Everything You Wanted to Know (But Were Too Afraid to Ask) About Lab Grown Diamonds

Credit: GIA

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The engagement ring is a symbol of love, but it’s also a symbol of status and wealth. A large diamond could be considered beautiful or gauche depending on the context. We pore over tabloids zooming in on grainy photos of celebrity hands, wondering if a power couple finally tied the knot or secretly eloped. How big is her ring? What cut is it? There’s no object that matches the engagement ring’s rarified status in our cultural consciousness. 

If you could have the real thing for less, why wouldn’t you? The rise of lab-grown diamonds is impossible to examine without also examining evolving definitions of authenticity. In 1996, a necklace of simulant pearls was sold at auction for $211,500 even though it was only worth $65 — how could this be? It had belonged to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Evidently, cost of materials and labor is not the only thing that determines the value of a piece of jewelry. 

We spoke with Dr. Ulrika D'Haenens-Johansson, Senior Manager, Diamond Research at non-profit GIA (Gemological Institute of America), to learn about lab-grown diamonds and how they’re made

Are Lab-Grown Diamonds Real?

Yes. Dr. Ulrika explains that unlike simulants (such as moissanite and cubic zirconia), lab-grown diamonds have the “same composition and crystal structure, consisting of carbon atoms in a specific (tetrahedral) bonding arrangement” as natural diamonds. They are often (but not always) indistinguishable by eye. 

If lab-grown diamonds are NOT simulants, why have I heard the word ‘synthetic’ used to describe them?

‘Synthetic’ doesn’t necessarily mean fake, but the word carries a stigma so the FTC stepped in to clarify language. Dr. Ulrika provides a thorough explanation: “Although ‘synthetic’ is a scientifically accurate term to describe a man-made diamond, it has also been used in a misleading way to imply that [a lab-grown diamond] is a ‘fake’ diamond or a simulant. Consequently, in 2018 the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) updated the Jewelry Guides to minimize confusion and support unambiguous and conspicuous disclosure in the gem and jewelry trade and to consumers. 

The FTC recommends the terms “laboratory-grown,” “laboratory-created” and “[manufacturer-name]-created” as they clearly communicate their origin. Importantly, the unqualified word diamond can only be used to refer to natural mined diamonds. The term ‘synthetic’ is not prohibited, and laboratory-grown diamonds continue to be referred to as such outside the United States. Interestingly, the term ‘synthetic’ is commonly used in the jewelry trade for laboratory-grown non-diamond gemstones such as sapphire, without any perceived issues.”

Is it possible to tell the difference between a lab-grown and natural diamond?

Yes, with the right equipment. While lab-grown and natural diamonds have the same chemical, physical, and optical properties, “atomic-level differences” set them apart. These differences can be spotted using “specialized screening equipment and advanced testing at gemological laboratories such as GIA.” This would prevent opportunists from swapping a natural stone with a lab-grown one and hoping to sell at a profit. 

How are lab-grown diamonds made?

There are two methods. The first is Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD) which, this video from GIA explains in under two minutes (jump ahead to the 1:05 mark if you’re impatient). The second method is High Pressure High Temperature (HPHT), which is described in this GIA article.

How long does it take to grow the diamonds?

By the HPHT method, the process typically takes a few days or weeks. The CVD method averages about 4-6 weeks

Is one method ‘better’ than the other in terms of producing higher-quality diamonds?

No. But some brands are trying to create a mystique around their process. 

Are lab-grown diamonds more sustainable than natural ones?

Not necessarily. Dr. Ulrika explains: “In the competitive gem and jewelry market it can be tempting to enhance the appeal of your product by promoting it as eco-friendly. However, it is important to recognize that the production of laboratory-grown diamonds is an energy-intensive process, and thus such claims should be carefully scrutinized. There have been instances reported of laboratory-grown diamonds being promoted as a ‘green’ product without supporting evidence, an issue that has been highlighted by the FTC.” She recommends further reading on greenwashing and sustainability claims: Forbes, Harvard Business Review, and JCK.  

These diamonds were all grown using the HPHT method. Credit: GIA

Guy de Maupassant’s short story “The Necklace” is about a woman who borrows a diamond necklace from her wealthy friend and loses it. Instead of admitting to this mistake, the woman goes into debt to replace it and spends her life working off the cost of the lost necklace. Many years later the woman runs into her old friend and admits what happened only to be told that the necklace was “paste” (replica diamonds). 

What’s the lesson? Be honest? Don’t wear things you can’t afford? Luxury items will bring about your demise? I think the biggest takeaway is: rich people wear fake jewels all the time — and the stigma against them is entirely arbitrary.

We spoke to Jamie C., an attorney in New York City, who decided with her partner to purchase a lab-grown diamond engagement ring and has not looked back. Jamie graciously agreed to answer our most pointed questions about her experience of opting for a lab-grown diamond and her answers will interest anyone who is considering it for themselves.  

Did you always intend to buy lab grown?

When I started thinking about engagement rings, what I wanted, and doing research, lab diamonds kept coming up as an option. I have been with my fiancé for seven years, so we have pretty open communications and he had asked what I would want in a ring. I always knew I wanted one larger stone, and after doing some research into lab diamonds I had a pretty good feeling that's the way I wanted to go. While I think all diamonds are beautiful, to me, a big part of it was cost and the fact that I still wanted the look of a big diamond without the tremendous price tag. After doing research into the differences between lab and [natural] diamonds, my mind was pretty made up.

What was your main motivation for going with lab grown? 

While I know it is traditionally the man buying a diamond in a hetero relationship, I see my relationship as a partnership and I felt like when comparing having my partner spend 10s of thousands of dollars on one piece of jewelry, as opposed to saving some of that money for a home for our future family while still being able to have a really nice ring, all of the benefits seemed to be pointing in the direction of a lab diamond. 

Do you have many friends that also have lab grown diamonds? 

I actually do not! Most of my friends have [natural] diamonds, but that being said, I do have some friends who believe engagement is in their near future and have begun considering the lab diamond route as a result of talking to me and others they know. I don't think it's something to be shy or act taboo about. 

What cut/style diamond did you buy? 

I have a 3.5 carat princess cut diamond with a hidden halo and pave band. [It cost] about $13,500, but for insurance purposes, it was valued at $15,500. 

Credit: Jamie C.

Where did you buy it? And why did you choose to purchase from that particular retailer?

I spent a significant time doing research (including Reddit, which I know sounds silly, but damn those people are honest) into the different online retailers. After doing this, it seemed like Blue Nile was the most trustworthy and had the best customer service and warranties.

Blue Nile had a great return policy, so I knew in a worst case scenario type of situation if there really seemed to be something wrong with the ring we could send it back. I really just spent a lot of time reading different reviews both on and off their website to help get comfortable. I also spent considerable time reading about the anatomical differences between lab grown diamonds and [natural] diamonds (spoiler alert, there are none!) 

What were the discussions with your partner like about whether to go lab grown?

My partner was very supportive in any decision that I wanted to make. He really deferred to me throughout the process. I had an idea of what budget we would like to be in, and I was mindful of this throughout the process.

How long have you been wearing your ring and how do you feel about your decision to go the lab grown route?

I got engaged on November 18 and have worn my ring everyday since. I feel great about my decision as I love my ring and have not felt any regret whatsoever. If I did not tell anyone, they would have no idea the ring is lab grown. 

What advice do you have for others that are shopping for lab grown rings?

Don't listen to other people's opinions unless you want to and do your research. There are still plenty of people who think lab grown diamonds are "less than" or tacky, but if it's what you want don't listen to those people and let their opinions bother you. It's YOU who has to wear the ring everyday (if you want to), so what you choose to do is really between you and your partner.

This laboratory-grown diamond (left) and natural diamond (right) cannot be told apart using the unaided eye. Credit: GIA

So why doesn’t everyone get a lab grown diamond if they’re so much cheaper (and compositionally identical) to natural diamonds? Cost isn’t the only factor that buyers consider. We might as well ask: Why do people love name brands? Why are luxury goods France’s biggest export? Why would you buy a Le Creuset dutch oven when this Golidlocks one ($85) is much cheaper and makes a pot roast just as delicious as the French heritage brand?

The things we value are made-up. The same goes for the things we stigmatize. Skinny jeans are out. Ankle socks are a sign of middle-age. A side-part is lame. According to whom? Most likely, companies trying to sell you new things that will also be deemed uncool as trends cycle at a breakneck pace. 

Like Jamie C. said, a lab-grown diamond is not a lesser diamond. It is not a counterfeit masquerading as a real thing—a lab-grown diamond is 100% a diamond.

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