Monday, July 4, 2011

What happened to artificial diamonds?

Back in 2003, I read an article by Joshua Davis in Wired magazine about two companies that were making diamonds.  Not mining for diamonds.  Making diamonds.  Davis pointed out that although scientists as far back as the 1800s tried to make diamonds, it wasn't until the 1950s that there was much success.  And what they produced were diamond chips useful for tools like drill bits, grinders and saws.  The two most popular methods for creating these stones are HPHT (High Pressure High Temperature) and CVD (Chemical Vapor Deposition).

But in 2003, two companies, Gemesis and Apollo Diamond, began making synthetic or artificial diamonds.    

The Wired article addressed the potential for synthetic diamonds in the electronics industry.  Since diamonds can handle a great deal of heat without breaking down, they make a good candidate for the microprocessors in our computers, which are currently made of silicon and run very hot (which is why they have heat sinks and fans).  The barrier was the cost of diamonds, but if a company could crank out artificial ones, why not use them in computers?

The other big potential was in the gemstone industry.  If a company could make diamonds of all different colors for a relatively low price and sell them at a high price, couldn't they put the diamond mines out of business?

So now it's 2011 and where are all the cheap diamond rings? Where are the diamond microprocessors?

Synthetic diamonds have found their way into industries that need a material like diamond that has very impressive properties of hardness and thermal conductivity.  An article from 2008 states that 600 tons of artificial diamonds are made each year for use in tools like high-pressure anvils and lasers. 

But the gemstone market is different.  Diamond industry giant De Beers saw the threat to their business years ago, and took measures to deal with it.  De Beers Gem Defense Program distributed sophisticated machines called DiamondSure and DiamondView to gem labs so they could distinguish artificial diamonds from nature-made stones.

Marketing campaigns by the diamond mining industry worked to convince buyers that a natural diamond is somehow better or more sincere than an artificial diamond.  And although diamonds remain expensive, there are apparently plenty of natural diamonds available for use in jewelry (a 2009 article states 100 million diamonds are mined each year.)

In 2001, the US Federal Trade Commission said it was deceptive to label a man-made diamond a diamond.  But physically and chemically, a synthetic diamond is the same as a natural diamond.  So while synthetic diamonds have found success in the industrial world, clever marketing and politics have kept them from dominating the gem trade.

If you think about the countries that diamonds come from, which are often poor and corrupt, and how mining affects the environment, choosing a synthetic diamond made in a lab appears to be a better choice for both people and the planet.

(Here is the original Wired article, a Wikipedia entry, an article in New Scientist, and an interview from Nova.  The pic is from:

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  1. yep. i agree with you on the later part of the article.

    Synthetic diamonds have their places in today's market. As long as consumers aren't paying the price of a natural for them and they are told up front on what they are getting, it's all good.


    1. Paul, thank you for commenting. For some reason, diamonds fascinate people. Here on Chimp With Pencil, this article is consistently one of the most popular posts.