Man-made diamonds – better than nature’s original?

May Cheng
23 January 2012

Diamonds have long been associated with luxury, wealth and importance, and are often considered the most desired of all the gemstones. In fact, wars have been started because of diamonds, leading to the term “conflict” or “blood” diamonds.

But what makes a diamond a diamond, and are they really all that special?

Did you know? Diamonds are one of the hardest materials in the world, making them extremely useful for industrial applications such as cutting and polishing tools.

Diamonds are a crystallized form of carbon, which is one of the most common elements in the world and essential for life. Another common form of carbon is graphite, which is a soft, black crystal of carbon.

The major difference between diamonds and graphite is that the molecular structure of diamonds is more compact, making it extremely hard and clear. These are the properties that make diamonds so attractive to both industry and the general consumer.

One of the reasons diamonds are so valuable is that they are relatively rare in nature and can be expensive to extract. The formation of natural diamonds involves heating carbon-containing minerals at very high pressure about 150 kilometres below the earth’s surface. This process takes millions, if not billions, of years, after which the diamonds reach the earth’s surface via volcanic eruptions. Diamonds that have surfaced may then be moved by geological activity such as water movement or glacial drift.

Did you know? The 2006 Leonardo DiCaprio movie, Blood Diamond portrayed how diamonds mined in African war zones by international diamond companies help to finance the conflicts.

In response to the rarity and high cost of natural diamonds, as well as the associated concerns of avoiding conflict diamonds, synthetic or man-made diamonds are now becoming increasingly common. The manufacturing process for synthetic diamonds involves duplicating the extreme heat and pressure that turns carbon sources into diamonds naturally. Although synthetic diamonds have been used for awhile in industrial purposes, they have only relatively recently been introduced to the general consumer. In fact, if you go to your local jeweler, there’s a good chance that they still don’t sell synthetic diamonds.

Did you know? The commonly-known cubic zirconia gem and the less common moissanite gem resemble diamonds in their appearance to the naked eye, but are actually made of different molecules and not pure carbon. The difference between cubic zirconia, moissanite and diamonds is clear to trained gemologists under a microscope.

Synthetic diamonds are considered by the Gemological Institute of America to be nearly identical to natural diamonds. Indeed, the molecular structures of synthetic and natural diamonds — that is, a compact crystallized form of carbon — are the same. It can even be difficult for gemologists (those who study gems) to tell the difference, although expensive machines are now being sold to help analyse and distinguish synthetic and natural diamonds. The bottom line for the consumers is if you want a diamond and don’t care whether it took millions of years to make it, a synthetic diamond is just as good as a natural diamond, but at a fraction of the cost.

Learn More!

Gemological Institute of America

HowStuffWorks - "How Diamonds Work"

MSN MoneyCentral - "Man-made diamonds: a girl's new best friend?"

cnet news - "Synthetic diamonds still a rough cut"

Article first published on August 8, 2010.

May Cheng

I am a PhD student in the Department of Cellular and Physiological Sciences at UBC, where I am investigating the electrical properties of cardiac potassium channels. When not in the lab, I'm probably cooking up a storm, immersed in a book, or catching a movie.

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