Synthetic Diamonds – Real, but not Natural, and a Philosophical Dilemma

Humans, in their never-ending effort to understand what makes the universe tick, and replicate mother-nature’s creations, have discovered multiple processes by which to create synthetic diamonds. These man-made stones, which are practically indistinguishable from natural diamonds, have recently shown up mixed with natural stones in some of the world’s foremost diamond mining and jewelry manufacturing centers. In addition to posing a real and substantial threat to the natural diamond industry, the mixing of synthetic stones raises the philosophical question as to whether we, as diamond consumers, should be concerned at all – and if so – why? The answer requires us to look at the unique relationship we’ve developed with nature in the post-industrial and post-tech revolution era.

From the outset, it is important to distinguish these little wonders from their completely unrelated counterparts – the diamond simulants.  A synthetic diamond is identical in elemental composition to a natural earth-mined diamond (pure crystalized Carbon with uniformity in all orientations).  Diamond simulants, on the other hand, are stones that look like diamonds (e.g. “simulate” diamonds”), but have entirely different elemental compositions. Cubic Zirconia (Zirconium Dioxide) and Moissonite (Silicon Carbide) are examples of diamond simulants.

Synthetic Diamonds are produced under laboratory conditions by one of several sophisticated methods (the two most common and commercially viable are known as the high-pressure high-temperature aka “HPHT” and chemical vapor deposition aka “CVD” crystal formation methods). Both methods were introduced in the mid 20th century. By employing these methods, synthetic diamond producers are able to create raw diamond crystals that can then be cut, faceted and polished like their natural cousins. In many instances, the synthetic stones are superior in all attributes to natural stones. The loupes, microscopes and thermal conductivity testers relied upon by jewelers around the world are easily fooled by these clever creations. Absent analysis with specially developed tools, they cannot be distinguished from natural stones.

Diamond industry leaders in the mining and retail trades instantly recognized the potential for these synthetic stones to undercut the natural diamond market and destroy their respective businesses. The reason is simple – diamonds are valuable because they are rare (perhaps less rare than we believe, due to market controls, but still rare).  The ability to manufacture these stones makes them common, and thus less valuable (consider what happened to the pearl market with the introduction of cultured pearls and then the subsequent introduction of high-quality cheap freshwater pearls from China).

In order to curtail the impact of synthetic stones on the natural-stone market, the industry took several aggressive steps including: 1) the introduction of sophisticated analytical tools and processes to distinguish most synthetic stones from naturally occurring stones;  2) the marketing and advertising of synthetic stones as being inherently inferior to natural stones; 3) the lobbying of the governments of diamond consuming and diamond producing countries to adopt laws, regulations and treaties regarding the manufacture, sale, transport and labeling of synthetic stones.

These aggressive steps insulated the natural diamond market from the potential impact of the synthetic stones. Now, however, a diamond processing center in India has determined that multiple batches of allegedly natural stones were intentionally contaminated with synthetics. The stones involved were small stones (known as melee stones) that are often used as single or multi-pave accent stones. Stones of this size are relatively cheap and do not necessarily justify the extensive testing that might be performed on a large stone. The industry and the Indian government have moved quickly in an effort to quash this destructive practice.  It is unknown at this time how many of these synthetic stones were intentionally or unwittingly incorporated into jewelry and marketed as natural stones.  To the extent they were, however, an important philosophical question is raised:

If the end user is happy with the jewelry purchased, and the stones are virtually indistinguishable from natural diamonds, why does it matter at all that they are synthetic?

Let’s start with the knowns: We know the synthetic stones are identical or superior to natural stones in their composition and aesthetic appeal. We also know that the synthetic stones entirely eliminate the so called “blood diamond” trade and human rights abuses ascribed to diamond mining in developing nations. Finally, we know that the synthetic stones are indistinguishable from natural stones except by complex laboratory analysis.

We also know that synthetics were met with acceptance and ultimately preference in other industries. Synthetic motor-oil, for example, is preferred by most automotive manufacturers. Synthetic medicines have replaced the plants in which they were discovered. In both examples, the synthetic version performed better and could be more efficiently produced. The same is true for synthetic diamonds, though. They can be manufactured to exhibit superior qualities to natural stones and can be produced in a number of days – an immeasurable fraction of the time it takes a diamond to form in nature.

So what separates the synthetic diamond from other synthetics? The seemingly most obvious reason is rarity, and thus value: Natural stones are simply more rare than synthetics. From stamps, to coins, to flatware patterns, people obsess over and value scarce items. Scarcity drives price and price, more often than not, drives the all important status elevating ability of an item. (EN. 1). Legions of people consume rare pricey wines in restuarants to impress their friends, other patrons and even the restaurant staff. Many of these people could not distinguish the fine wine they ordered from the merely mediocre.  But still, like a rapper in “the club” they want the “best”, or at least what is perceived to be the “best” Natural stones are currently considered ‘better’ than synthetics by most of the diamond consuming public. This results of course from the marketing efforts of the diamond industry.

But we suspect that this is a lesser reason.

The real reason seems to result from our contradictory need to control and yet still be bound to creation.  The confluence of our desire to achieve immortality through technology and our collective addiction to authenticity and the near-mystical value we place on “natural” things that, like ourselves, came forth from the same mother – whether we deem her the earth, the universe or an infinite omni-present deity.

The overwhelming majority of us accept, with no reluctance, the fruits of the industrial and technological revolutions. (EN. 2).  We readily and happily consume the synthetic oils, plastics, computers, digital accessories, fabrics and all the other wonderful technologies we have created. We feed our children lab made formulas from plastic bottles equipped with polymer nipples. We indulge our senses in electronic sound and life-like visuals. We worship and rise on high pillars those individuals, who by their own knowledge and genius, give us new and magical devices and services via the electronic portals we install in our homes with joy and pride. We embrace and revel in our ability to conquer, subdue and contain the natural world.

But, like homesick children, we also yearn for a connection to the earth.  That which came into the world from the same source as our own species is afforded special reverence in our society when juxtapposed to those things which were created, and thus somehow corrupted, by the hands of man.

The contradiction is evident in everything we do and are. Organic food stores lie adjacent to Apple Stores.  After terraforming and leveling entire ecosytems, modern housing developers introduce “native” plant species to satisfy their customers. We spend millions of dollars to “get back to nature” cladded in our polymer soled shoes, drowned in insect repellant and wrapped in gortex clothing all the time guided by a trusty hand-held GPS unit.  Many of us insist on maintaining gardens and cultivating trees in our yards and parks but then quickly re-treat to our climate controlled, ever-more-sterile homes to excape the natural world. We seek, in all ways, to turn nature on and off like a faucet. We desire it, but only in doses we can tolerate and only when we have the ability to escape it on a whim.

Natural diamonds are a dose that we can tolerate. It’s a clean, easy way to insist on maintaining a connection to the earth without getting our hands dirty, exposing ourselves to risk or suffering in an uncomfortable climate. So it seems, that for the near future at least, consumers will continue to prefer natural diamonds even whilst they allow an abundance of other artificial products into their lives.

End Note 1: Scarcity alone does not definitively make something valuable. Likewise, value alone, does not definitively make something a status symbol. While real value almost always effects the status lifting quality of a product, scarcity alone does not dictate whether an item will be valuable and thus work as a status symbol (e.g. my finger nail clippings are one of kind).

End Note 2: We have to remember that there was a time when humans battled daily with nature for existence. Nature was the greatest threat – from the dawn of man when we were not quite the apex predator and truly feared the lion and croc to the era of pre-scientific medicine when the simplest infections decimated our species.

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