The size of the global diamond industry is projected to reach nearly $140 billion by 2030, and it's easy to see why: the gemstones are sold for thousands of dollars each and remain a common purchase for a variety of occasions. However, some people are starting to look for alternatives to the pricey gift, namely in the form of synthetic diamonds.
Also known as lab-based or cultured diamonds, these are stones that are made to mimic the look of a real diamond using synthetic material. As a result, they are typically "between 60% to 85% less than the price of a natural diamond of the same size and quality," according to U.K.-based jeweler Queensmith. Cultured diamonds are also a popular option for those who are critical of the exploitative practices of mining diamonds, often referred to as the "blood diamond" trade.
But while people may think that synthetic diamonds are the more ethical route, experts say there are caveats. For one, while global mining companies may scoff at synthetic diamonds, they may also be working to help produce them for a profit at the same time. There are questions about the value of diamonds themselves, with the industry once described by the think tank American Enterprise Institute (AEI) as "the biggest marketing scam in history orchestrated by the most successful cartel ever."
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How have synthetic diamonds helped shape the decades-old diamond industry, and what is next for the world's most popular gemstone?
What are synthetic diamonds?
Natural diamonds are formed in the Earth's crust, but synthetic diamonds are "grown in highly controlled laboratory environments," according to the jeweler Brilliant Earth. These diamonds are typically created "using advanced technological processes that duplicate the conditions under which diamonds naturally develop when they form in the mantle." Though made in a lab, synthetic diamonds "consist of actual carbon atoms arranged in the characteristic diamond crystal structure," Brilliant Earth said, so they look nearly identical to real diamonds. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) even has updated guidance reiterating that the word "diamond" can be used to refer to both natural and synthetic diamonds.
Synthetic diamonds are created from "tiny carbon seeds of preexisting diamonds," Brilliant Earth added. Scientists use "either extreme pressure and heat or a special deposition process known as chemical vapor deposition (CVD) to mimic the method of natural diamond formation." Over the course of six to 10 weeks, these processes eventually form a rough diamond that can be shaped into a gemstone, Brilliant Earth said.
The pressure and heat method crushes carbon "under pressures of more than 870,000 pounds per square inch" at high temperatures to produce diamonds, Brilliant Earth said, while CVD involves "a small vacuum chamber filled with heated hydrogen and carbon-containing gasses."
How are the diamond cartels using synthetic stones to their advantage?
Synthetic diamonds are "all but untraceable and already infiltrating the market to an extent that the diamond dealers would prefer not to admit," The Guardian reported. When speaking of diamond dealers — and the diamond "cartel" — there is one corporation at the top of the list: De Beers.
The South Africa-based mining company had a near-monopoly on the diamond market and was the top diamond producer in the world for decades. While competition has cut into its market share in the 21st century, De Beers still controls an estimated 29% of the global diamond supply, according to Statista. And while De Beers has long been considered the king of real diamonds, the company has "staked a claim to the synthetic diamond market as well."
This marks a recent pivot for the company, as De Beers had long held off on selling synthetic diamonds, only reversing its decision in 2018, creating a new brand, Lightbox, that offers lab-grown jewelry. De Beers has not historically been the only diamond giant to push back against the sale of synthetic diamonds, which Bloomberg described as "an existential threat to the natural mining industry." However, the increasing availability of synthetic stones on the market means that companies are being forced to pivot as consumers sour to the sale of real diamonds; De Beers "is cutting prices of mined stones by as much as 40% due to falling demand for traditional diamonds," CNN reported.
What's the truth behind a diamond's value?
When it comes to synthetic or real diamonds, some in the industry are beginning to reveal a consensus that is somewhat of an open secret: diamonds, in reality, are worthless. "People want diamonds because they've been told to," according to the trailer for "Nothing Lasts Forever," a Showtime documentary examining the diamond industry. "None of them are really worth anything," the trailer adds, describing diamonds as "a perfect crime."
In reality, diamonds "actually number among the most common gems" and are "likely the most common gem in nature," according to the International Gem Society. While diamonds were once rare, by the 20th century "huge diamond mines were discovered in South Africa, flooding the market, [and] making the gem available" to anyone that wanted one," The Atlantic reported. As a result, diamond investors created De Beers as a monopoly to own "every aspect of the industry, including how many diamonds were allowed on the market, in order to perpetuate the illusion of diamond rarity — and keep prices high."
By the mid-1900s, De Beers, which was already controlling the flow of diamonds on the market, had launched massive marketing campaigns, and "despite its complete lack of inherent value, the company manufactured an image of diamonds as a status symbol," the AEI wrote. This was despite diamonds being "no longer rare at all, and that meant that they weren’t necessarily worth — and didn’t necessarily mean — much of anything," The Atlantic added.
"We covet diamonds in America for a simple reason: the company that stands to profit from diamond sales decided that we should," the AEI concluded.
What's next for the diamond industry?
Like any product on the market, diamonds are worth what the consumer is willing to pay for them, and "De Beers knows that diamonds are worth only what they mean to the buying public, and diamonds may be in crisis again," The Atlantic reported.
This all comes as the proponents of lab-based diamonds promote them as "a cheaper alternative without many of the environmental or social downsides sometimes attached to mined diamonds," Bloomberg reported. This may be why the lab-grown market continues to climb, and "De Beers has said it expects lab-grown prices to continue to decline as more supply comes into the market," the outlet added.
And despite the continued controversy over the inherent value of any type of precious stone, many in the industry believe synthetic diamonds are here to stay — and costs will continue to fall as a result. A recent InStore survey found that 63% of American jewelers are now selling synthetic diamonds, up from 58% in 2022. One jeweler told InStore that buying a synthetic diamond was like "buying technology in the sense that if you financed a computer for 24 months, by the time you pay it off, it will likely be cheaper than when you bought it."
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