All That Sparkles…
Natural diamonds are no longer the only option being considered when it comes to the purchase of precious gems. What is the difference between synthetic and natural diamonds, and how to decide which one is for you?
Article by Paul Manttessi
Purchasing diamond jewellery can be an exciting and rewarding investment, with people regularly heading to their jewellers to find the perfect cut, fit for the occasion. As well as differing in shape, diamonds differ in their clarity, colour and value, meaning there’s something out there for everyone.
However, with costs and ethics working themselves into the mix, natural diamonds are no longer the only option being considered when it comes to the purchase of precious gems. Here, I will be explaining the differences between natural and synthetic diamonds to help you choose one that fits in line with your budget, morals, and preferences. Read on to find out more.
How are natural and synthetic diamonds made?
Natural diamonds are what we all know to be the real deal. Found in the mantle of the Earth — a layer separating the molten core and the exterior we live on — temperatures reach above 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and combine with immense pressure to modify graphite (a crystalline carbon). This pressure is so intense that it restructures the composition of graphite from a hexagonal shape into the characteristically well-known triangle shape for diamonds. As they’re located hundreds of miles deep in the Earth, diamonds are retrieved from volcanic pipes — known as kimberlite pipes — which carry the valuable gems to the surface for miners to collect on volcanic eruption. Due to their formation, diamonds are ranked the hardest gem on Mohs’ scale of mineral hardness, making them ideal to use in luxury jewellery.
In contrast, synthetic diamonds are created by imitating the natural diamond-making process in a laboratory. Made from diamond seeds, synthetic versions can be made through two possible methods: High Pressure High Temperature (HPHT) and Chemical Vapour Deposition (CVD), with the latter giving higher quality. The CVD process follows these stages:
- A disc of diamond seeds goes into the diamond growth chamber.
- Superheated gas is created in the chamber and combines with the diamond seeds.
- The heat is increased to between 900 and 1,200 degrees Celsius.
- The carbon-hydrogen species attaches itself to the seed atom and this continues for three to four weeks until a three-dimensional crystal structure is made.
- Diamond monitors remove the diamond seeds at the exact point of optimum growth.
- Coming out in a cubic-shape, the diamond is then sent to be cut and polished.
Although many people refer to synthetic diamonds as fake, the above process proves that they have the same chemical composition and physical properties. The only difference is that they aren’t formed naturally below the Earth’s surface.
How do natural and synthetic diamonds differ in clarity?
Despite having the same composition, natural and synthetic diamonds don’t have the exact same appearance. This is generally so difficult to identify that even experienced jewellers may find it tricky to tell one from the other.
However, the main aesthetic difference lies in their clarity. The clarity of a diamond refers directly to the degree of which imperfections are present. As natural diamonds are cast to earth through volcanic eruptions, they are more likely to have internal flaws that occurred during their formation. These flaws can be inside the diamond (inclusions), or on its exterior (blemishes). They can range from something as large as a laser drill hole, to a natural indent that will be reflected in the clarity assessment.
However, as synthetic diamonds are made under a controlled laboratory environment, they are purposefully created to have less flaws, giving jewellers hints to their origin.
Are synthetic diamonds cheaper than natural ones?
In short, yes. As they aren’t mined, synthetic diamonds tend to be around 20 – 40 per cent cheaper than natural ones, but this will all depend on the size of the stone, its quality and shape. These are graded with a different system to natural diamonds, known as the Synthetic Diamond Grading Report, which takes elements like colour and clarity into account to determine its value.
Despite natural diamonds being worth much more, it’s not actually because of the assumed rarity: in fact, diamonds are the most naturally occurring precious stones. The high prices of natural diamonds come from cultural and historical perceptions of the gem, which allow jewellers to hike up their prices. This explains why their value grows: people have been convinced that they are hard to get a hold of, meaning more people want them.
Are natural diamonds in higher demand than synthetic ones?
Natural diamonds are indisputably in higher demand than synthetic ones, due to being perceived as the real thing. So, it’s unsurprising that synthetic diamonds are underrepresented in the high-end jewellery world, with gem-quality ones currently making up just two per cent of the total market.
What are the ethical issues for both diamond types?
Many consider natural diamonds to be unethical for a number of reasons— most notably, the alluvial mining process. This process includes a form of mining — known as artisanal mining — that is performed solely by hand, usually by individuals in African nations. Although the alluvial process can be both environmentally and ethically sound if carried out properly, it’s the artisanal part that is done in unsafe conditions, which presents an ethical issue. Not only is this incredibly laborious, but it’s also done by people of any age and ability, including children. Plus, it’s shockingly underpaid. Additionally, the process of mining has a high carbon footprint, uses lots of energy and water and pollutes water sources, posing a huge risk to the environment.
As synthetic diamonds are man-made and created under controlled laboratory conditions, the ethical issues are removed. Using diamond seeds is a more environmentally-friendly way to do things and taking away the laborious mining aspect means the process of synthetic diamond-making is almost completely conflict-free so is more ethically and morally responsible also. And, with the world focusing more and more on sustainability, synthetic diamonds may be the ones to watch out for in the foreseeable future.
While many fall into the trap of believing synthetic diamonds aren’t as good as the real thing, the physical composition and formation would disagree. So, whether you’re willing to splash the cash, or are on a tight budget, both synthetic and natural diamonds give you the option to find the perfect fit for yourself or your loved one.
Paul Mantessi is a gemmologist with the pre-owned jewellery and watch specialists Est.1897