Lab-grown Diamonds vs. Natural Ones: Which One Should You Choose?
Lab-grown diamonds are consistently growing in popularity throughout the world. Between 2021 and 2022, the number of engagement rings that were sold with a lab-grown diamond increased by more than 50% and analysts expect these numbers to continue climbing.
Lab-grown diamonds attract a lot of attention for two reasons:
- They are generally less expensive than natural diamonds.
- They are marketed as more environmentally friendly than natural diamonds.
Diamonds created in a lab are also beautiful. They produce sparkles and brilliance just like natural diamonds do. In fact, lab-grown diamonds are practically identical to natural diamonds. The only difference between them is the way that they are created.
Natural diamonds and lab-grown diamonds each go through a complex creation process that has an impact on the environment, as well as the countries where they are produced. Both types of diamonds end up with unique pro’s and con’s to offer their buyers. This article will help you understand the different aspects of natural and lab-grown diamonds so that you can choose which one you prefer for your story.
What is a natural diamond?
A natural diamond is essentially crystalized carbon. Carbon exists everywhere from the farthest reaches of outer space to the deep crevices in the ocean floor and even kilometres beneath our feet in the earth’s mantle.
Carbon needs to undergo intense heat and pressure for it to crystalize. The temperatures in the earth’s mantle range from 1,000 to over 3,000o C, and its pressure is more than 137,000 times greater than the pressure that we feel on the surface of the earth. This makes the mantle the only place with enough heat and pressure to crystalize carbon and form natural diamonds.
Natural diamonds grow slowly. It can take 1 to 3 billion years for a diamond to grow large enough to be used in an engagement ring.
Diamonds are extremely tough. They rank as the hardest mineral on the Mohs scale and can easily scratch the surface of steel. Diamonds have to be tough to endure the volcanic activity and abrasive movements of the earth’s tectonic plates that moves them from the mantle up to the earth’s crust where they can be mined.
Since natural diamonds form over a long period of time and endure many different conditions during their formation, most natural diamonds have major flaws. Only about 30% of natural diamonds are considered gem-quality and can be used in jewellery. This means that the number of natural diamonds available for use in engagement rings is limited and each one is considered a rarity.
What is a lab-grown diamond?
A lab-grown diamond is a diamond that is grown in the carefully controlled environment of a laboratory.
Lab-grown diamonds are anatomically identical to natural diamonds. They are made of crystalized carbon just like natural diamonds, and they look and feel the same as their natural counterparts.
How are lab-grown diamonds made?
1. The high pressure/high temperature process (HPHT) - The HPHT process for making diamonds has been used since the 1950’s. In this method, technicians fill a capsule with pure carbon and a metal flux.
They also add a tiny piece of diamond, referred to as a “seed” to the capsule. This diamond seed provides the surface on which the new diamond will grow.
Once the capsule has been filled and sealed, it is put into a powerful press and heated. The carbon in the capsule gradually melts and then crystalizes around the seed.
The new diamond can take a number of hours or a few weeks to finish growing depending on the size and quality of the diamond that is being made.
HPHT diamonds can be used in jewellery, but the majority of them are used for industrial purposes.
2. The chemical vapor deposition process (CVD) – The CVD process began to be used for growing diamonds in the 1980’s.
The CVD process involves putting a diamond seed in a special chamber and then pumping the chamber full of a carbon-rich gas. The chamber is then heated and an electrical discharge or microwave energy is used to separate the carbon atoms from the gas. As the carbon atoms leave the gas, they gather on the diamond seed.
Some of the carbon on the seed crystalizes, but not all of it does. The carbon that does not crystalize usually takes the form of black graphite. To prevent the graphite from marring the new diamond, technicians stop the CVD process every few days and polish the new diamond to remove the graphite.Dozens of diamonds can be grown at one time in each CVD chamber. These diamonds can be made to have different qualities, but the majority of CVD diamonds are made to be gem-quality and are used for jewellery.
The majority of lab-grown diamonds have a slight yellow or brown colour and must undergo special heat treatments to fade the undesirable colours.
Most of these diamonds are given heat treatments until they become colourless, but a small percentage are given fancy colours. Technicians modify the heat treatments and the lab-grown diamonds gradually take on beautiful shades of colour and become fancy red, pink, green, blue or purple diamonds.
Are lab-grown diamonds as “real” as natural ones?
Yes, lab-grown diamonds are considered just as real as natural diamonds. Their chemical makeup is identical and there are no visible differences between the two, even for jewellers.
There are a few identifying characteristics that can be used to differentiate between lab-grown and natural diamonds. These characteristics exist because the growing conditions of a lab-grown diamond are drastically different from a diamond that grows naturally in the earth.
These differentiating characteristics include the presence or absence of nitrogen. Natural diamonds include small amounts of nitrogen, whereas lab-grown diamonds do not.
Another way to tell natural and lab-grown diamonds apart is to look at their “strain patterns”. A diamond develops strain patterns as the amount of pressure changes around it and puts strain on it.
Natural diamonds endure many fluctuations of pressure and as a result, often have distinct cross-hatched or mosaic strain patterns. Lab-grown diamonds experience less pressure changes, so they generally have weak strain patterns or no patterns at all.
All of the differentiating characteristics between natural and lab-grown diamonds are tiny and can only be seen under a powerful microscope by a trained eye. The easiest way for a jeweller or a buyer to tell the difference between a natural and lab-grown diamond is to check the diamonds’ certificates which will list their creation process.
Can you choose the quality of a lab-grown diamond during its production?
Currently, technicians aren’t able to fully control the growth process of lab-grown diamonds in order to guarantee specific characteristics. They can enhance or diminish the general quality of the gems, but it is impossible for them to ensure the creation of a flawless diamond.
In fact, like natural diamonds, laboratory diamonds usually have small inclusions and flaws. Diamonds made by the HPHT process often have small inclusions of the metal flux that they were grown in, while CVD-grown diamonds tend to have small inclusions of graphite or other minerals.
In this way, lab-grown diamonds are much like natural diamonds and the quality of both types of diamonds is graded according to the 4C’s, which are their colour, clarity, cut and carat weight.
The pro’s and con’s of lab-grown and natural diamonds
The decision about whether to buy a lab-grown or a natural diamond will ultimately depend on your priorities, but as you make this decision, it is helpful to consider the pro’s and con’s of each type of diamond.
- Less expensive. Lab-grown diamonds can cost between 50 - 75% less than natural diamonds.
- Chemically identical to natural diamonds. They are considered real diamonds.
- Greater certainty of provenance. This gives you a better chance of knowing the origin of your diamond.
- Lose value over time. Lab-grown diamonds lose value quickly because new production techniques make it possible for them to be replicated indefinitely.
- They can turn brown. Low quality, lab-grown diamonds can take on shades of yellow or brown over time and need to be decolorized.
- Require a lot of energy. The production of lab-grown diamonds requires a lot of energy and most are produced in low-waged countries that use non-renewable energy sources.
- More valuable. All natural diamonds were formed 3 billion years ago. Rarity makes natural diamonds more valuable over time. Like gold, they are in short supply.
- Big emotional value and historic charm. Natural diamonds have special value and charm because they are earth-made.
- Play an important part in many societies. Natural diamonds are still the primary source of income for many miners.
- More expensive. Natural diamonds cost significantly more than lab-grown diamonds, because there is a limited supply of them.
- Mining can harm the environment. However, many mines are working to improve their mining practices and protect the environment around them.
- Provenance cannot always be guaranteed. Especially for older diamonds that have been traded and re-cut several times.
Natural and lab-grown diamonds share one important positive point. This point is that the current concerns that we have of humanity living in an ethical and environmental-friendly society is creating a healthy competition between the two diamonds markets to the point that both markets are working to improve their industries.
Are lab-grown diamonds really more environmentally friendly than natural diamonds?
Lab-grown diamonds are currently being marketed as being more environmentally-friendly than natural diamonds. The marketing campaigns in favor of laboratory diamonds generally emphasize how harmful diamond mining is to the environment and how natural diamonds can fund military conflicts in war-torn countries.
This form of marketing fails to give a balanced view of reality regarding both natural and lab-grown diamonds.
What is the environmental impact of natural diamond?
It is true that diamond mining can harm the environment, but it is also a reality that the majority of diamond mines work to meet and even exceed international standards. They are constantly improving their mining practices and adopting new practices when necessary to not only protect the environment around them, but also improve it.
Most diamond mines also invest in the lives of their miners and the cities around them. Natural diamonds currently support millions of people around the world and help provide education and healthcare, as well as improve infrastructure, in diamond-producing countries.
If the natural diamond market were to collapse, millions of fair-trade miners and their families would be left without an income and many diamond-producing countries would go deeper into poverty.
What is the environmental impact of lab-grown diamond?
Lab-grown diamonds are often referred to as “eco-friendly diamonds”, but this is not necessarily the truth. Both the HPHT and CVD processes for creating diamonds require massive amounts of energy and much of this energy comes from non-renewable sources.
Using non-renewable energy sources means that the lab-grown diamond market could not only contributes to the depletion of natural resources, but that it also contributes to the greenhouse effect and global warming.
Until diamond-producing laboratories begin to show clear, verifiable proof that they are using only or mostly renewable energy sources for the production of their diamonds, lab-grown diamonds cannot be considered a more environmentally friendly option.
What is considered a sustainable diamond?
Both natural and lab-grown diamonds can be sustainable. What makes a diamond sustainable is not just its creation process, but the overall impact that the diamond has on the environment and the people whose lives it touches.
For a natural diamond to be considered ethical and sustainable, it must come from an ethical mine that invests in eco-friendly practices.
Buying a natural diamond that has Kimberley certification is an important way to guarantee that your diamond is ethical and sustainable. The Kimberley certification process was created specifically to ensure ethical mining practices and to abolish the blood diamond market that funded wars and destroyed lives.
Lab-grown diamonds must also come from sources that are proven to be both ethical and sustainable. There are currently many lab-grown diamond brands in China and India where workers are expected to work long hours for an unfair wage. These brands also do not usually disclose the amounts of energy that it takes to produce their diamonds or the source of their energy, so not every lab-grown diamond can be considered ethical or sustainable.
If you choose to purchase a lab-grown diamond, it is important that you get it from a trustworthy jeweller who will only trade lab-grown diamonds that come from a responsible and eco-friendly source.
Blockchain technology can help prove a diamond’s sustainability
Blockchain technology can be used to provide solid proof of where a diamond came from, as well as every place that it went on its journey from its place of origin to the final consumer.
Diamonds that are backed by blockchain technology have the highest guarantee of sustainability that is available. At Beldiamond, we partnered with Everledger, a digital transparency company, in order to provide both natural and lab-grown diamonds that have blockchain technology backing.
Where are lab-grown diamonds produced?
Diamond-growing laboratories can be found all over the world in rich countries and also in poor.
As of now, a little more than half of all lab-grown diamonds are produced in China. The United States, India and Singapore each produce between 10-15% of the lab-grown diamonds on the market, while Russia, the United Kingdom and a few other countries produce 2% or less of available lab diamonds.
Where are natural diamonds mined?
Natural diamonds can be found in more than 30 different countries around the world. Russia has approximately 1,000 million carats of diamonds which makes it the largest diamond reserve of all. Russia is home to many diamond mining companies that extract the gems for primarily industrial use.
Botswana has a reserve of only about 300 million carats of diamonds, but their diamonds are generally the highest-quality gems in the world and command the highest prices in the jewellery market.
A number of other countries, which we detail in our article Where do Diamonds Come From?, also have diamond mines that help supply the natural diamond market.
Should I choose a natural or lab-grown diamond?
Natural diamonds and lab-grown diamonds each carry their own prejudices and provide unique benefits. In the end, you are the one that gives value to your diamond, not its source. What matters is the story that will be reflected by the beautiful piece of jewellery that you choose.
At Beldiamond, we are conscientious about the origin of our diamonds and the way our jewellery is made, so that our clients’ jewellery will ultimately represent their unique and meaningful stories in the most ethical and environmental-friendly way possible.
Our main offering is based around natural diamonds, but we are also providing lab-grown diamonds upon request.
We also provide blockchain-enabled diamonds upon request. These blockchain-enabled diamonds have the highest level of sustainability and traceability possible.