I dug deep to discover the facts behind this revolutionary technology of growing diamonds in a lab, and found my way to a high tech lab in India.
Can Lab grown diamonds take market share from the coveted mined diamond? What implication can this have on the planet and society as a whole?
The feeling is strange, I’ve been to a few mines in my younger years, notably the Sandawana Emerald mine in Zimbabwe. The 70 kilometres of tunnels running below the earth with hundreds if not thousands of miners chipping away at rocks as far as the eye can see.
Out of these mines emerged the ‘rough’ , a lumpy looking assembly of precious gems. They would then travel across the world, passed across by many middle men, eventually making their way to cutting and polishing plants. This is how ‘mined’ & ‘natural precious gems’ came to be- from mine to market.
Out here in this lab far away from the mines of Africa, the scene couldn’t be more different. A handful of engineers were surrounded by rows of reactors, literally growing diamonds. Instinctively, I felt a feeling of concern about the mined diamond jewellery sitting on the shelves of my family’s retail shops.
I dug deep to discover the facts behind this revolutionary technology of growing diamonds in a lab, and found my way to a high tech lab in India. Out in the industrial areas, a large shed-like structure stood proudly. As I step in, one could sense the kind of sanitised feeling you would get entering into a pharmaceutical plant ( As I come from a 6 year run in the pharma field, this was familiar to me ). Interacting with the core team, you feel like this was stuff out of a science fiction movie. The scientists and engineers were involved in a highly technical field, having spent years on research and development (and investment -without yield).
‘Our business is one of patience’, said the chief engineer. ‘People feel like these diamonds that are grown in a factory just come out on an assembly line - as if you were manufacturing any ordinary product. This can’t be further from the truth! All the machinery here has been built by us from ground up- without any specific guideline. The diamonds are a culmination of countless batches and years of trial and error. It's a process like creating art; to be able to take the gene of a diamond, what we call the seed and using no other element than carbon, create something that is a replica of what nature created.’
"It's a process like creating art; to be able to take the gene of a diamond."
All chemical vapour diamonds originally start with the seed of a diamond, kind of like a test tube baby. Little sheets of diamond are placed in a reactor. Scientists prepare a secret balanced blend of gases over a specific heat, and then work to grow a diamond as no stimulant is added, just carbon. Natural diamonds, it seems, are made of the same stuff.
The process involves many risks; any break in the exact system can ruin the outcome. The lab can encourage growth in a similar way to mother earth, yet not having the control to create ‘perfect diamonds’. The lab grown also comes with inclusions and ranges of colour, each being a unique piece with its personality.
I looked out the window in the expanse and saw solar energy fields lined up for a distance away. ‘We’re working our way to reduce our carbon footprint further’ piped in an engineer who noticed. Because they’re grown above the earth, these diamonds involve no mining. Besides the ecological advantage, it seems the cost saved avoiding mining is being passed on to the consumer in the form of the price of the diamond being a lot cheaper. Almost 30-50% cheaper. Or as I heard it, making the diamond 30-50% bigger.
This lab has sold thousands of carats of rough diamonds to cutting and polishing plants. The system to cut a lab diamond is the same as a natural one. Having lived in India for a few years, the only diamonds I heard of being cut and polished were the kind that were dug out deep from the earth’s embrace. I concluded my visit feeling more curious than before, knowing I had to research further.
When I moved to Dubai, the city where I grew up, I started looking into the family business of jewellery. I happened to visit a conference being held here, by a small delegation of professors. In their presentations, they touched upon the impact mining for diamonds had caused. They showed us sharp looking statistics of hundreds of tonnes of rocks being displaced and ecological damage, and conflicts in poorer nations being fueled. In my experiences at the mines as a youngster, mining seemed to be the backbone of the society where jobs were created and an ecosystem existed where people were better off. There were clearly two sides to the argument. Perhaps that’s the reason why I feel these two are different categories, and they will exist parallel to each other.
So when Lab grown diamonds started appearing on the scene in the Middle East and Asia (most of the manufacturing is in this region, but little to none of the branded jewellery play that has taken the west by storm), I took notice. Whether others consider the ethical benefits of the stones, the lower impact on the environment certainly became a point of interest for me. Knowing I would learn more about the space if I ordered some diamonds, I reached out to some of our friends in the industry. Once I received my diamonds, I wanted to decipher the claim; can these stones be the same as natural diamonds? The seller of the stones claimed they were optically and chemically identical to the natural ones. The diamonds actually blew my mind, they sparkled and shined perhaps better than many I had seen.
Not being one to be convinced too easily, I put them to the test. I took a few pieces of jewellery made with the ‘stuff’ grown in a lab and walked around the famous Gold Souk in Deira, Dubai. Home to hundreds of jewellers with establishments dating back 40 years, I picked 5 retailers at random to view the stones. Remarkably , no one could point out the difference, even after having looked through 10x magnification. Some even offered that they would fetch the price of a natural one.
Considering the way we looked at mined diamonds all these years and our history associated with them I decided to take the plunge. I picked up a large diamond, much larger than the one I bought to propose to my wife a few years ago. Setting it into a ring, I gifted it to her on our anniversary. I was delighted to see that she loved it. Being a lab grown made no difference to her pride or her sparkle, intact the size was like nothing she had ever owned.
It's quite amazing how the diamond and its qualities have become a metaphor for our love. It captures those moments where often things are left unsaid, and shines through transforming them in their brilliance.
I see a time in the near future that these diamonds and their jewellery will exist everywhere. A recent Allied Market report stated that the total market size for lab-created diamonds is slated to grow from $19.3 billion in 2019 to $49.9 billion in 2030. As the market evolves, the consumer’s need for a choice will come through regardless of how much ever this may seem to jeopardise the plans of a few.
The bottom line is that Lab grown diamonds present a fantastic value to the consumer, a chance for them to wear the largest and brightest diamonds, without having to compromise because of a price tag. Generating a low carbon footprint, they can enjoy this incredible jewellery feeling proud of the purchase they have made, which is good for them and also for the planet.Rohan Siroya