Many couples tie the knot or get engaged during the month of December. Media sources recently reported that over 20,000 couples in the U.S. were married on 12.13.14. They wanted to make this a date to remember. After all, these three numbers won’t come around in this order for another 100 years! Will diamonds be a girl’s best friend forever (BFF) this Christmas?
Just got married? Engaged? Or will you be celebrating a special event with the gift of a diamond? Where’d that diamond come from? A good guess is that it was mined in South Africa, however, five years from now the answer may be it was mined in an above ground lab that makes man-made diamonds.
In an earlier post, Fracking and the Geology Behind It, a discussion is provided on the formation of fossil fuels. Our current source of fossil fuels began their formation hundreds of millions of years ago in the inner part of the earth’s crust. Through a process that includes high temperatures and pressures, crude oil, coal, natural gas and heavy oils were formed from geologic deposits of organic materials formed from decayed plants and animals.
Interestingly, the natural formation of diamonds follows a similar path. According to Smithsonian Magazine [Ref 1], diamonds are formed deep within the earth – about 100 miles or so below the surface in the upper mantle. Similar to fossil fuels, a combination of high temperature and pressures is required to grow diamond crystals within the earth.
Scientists believe that diamonds found closer to the earth’s surface were brought there by deep-seated volcanic eruptions that occurred a long, long time ago. These eruptions carried the already-formed diamonds from the upper mantle to the earth’s surface. When the eruption reached the surface it built up a mound of volcanic material that eventually cooled, and the diamonds are contained within that. These are the so-called Kimberlites that are typically the sources of many of the world’s mined diamonds.
While most of us would cherish the gift of a piece of jewelry with a diamond in it, what we often forget is that but for the right mix of temperature, pressure and time, we’d be wearing a piece of graphite or charcoal. Under high temperature and pressure, the carbon atoms bond together and grow crystals to form a very hard material. A one carat diamond represents billions of carbon atoms that have locked into place to form a very orderly crystalline structure.
Enter the new era of lab diamonds…from above ground diamond mines…and possibly a girl’s NFBF – new found best friend.
As it turns out, successfully creating diamonds by an artificial process dates back to the 1950s, although documented attempts to do so go back over 100 years. Lab-grown diamonds also are referred to as synthetic, laboratory-created, or laboratory-grown diamonds that are not created by geological processes. [Ref 2] In addition to the above, some refer to them as chemical vapor deposition (CVD) or high pressure high temperature (HPHT) diamonds. These are the names of the two common crystal formation methods used to produce diamonds in the laboratory.
Another process, detonation synthesis, came into use in the late 1990s. Small diamond grains no larger than a nanometer are created in a detonation of carbon-containing explosives.
Simulants: This post on man-made diamonds would be incomplete without addressing simulants – cubic zirconia, moissanite, and other materials that have been developed to imitate or impersonate real diamonds. Simulants have also been referred to as man-made diamonds, however, they are anything but.
Simulants are also known by other terms such as fake diamonds, faux diamonds, or costume jewelry. I will admit that the better quality costume jewelry is very attractive and has great eye-appeal.
There are a number of pros or selling points for man-made diamonds. Their crystallinity, hardness, and thermal conductivity are equal, and in some cases superior, to mined-diamonds. These characteristics, especially hardness, have made synthetic diamonds highly desirable for industrial applications such as machine and cutting tools, drill bits, and abrasives. They also remove the stigma of blood diamonds that have been mined in a war zone and sold to finance political uprisings or warlord activities.
Another benefit is time and money. Instead of millions of years, it takes just a few days to create these brilliant, crystalline structures. Lab grown diamonds are usually less expensive (30% or more) than mined diamonds. At the end of a drill bit or cutting tool, a cheaper lab-grown diamond may be just what the company ordered. After all, no one will be wearing it on their finger or the lapel of a jacket or coat. However, for now, public sentiment still leans towards the real thing…at least the real thing that is mined from underground.
If you are planning to buy jewelry with a diamond in it for Christmas or in the near future, you may want to ask where’d that diamond come from? Most jewelers have a special machine that can easily differentiate between mined diamonds and synthetics.
Happy holidays everyone!
Photos: All pieces of jewelry are from Queen Elizabeth’s jewelry collection.
- Diamonds Unearthed, Cate Lineberry, Smithsonian Magazine, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/diamonds-unearthed-141629226/, December 2006
- Wikipedia, http://www.wikipedia.org