Buying an engagement ring these days can seem downright overwhelming. With such a variety of stones, shapes and styles to choose from, choosing a design is no easy task. For those interested in the classic diamond, there is now another level to consider: do you want to go for a mined diamond or do you prefer to buy a laboratory stone?
Before you can decide, you might be wondering what distinguishes lab-grown diamonds from natural diamonds. Ultimately, not much. In fact, as far as the average consumer is concerned, there is very little difference between the two. “Chemically, optically and gemmologically, lab-grown and mined diamonds are the same,” says Brandon Cook of Clean Origin. However, where the two mainly diverge is how they are created and the ethical and environmental ramifications they have on the world at large. “The differences are not in the physical composition of the stone but in the source,” says fine jewelry expert Maria Doulton. “What matters is how you feel about it.”
Meet the expert
• Brandon Cook is Director of Marketing for Clean Origin, a 100% lab-grown diamond company.
• Maria Doulton is co-founder and editor-in-chief of The jewelry editor. Based in the UK, her work has also appeared in The Financial Times and The telegraph.
To learn more about lab-grown versus natural diamonds, including how they can also vary in price, durability, and clarity, read on.
The difference between synthetic and natural diamonds
Besides the stark difference in how they are made, there are a few defining characteristics that define a lab-grown diamond versus a natural diamond.
How they are created
Most natural diamonds on the market today were formed far below the Earth’s surface, in the planet’s mantle layer. Billions of years of intense heat and pressure caused the element carbon to reorganize at the atomic level and thus take on the solid form of a diamond. In areas of the globe where conditions and temperatures were conducive to the creation of diamonds, deep volcanic eruptions brought the stones closer to the surface via kimberlite pipes. “Diamonds are broken up in the process, producing more small pieces than large ones,” says Doulton. These massive and deep craters are then mined for gemstones.
Lab-grown diamonds, on the other hand, are just that: lab-grown diamonds. “The most common way is to use a process called chemical vapor deposition,” Cook explains. “You start with a very thin slice of a diamond, where the crystal structure of the diamond is already formed. This is often called the diamond ‘seed’ and consists of pure carbon; natural or existing diamond created in a lab. seed is placed in a vacuum where the carbon molecules assimilate to the diamond seed.It’s almost like 3D printing a diamond. Once the diamond is “grown” in this chamber, it will be ready to be cut and polished, just like a natural diamond. And because a lab-created diamond is always pure carbon, it is, chemically speaking, exactly the same as a natural diamond.
According to Cook, the first laboratory diamonds were produced in the 1950s, but “it took about sixty more years to produce diamonds of gem quality, that is, a diamond of one color and sufficient clarity that you would like to wear on your finger.”
Part of the reason natural diamonds are so expensive is due to their rarity. “They depend on complex and expensive mining operations and there are no guarantees as to what will come out of the ground,” says Doulton.
It is believed that there are a finite amount of natural stones on the planet, and the circumstances in which each is created are unique, so the characteristics on which gemstones are graded will be equally special. Other aspects that contribute to their cost are the labor and energy required to mine and polish the stones, and, of course, the strategic and somewhat dubious origins, control and publicity behind the diamond market itself.
Lab-grown diamonds are going to be cheaper than natural diamonds – sometimes up to 50% less than a similar quality natural stone – because they are not vetted through the same supply chains. “Advances in technology are also allowing for greater efficiency in the manufacture of lab-created diamonds,” Cook says.
Synthetic diamonds are made of carbon, the same material as natural diamonds. They remain the hardest material on earth – a 10 on the Mohs scale of hardness – and are therefore as hard to chip as a natural diamond.
“Many of the same grading agencies, namely the Gemological Institute of America and the International Gemological Institute, grade lab-created diamonds using the same methods and standards used for natural diamonds,” Cook explains. This is important to note because, if these flagship institutions use the same scales to rate both lab-grown and natural diamonds, it signifies the differences between the two with respect to the 4Cs – cut, clarity, color and carat – are zero.
Because lab grown diamonds are not constructed, they will also pick up inclusions or “flaws” that affect a stone’s brilliance and purity. (The more inclusions a stone has, the more cloudy it can be and the lower its clarity grade.) Just like natural diamonds, lab-grown diamond clarity grades range from Flawless (F1) to Included 3 (I3).
Same thing here: a high quality synthetic diamond will be ranked on the same scale as a natural diamond when it comes to color. There is no visual difference between a lab-grown diamond and a natural diamond, and most couples look for gems of both varieties graded between G and J, which are nearly colorless. Graded from D to F, true colorless diamonds are extremely rare and therefore extremely expensive.
Looking to maximize your spending? “Consider a lower color gradation, as there are large price differences between a higher D and G color, or accept slight illusions on a flawless stone,” says Doulton.
Perhaps the strongest case for buying lab-grown diamonds has to do with the ethical and environmental ramifications of bringing natural diamonds to market. As the consumer values of Millennials and Gen Z shift, they are more concerned with making sure their dollars flow to businesses with values similar to theirs than previous generations did.
“It only takes a Google image search of the Orapa Diamond Mine to understand the scale of ecological destruction and outright pollution that can come from diamond mining,” Cook says. “It goes hand in hand with the historically murky ethics of diamond mining. As the industry has made strides in cleaning up its act, the only way to know for sure that your diamond is truly 100% free of conflict “- that is, a diamond that does not come from an area controlled by warring factions -” is through the purchase of a lab-created diamond.
That said, lab-grown diamonds are not without their downsides. “The reality is that most lab-grown diamonds still require large amounts of energy to power the high-temperature machines in which they are grown,” Doulton says. “But there’s no denying that they have a clear chain of custody in the market.”
As the diamond industry continues to evolve to keep up with consumer preferences, improvements are being made on both sides of the coin. Doulton praises sources in Canada, such as the Diavik Diamond Mine and other participants in the Canadamark program, for being fully traceable sources of natural diamonds, and notes that UK lab-grown diamond brand SkyDiamond is carbon negative.
No. According to a 2018 revision by the Federal Trade Commission of its jewelry marketing guidelines — which removed the word “natural” from its definition of a diamond — the term synthetic cannot be applied to lab-grown diamonds because they are made from pure carbon, the same material that natural diamonds are made of. Because they have the same chemical composition, they are both considered diamonds.
Here it is important to understand that the monetary “value” of a stone is assigned by the market and what a customer is willing to pay for it. No stone, no matter how rare or perfect, has intrinsic value. If a lab-grown diamond is documented and known to be lab-grown, it will have a lower value than a natural diamond of similar grading, just as the initial purchase cost of that stone would have been lower. Meaning: It is important to buy your diamond engagement ring not because it can be used as capital, but because it is a symbol of love and commitment to your partner. But no, an appraiser will not value your stone just because it is lab grown. Instead, they’ll just grade it on a different value scale.
Lab-grown diamond technology is also constantly evolving, which could lead to changes in their value. If they become easier to produce and cost less to manufacture, their price will likely drop, which will lower their value. Additionally, if future generations continue to devalue the diamond as a symbol of love and marriage, the value of lab-grown and natural diamonds could decline as their demand is less.
“Absolutely not,” Cook said. “In fact, most jewelers wouldn’t know the difference under a diamond loupe if it weren’t for a tiny laser inscription on the diamond’s girdle that identifies it as lab-created.”
This is an extremely personal question, and should be asked bearing in mind the points outlined above. However, if you want expert advice, Doulton offers this: “My advice is to choose a lab-grown product for a designer ring where the stone is not the ring’s primary source of value, and a mined diamond if an investment grade solitaire is the ring of your dreams.”