Diamonds are supposedly a girl’s best friend, but they also come with severe environmental and societal implications. If your significant other is still looking for something big and shiny this Valentine’s Day, science has got your back. Synthetic, lab-grown diamonds appear to be the future of the jewelry industry — and buying into this future will save you some money as well.
According to The Washington Post, lab-grown diamonds make up just one percent of the world’s diamond market right now, but they’re expected to make up 7.5 percent by the end of this decade. These diamonds typically cost ten to 40 percent less than traditional diamonds, and the United States Geological Survey estimates that the price will continue to drop as the production technology becomes more cost effective and the competition among manufacturers increases.
While natural diamonds require millions of years and explosive volcanic eruptions to form, synthetic diamonds can be created in periods as short as several months; some can even be formed in just a week. There are two ways to do so: a synthesis-based method, called high-pressure, high-temperature growth (HPHT) or a process called chemical vapor deposition. The diamonds produced by both of these methods differ from imitations like cubic zirconia because they aren’t just lookalikes — they actually have the same chemical and physical properties as real diamonds. The growth of all lab-grown diamonds begins with a “seed,” a thin, natural diamond that kickstarts crystal growth after temperature and pressure is applied.
Scientists have been growing diamonds with HPHT since the ‘50s, but many of these diamonds emerged with impurities and discoloration. An update to the chemical vapor deposition process developed by Carnegie Mellon scientists in 2014 involves pumping methane into the vacuum chamber where the diamond is produced. This process, which also involves less pressure than HPHT, slows the growth rate of the diamond and also makes the originally yellow-brown diamonds turn colorless.
While these diamonds, if grown in the United States, are federally regulated to have both a serial number and a microscopic label that reads “Laboratory grown in the USA,” experts say that most of them are indistinguishable from earth-dug diamonds, when viewed with a naked eye. “If anyone tells you that they can tell the difference without a machine, they’re lying,” Ariel Baruch, a jeweler, told Popular Science.
People can, however, tell the difference between natural and synthetic diamonds with fluorescence imaging machines, which can identify the growth pattern of the gem. Up close, synthetic diamonds can have both cubic and octahedral faces, while natural diamonds are most commonly in a octahedron shape.
But that only matters if you’re stuck on the idea that real diamonds are the only way to acknowledge real love. Studies show that gifts come with “intrinsic social power messages.” What makes a gift valuable, psychologists believe, isn’t the actual item but what that item symbolizes to both the giver and the receiver. To give a real diamond is to give the symbolic message that tradition is paramount; to give a synthetic diamond is to acknowledge that the future is a scientific one.