Lab-grown diamonds are as real as mined diamonds and cost far less. But India is yet to accept them
Veenu Sandhu December 19, 2015 Last Updated at 00:24 IST
In a laboratory in Singapore, a team of modern-day alchemists is hard at work. It has set an arduous task for itself: to match the perfection only nature can promise. It is out to create diamonds of the same quality as the famed Golconda diamonds, the Koh-i-Noor and the Cullinan.
All natural diamonds found in the earth were created millions of years ago. But the team of researchers at the Singapore laboratory of IIa Technologies, a company that “grows” diamonds, takes three to four months to create a diamond.
Scientists’ fixation with precious stones, especially diamond, is not new. They have been cultivating diamonds in laboratories for nearly seven decades, but it is only in recent years that they have been able to “grow” diamonds that share the same properties and chemical composition as those of the gem mined from the depths of the earth.
Besides IIa Technologies, the other companies – there are only a handful – creating high-quality, “real” diamonds are New York-headquartered Pure Grown Diamonds (earlier called Gemesis) and Microwave Enterprises (North Carolina, US).
Purists might still turn their noses up at them, but there is a reason these diamonds are finding a market – not quite in India yet. These diamonds are grown in a laboratory not by a chemical process, but by simulating the conditions that exist deep in the earth.
“The diamond growing process begins with a diamond seed (a small diamond grown from carbon) being placed inside a growth chamber,” explains Vishal Mehta, CEO, IIa Technologies. In this chamber, also known as the “diamond greenhouse”, a carbon-rich diamond growing environment is created and maintained for about 12-14 weeks. This is called the “chemical vapour deposition” process. By the end of this period, the diamond seed has undergone natural crystallisation – just as it would below the earth, without any human intervention, resulting in a rough Type IIa (pronounced 2a) diamond. Like any mined diamond, this one too has to then go through the process of cutting and polishing before it is finally ready.
Type IIa is the rarest and purest kind of diamond and accounts for only 2 per cent of the world’s earth-mined diamonds, states a recent PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry report titled Grown Diamonds, A Sunrise Industry in India: Prospects for Economic Growth. All gem-quality, colourless diamonds grown in the laboratory using the chemical vapour deposition process are intrinsically of Type IIa, adds the report.
Besides being real diamonds – as opposed to the synthetic ones, like moissanite, cubic zirconia, white sapphire and YAG -, their makers say “grown diamonds” have other advantages. Because they do not require mining, they are eco-friendly and do not cause population displacement or disturb the ecological balance of the area. And, they are conflict-free, unlike mined diamonds the origins of which are almost impossible to trace. That is to say, there is no chance of this stone being a blood diamond.
Created within a matter of months and costing 30-40 per cent less than the mined diamond, these stones are also seen as a potential solution to the shrinking supply of mined diamonds. The supply of rough mined diamonds is expected to fall from 125 million carat today to 14 million carat by 2050, while their demand is expected to increase to over 290 million carat.
That, however, is an argument not many are willing to buy. “This is a faulty estimate,” says Dinesh Navadia, president of Surat Diamond Association. “New mines are still being discovered. Who knows what secrets the earth will reveal in the years to come?” He is confident that either way, Surat, India’s diamond hub, will not be affected. There is a market for all three kinds of diamonds (natural, lab-grown and synthetic) – if not in India, then internationally, he says.
A Frost & Sullivan research study that by 2018, 1.9 per cent of total global polished diamonds revenue will come from grown, polished diamonds.
On the face of it, the future might seem promising for the “grown diamond” industry. But there are challenges – and big ones. In India, lab-grown diamonds are still classified as “synthetic” stones. “A synthetic diamond will stick to the magnet if you put it in a magnetic chamber, but not a natural or lab-grown diamond,” says Navadia. Neither jewellers nor gemologist will be able to tell the difference between a mined and “grown” diamond under a loupe, or even a microscope. “This is why certification and disclosure is very important,” says Mehta.
Diamond grading organisations like the Gemological Institute of America and European Gemological Laboratory-India give a separate certificate for a lab-grown diamond. “It is no different from a mined diamond in terms of purity or clarity, yet has to be certified differently,” says an official at European Gemological Laboratory-India. There is now a demand to introduce a sub-category for these diamonds in the code that exists for natural diamonds to make them acceptable in India.
Jewellery brand owners and designers are, however, not sure if that would change things much. “I have offered these diamonds to customers, but their response hasn’t been great. People are very sceptical about buying man-made diamonds, even if they are as good as natural diamonds,” says Varda Goenka, owner of jewellery designer brand Diagold. “Perhaps, the younger generation will be more receptive to them.”
Lack of awareness is also a huge hurdle. When asked for a lab-grown diamond, an official at a Tanishq showroom in New Delhi promptly replies: “We don’t sell synthetic diamonds like moissanites.” Kapil Hetamsaria, CEO of designer jewellery marketplace Velvetcase.com, says like Swarovski, there could in later years emerge a segment of consumers that buys both natural and stylish, laboratory-made diamond jewellery.
Others like Shehzad Zaveri, the creative director of Minawala, are of the opinion that a natural diamond rates high in value – both financial and emotional. “Would a man give the woman he loves a lab-created diamond? And will she wear it? I don’t think so.” He is not worried about reports that supply of natural raw diamond is depleting. “If that is so, then natural diamonds will be even more sought after. People would then rather have a small natural diamond, than a big ‘grown’ diamond.”
Superstition also comes into play in India when buying jewellery, adds Akshay Kothari, director of Hema S Kothari (Diamond Jewellery). “People in India seek natural diamonds. So, while lab-grown diamonds have a sizeable market in mature economies like Europe and America, in India they are yet to find an audience.” That could well be the reason why at this point, companies like IIa Technologies are concentrating on the US, which is India’s largest export customer for diamonds and diamond jewellery.
Kothari calls them cloned diamonds. But Mehta of IIa Technologies says they are anything but cloned. “Just like earth-mined diamonds, every diamond grown is unique,” says Mehta. “Due to the natural crystallisation process, although two diamonds might grow together in the same greenhouse, there is no guarantee that they will have the same 4 Cs (cut, colour, clarity and carat weight) after growth,” he adds.
There is clearly a lot going in favour of lab-grown diamonds. India, however, is yet to succumb to their sparkle.
GROWN VERSUS MINED DIAMONDS
- Both are real diamonds
- Both have identical physical properties
- Both are composed of pure carbon
- Both are not artificial, fake or synthetic
- Life of diamond: eternity, for both
- Mined diamonds: Excavated from the earth
- Grown diamonds: Created in a greenhouse
Source: PHDCCI Report, Grown Diamonds, A Sunrise Industry in India: Prospects for Economic Growth