot.) De Beers sells two machines that detect either chemical or structural characteristics that sometimes vary between the two types of stones, but neither machine can tell the difference all the time. Another way to identify a lab-produced diamond is to cool the stone in liquid nitrogen and then fire a laser at it and examine how the light passes through the stone. But equipment is expensive and the process can take hours.

Diamonds from Apollo and Gemesis, the two largest manufacturers, are marked with a laser-inscribed insignia visible with a jeweler's loupe. Last year, the Gemological Institute of America, an industry research group, began to grade lab-grown stones according to carat, cut, color and clarity—just as it does for natural stones—and it provides a certificate for each gem that identifies it as lab grown.

The diamond-mining companies have been fighting back, arguing that all that glitters is not diamond. De Beers' ads and its Web sites insist that diamonds should be natural, unprocessed and millions of years old. "Diamonds are rare and special things with an inherent value that does not exist in factory-made synthetics," says spokeswoman Lynette Gould. "When people want to celebrate a unique relationship they want a unique diamond, not a three-day-old factory-made stone." (De Beers does have an investment in Element Six, the company that makes thin industrial diamonds.)

The Jewelers Vigilance Committee (JVC), a trade group, has been lobbying the Federal Trade Commission to prevent diamond manufacturers from calling their stones "cultured," a term used for most of the pearls sold today. (People in the mined diamond business use less-flattering terms such as "synthetic.") The JVC filed a petition with the agency in 2006, claiming that consumers are often confused by the nomenclature surrounding lab-grown diamonds.

From the beginning of his research with CVD more than 20 years ago, Robert Linares hoped that diamonds would become the future of electronics. At the heart of almost every electrical device is a semiconductor, which transmits electricity only under certain conditions. For the past 50 years, the devices have been made almost exclusively from silicon, a metal-like substance extracted from sand. It has two significant drawbacks, however: it is fragile and overheats. By contrast, diamond is rugged, doesn't break down at high temperatures, and its electrons can be made to carry a current with minimal interference. At the moment, the biggest obstacle to diamond's overtaking silicon is money. Silicon is one of the most common materials on earth and the infrastructure for producing silicon chips is well established.

Apollo has used profits from its gemstones to underwrite its foray into the $250 billion semiconductor industry. The company has a partnership Bryant Linares declines to confirm to produce semiconductors specialized for purposes he declines to discuss. But he revealed to me that Apollo is beginning to sell one-inch diamond wafers. "We anticipate that these initial wafers will be used for research and development purposes in our clients' product development efforts," Linares says.

Before I leave the Apollo lab, Robert and Bryant Linares take me into a warehouse-like room about the size of a high-school gym. It's empty, except for large electrical cables snaking along the floor. The space will soon be filled with 30 diamond-making machines, the men say, nearly doubling Apollo's production capacity. It will be the world's first diamond factory, they say. "There was a copper age and a steel age," Bryant says. "Next will be diamond."

Ulrich Boser is writing a book about the world's largest unsolved art heist.
Photographer Max Aguilera-Hellweg specializes in medical and scientific subjects.


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