We've all seen celebrities like Jamie Foxx strut their flashy jewellery on the red carpet. Even rap stars like Missy Elliot and 50 Cent are known to flaunt their almost obscene, eye-popping ornaments around their necks, wrists, ears, fingers... or even teeth! It seems like every imaginable body area has been fitted with these shiny gems by some famous person or another.
Whether you’re a rap star or royalty, nothing seems to say 'I've made it' like a little bling bling. Rubies, emeralds and sapphires are all shiny and brilliant. Somehow, though, they lack a true sparkle. Only the hardest naturally-occurring mineral on the planet really screams success. Nothing is blingier than diamonds... and I have the science to prove it.
Bling-bling is now a word in the Oxford dictionary. It refers to diamonds, high-sparkle jewellery, and all forms of flashy style. But true diamond flash needs several things to capture the eye of the lucky beholder. So read on to find out the essential ingredients for celebrity-worthy bling bling.
Did you know? Diamonds found in nature are between 1 - 3.3 billion years old!
Diamonds, like prisms, have the ability to break up white light waves into many different colours. Each colour has a different wavelength and vibrates at a different frequency. This ability is called dispersion. You can easily see the occasional flash of colour or “fire” of a diamond when you view it in strong, direct light, like the flashbulbs of the paparazzi at the Oscars.
The return of light when it strikes a surface is called "reflection". If that surface is highly polished, the reflection is perfect and an image is formed. Think of the reflections you see in mirrors, polished metals or gems. If the surface is dull or matte, the reflected light is then scattered and diffused. This is the reflection you’d see in a pearl, for example.
Diamonds are highly reflective because of their extreme hardness and high grade of polish. However, only about 17% of the light striking the external surface of a polished diamond vertically reflects back into the air. The rest of it enters the stone and passes through it. As it does, it reflects off the internal surfaces. It eventually comes out again, but at a different angle than it entered. This is what makes a diamond sparkle! The change in the angle the light comes out at is due to the next science concept: refraction.
Did you know? Diamonds are the hardest natural material known. They score a 10 on the relative Mohs scale of mineral hardness!
Refraction is the bending and slowing of light as it passes at an angle from a substance of one optical density (such as air) into another substance of greater optical density (such as a diamond). To understand refraction, try putting a pencil into a glass of water. It will seem bent or broken. This, of course, is only an optical illusion caused by the refraction of light as it passes between the water and the air.
The amount of refraction depends on the angle at which the light passes between the two substances and the degree to which the second substance reduces its speed. This is called the refractive index. Diamonds have a refractive index of 2.42. Meanwhile, water has an index of 1.33, and air has an index of 1.00. So when the light passes from the air to the diamond, the refractive index changes and the light bends. In the same way, a pencil appears bent in a glass of water because of the different refractive indexes of the water and air. If it wasn’t for refraction, all the light that enters the diamond would pass out the back or side and wouldn’t reflect. And if this happened, the diamond would not look so bright.
This sexy word in the diamond world refers to the flashes of light or the sparkle, you see when a diamond is moved in the light. Scintillation is best when the clarity characteristics of the diamond are purest. In other words, the fewer flaws the diamond has, the better its sparkle.
Did you know? Diamonds form under extreme heat and pressure deep within the Earth's crust, and come to the surface through volcanic eruptions.
Polish is the perceived reflection and surface appearance of a diamond in reflected light. Generally speaking, the higher the refractive index of the gem, the higher its polish. For example, pearls have lower polish and refractive indexes than diamonds.
The Diamond Cut
A large part of the cost and hoopla over diamonds is because of the special "diamond cut". A diamond which has an ideal cut allows all of the bling-bling elements to come together and release the maximum play of light. When diamonds are cut to ideal proportions, light reflects from one facet to another and then disperses through the top of the stone. This affects how much light gets to your eye, and increases the brilliance of what you see. If the cut creates a shape that is too steep or too shallow, the angle of refraction will cause the light to escape out the side or back. This reduces the ever-so important-sparkle.
And Finally... The Case for Fakes
So what about those cubic zirconia's (CZ)? They look just like real diamonds, right? Well, almost. Cubic zirconia (zirconium oxide (ZrO2)) is a man-made form of zircona, related to zircon in chemical makeup, but different in crystal shape.
The CZ may fool the untrained eye and even some gemologists (people who study jewels), but it does have slightly less brilliance or sparkle than a diamond. A small smudge of dirt on the back of a CZ will usually cut down the reflections of light from the stone. A diamond dirty on the back side will generally be very reflective. Diamonds also have a higher refractive index of 2.42 compared to CZ with an index of 2.18.
Did you know? 80% of the world's diamonds are not suitable for jewelry.
CZ's do have more flashes of colour, or fire, with a dispersive power greater than diamond (0.060 vs. 0.044). Other man-made diamond substitutes like natural zircon, synthetic rutile and moissanite have great dispersion of light and may also fool the untrained eye. But careful analysis makes it clear that these substitutes are too colourful to be diamonds.
The biggest difference is weight,. CZ is 75 % heavier than diamonds. So if the bling-bling is too heavy on your neck, there's a good chance that it is fake.
The blingiest of them all
Now that you know the science behind it all, you can see why diamonds attract attention-seekers like moths to a flame. Diamonds simply have shine, colour reflections and sparkle not seen in other gemstones. This makes diamonds the most sought after bling-bling in the land… and understandably so!
This article was updated by Let's Talk Science staff on 2017-02-08 to improve readability.
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Sonya Poller is a journalism student at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her passions are documentary filmmaking and jazz music. She recently lived in Germany for over four years where she learned the joys of language, culture – and great food!