As we enter another Christmas season, we must once again embrace, or reject, the ‘current thing’. Whether its cabbage patch kids, beanie babies, pink ice or nugget rings, there is always something new to deal with. This year it seems to be lab grown diamonds.
Every year, you have to decide to jump all-in, dip your toes in the water, or outright reject the current thing. Something I’ve noticed the last month or so is national retailer, Shane Co., seems to be walking an interesting tight rope. For years, their ever present radio ads have touted that their sapphires are always natural, never synthetic. It was one of their hallmark positions. Yesterday, I heard one of their new radio ads telling the world that they now offer natural, and lab grown diamonds. I’d like to have been a fly on the wall for that discussion.
So, to help you understand what this is all about, let’s do a little gemology 101. A basic primer, if you will, to help everyone understand what lab grown diamonds are, and what they aren’t. For starters, you need to understand three gemological terms; natural, synthetic, and imitation.
This one is pretty easy; it was created entirely in nature. A natural diamond began forming, way deep in the earth’s crust, 60-70 million years ago. It was then pushed towards the earth’s surface through volcanic activity, and generally found in what are known, geologically, as kimberlite pipes. If the crystal was formed with no outside human interaction, that diamond is considered to be a natural diamond. If humans decide to do things to the crystal after it is discovered, like heat treating or laser drilling, they are still considered natural, but treated. The same holds true with other gemstones like ruby, sapphire and emerald.
This is where it starts to get tricky. In order for a gemstone to be considered synthetic, it must first have a natural counterpart. By definition, a synthetic gemstone must match its natural counterpart chemically, physically, and optically, within very narrow limits. A natural ruby is crystallized aluminum oxide, Al2O3. A synthetic ruby is crystallized aluminum oxide, Al2O3.
That being said, a natural diamond is ‘C’, carbon. It is a single element gemstone. A lab grown diamond is ‘C’. It is also a single element gemstone. So, what is the difference between a ‘lab grown’ and a ‘synthetic’? There are very few differences. Remember, a synthetic gemstone needs to match its natural counterpart chemically, physically, and optically within very narrow limits. Lab grown diamonds meet those criteria. But also understand this; all synthetic gemstones are lab grown gemstones, and all lab grown gemstones are synthetic gemstones as well.
Referring to a gemstone as either lab grown or synthetic is just industry nomenclature. Those terms are just marketing terms. Remember back when we used to call off-color, dark, crappy diamonds dreck? Well, they’re still dreck, but now they are called chocolate diamonds and everybody wants them. That’s some marketing magic right there!
An imitation gemstone is a gemstone that has no shared physical traits with a natural gemstone other than kind of looking the same. For instance, clear glass, cut and faceted, is an imitation diamond. Red glass, cut and faceted, is imitation ruby. It is also possible for a gemstone to be natural and imitation at the same time. Faceted, natural, white sapphire can be a natural sapphire, or it can be an imitation diamond. The same holds true with synthetic spinel. Depending on the color, it can be synthetic spinel, or it can be an imitation sapphire.
Cubic zirconia is an imitation diamond because its chemical makeup is ZrO2. A diamond is ‘C’. Moissanite is an imitation diamond because its chemical composition is SiC, silicon carbide. I am well aware that some people claim that cubic zirconia and moissanite do occur in nature, but – just like bigfoot – I’ve never seen it.
A natural diamond, it’s estimated, takes approximately 60-70 million years to grow. A lab grown diamond takes between 30-45 days to grow. But, once a diamond crystal has been mined or grown, the process to cut and polish is the same.
I hope that gives you a better understanding of lab grown diamonds; so now let’s discuss what’s happening in the industry surrounding them.
At the Atlanta Jewelry Show a few months ago, I interviewed about a dozen lab grown diamond manufacturers and suppliers about the current state of the market. Here are a few things in common that came up between all of them.
The competition is heating up. As more and more manufacturers are coming online, more and more product is making its way into the market. When discussing pricing, most agreed that the prices are coming down. The wholesale price for natural diamonds is not as volatile and changes infrequently. The wholesale price for lab grown diamonds changes about every two months, and they only change in one direction – down!
When asked about the reluctance of many retailers not wanting to carry them, I was reminded of when moissanite hit the market. There was the same reluctance on the part of a lot of retailers. Well guess what? There are retailers out there that are still killing it with moissanite to this day. There are retailers that refuse to sell lab grown and are killing it with natural. There are retailers that sell both and are ‘banking the jack’ with both. As for me, I’m still on the fence.
One of the lab grown companies at the show asked me how much money I was turning away by not selling them? I said none. I told him I just haven’t really had anyone ask about them yet. Remember, these have only been on the market about 12-18 months. He then asked me how much money I was willing to walk away from when those calls started coming in. I made my decision right then and there – NONE!
Another interesting topic that came up was; “If natural and lab grown diamonds are ‘identical’, then why are there several methods available to distinguish one from the other?” The answer was simple; they are not identical. They are chemically, physically, and optically very close, but not identical. Just like we have methods to differentiate between natural and synthetic sapphires, there are methods to differentiate between natural and lab grown diamonds.
I hope this answers a few questions that many of you have about this new ‘current thing’ that is only going to gain traction in the market in the coming years.
And lastly, what do you get the ‘person that has everything’ for Christmas this year? My book(s), ‘It’s Supposed to be Funny’, a collection of my columns through the years can be purchased online at Lulu.com. Just search for my name. A couple of years ago I had to split it into two volumes because the printer couldn’t print all of my columns (over 900 pages) in one volume. It doesn’t seem like I’ve written that many, but I guess I have. Order early if you’d like Christmas delivery, since it takes about 2 weeks to print and ship.
I hope everyone has a great Christmas season this year and I’ll see you all in 2023.