Diamonds: Natural vs Lab-Grown. Which should I choose and what's the difference?

Many jewelers have some pretty strong feelings about lab-grown diamonds and won't touch them with a 10-foot pole. Others embrace them as they offer the same sparkle at a much more affordable price. But, is that price stable? What's the catch? What's going to happen now that lab-grown diamonds are on the market and here to stay?

If you have been thinking about making a larger diamond purchase, you've probably had some of these same questions. Hopefully, I can address them and help you with your decision. 

First, I'm going to introduce you to the similarities and differences between natural (mined from the earth) and lab-grown diamonds, and then I'll address how lab-grown diamonds are affecting the jewelry market and what you can do to make sure you feel confident in your purchase of either.

What makes a diamond?
To start, both versions are, for all intents and purposes, the same: carbon. Natural earth processes and volcanic activity have compressed carbon into the sparkly jewels you're familiar with, bringing them closer to the surface of the earth to be mined, cut, polished, and made into jewelry. Lab-grown diamonds are made in one of two ways, HPHT or CVD.

The HPHT (High Pressure, High Temperature) method was first used to successfully "grow" diamonds by General Electric in 1954. It essentially mimics the earth's process with intense heat and pressure in a lab setting. The CVD (Chemical Vapor Deposition) method is a bit more tricky but requires a lot less energy and expensive equipment. This process introduces a gas into a vacuum chamber where it is pelted with microwaves and the molecules are broken down. Carbon atoms then accumulate on a platform where a flat diamond "seed" (usually an HPHT starter) grows into a full diamond crystal. This process is still much less reliable than the HPHT method, but scientists have discovered that using different gases can create different diamond colors, such as blue or yellow by using nitrogen or boron instead of the usual methane.

How can I tell the difference?
Lab-grown diamonds have become so similar to their natural counterparts, that very expensive equipment is the only thing that can tell some of them apart. Lab-grown diamonds have a spectral signature that can be differentiated from natural diamonds by studying their growth patterns. Like telling the difference between a wild tree in the forest by its rings vs a nursery tree that has been under consistent growth conditions.

Are there rules to protect me as a consumer?
Within the past few years, the FTC has revamped its rulebook that dictates which terms marketers can and can't use to describe jewelry to consumers. Lab-grown diamonds are, in fact, diamonds as the guidelines state that a diamond, by definition, is “a mineral consisting essentially of pure carbon crystallized in the isometric system” that was either mined from the earth or grown in a factory. But there is a caveat. If a diamond is lab-grown, then the fact that it is "man-made" MUST be clearly stated. The ONLY time the word 'diamond' can stand alone, without the recommended 'laboratory-grown', 'laboratory-created', or 'manufacturer-created' in front of it is if it is a natural diamond. The terms cannot be hidden at the bottom of descriptions. Moissanites, CZs, and other diamond look-alikes must also be clearly stated, whether natural or man-made.

If a diamond is treated, is it still "natural"?
Natural diamonds from the earth are sometimes subjected to some sort of treatment to make them more impressive to consumers. Some of these treatments may not even be permanent. The rule is that treatments of natural diamonds must also be disclosed to the consumer if there is a possibility that the value of the treated stone may be less than an untreated stone of the same color and clarity, but they may still be marketed as natural diamonds. These treatments may include laser-drilling, fracture-filling, irradiation, annealing (usually to enhance color), HPHT, bleaching, and dyes/coatings.

Which type is better for the earth?
This is a subject that can cause some industry veterans to unfriend each other on social media and never speak again. Whichever opinion you have, some quick Googling will confirm it for you, so I am going to be broad with this explanation. You can decide which you prefer.

With global accountability, most diamond mines on the globe must now operate with both the earth and the miners under consideration. Miners must be paid a livable wage and mining practices cannot contaminate groundwater or compromise the integrity of the ground around it. That being said, mining is still an extremely labor-intensive and dirty business. There are still conflict diamonds out there. This can't be avoided. But any store worth their reputation will have a documented paper trail for every one of their diamonds. 

It still can be argued that diamond mines corrupt natural habitats and pollute the surrounding areas, but diamond companies aren't the villains some portray them to be. For example, the Diavik Diamond Mine in Canada has an advisory board dedicated to studying the ways to protect fish and animals near the mining area. Many mines do more than the required to reduce their impact, like restoring topsoil that had been removed from a site and dedicating large, specific areas as nature preserves to keep the local wildlife protected. 

Lab-grown operations have a much smaller footprint, but their energy consumption raises doubt about the environmental impact of their operations. Manufacturers like to throw around words like "eco" and "sustainable" when marketing lab-grown stones, but is this true? Lab-grown diamonds need consistent, 24/7 energy usage with intense heat, pressure, and microwaves. This process still relies heavily on fossil fuels and may even create more carbon dioxide emissions than natural diamond mining. The trade-off is for the consumer to decide.

What about the value of natural and lab-grown diamonds?
Lab-grown diamonds are still considered a new addition to the market, so the price hasn't come close to settling. And the debate of whether or not they are "real" diamonds will probably rage on for a while longer. It's really anybody's guess on whether and how they will impact natural diamond prices, but for right now they are 10-40% less than the price of a natural diamond of the same color and clarity. The same volatility that makes them more affordable also affects their resale value. Many stores won't buy back lab-grown diamonds as there is no evidence that they could be resold without a marked loss.

You've done your homework. That's why you're here, right? Do you feel better informed? The most important point of this entire blog is that, at the end of the day, if you are happy with your purchase and love your diamond - whether it is natural or lab-grown, that's all that really matters, isn't it? 

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