Cover What are lab-grown diamonds? (Photo: The Glorious Studio/ Pexels Photo)

'Diamonds are forever,' but can the same be said for those that were cultivated in a lab?

Buying laboratory-grown diamonds can be a controversial trend among jewellery collectors these days. Recently, the world has seen a wave of consumers who prefer wearing the relatively cheaper, more sustainable, and ethical 'lab diamonds' over the ones that the Earth carefully nurtured and cradled in its deepest layers.

Geologists continue to study the exact details, but they know nature's recipe for a pure diamond: carbon, heat, and pressure. Naturally formed diamonds start with carbon dioxide buried some 100 miles deep in the Earth's mantle. At those depths, with a scorching temperature of around 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit and 725,000 pounds of pressure per square inch from the rocks above, cause carbon to crystalise and turn into an eventually glittering diamond.

When each carbon atom bonds with others, the gem becomes one of the hardest materials on Earth. It is then punted up to the surface, hitching a ride on lava flows.

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Diamonds come with a lot of cultural implications because in part, they are all rare. But the emergence of lab-grown gems has given people with a penchant for pretty and shiny things the option to produce diamonds if the right equipment is at their disposal. 

What are lab-grown diamonds?

To be clear, synthetic diamonds are not the same as the popular cubic zirconia, which is a colourless gemstone made of the cubic crystalline form of zirconium dioxide. A lab-brewed diamond is a stone with the exact physical structure and chemical composition as the ones mined from the ground. This means that the ingredients used (carbon + heat + pressure) are just the same.

One way of making a synthetic diamond is by squeezing graphite (pencil lead) in a machine while being zapped by intense bursts of electricity. In a few days or weeks, the graphite will crystallise into a diamond.

Another method is called Chemical Vapour Deposition (CVD) which relies on a unique and innovative process where a thin 'seed' diamond is placed inside of a sealed chamber and subjected to very high temperatures with a carbon-rich gas mixture.

The gases are ionised to break down their molecular bonds, allowing the pure carbon to attach itself to the diamond seed. As carbon slowly builds up, it forms atomic bonds that turn into a new and larger diamond.

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PROS

Unlike mined diamonds, synthetic gems are said to be more sustainable and ethical. It was reported that the diamond mining industry affects an estimated 10 million people around the globe. While some companies and countries made a fortune from diamond mining, the industry as a whole is notorious for exploiting miners and abusing human rights.

In some countries, mining also affects water supply and quality as the compound is used to extract diamonds. In Africa, where majority of diamond mines are located, water is scarce; some companies have resorted to draining lakes, causing massive changes to the environment and disrupting the natural habitats of many species.

Tatler Trivia: When the US Civil War broke out, the term 'blood diamond' was coined after diamond profits that were used to fund weapons, slavery, and wars.

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CONS

According to a report published by the British national daily The Guardian, lab-made diamonds may have environmental upsides, but it has the potential to 'disfranchise' the poor communities that ethical consumers are concerned for.

“If you start to grow diamonds in a lab, you’re not only taking away a job, but you’re also closing down communities and closing down countries,” said Urica Primus who hailed from a mining family in Guyana. “How will [miners] survive, how will they sustain themselves, their livelihoods, their families?”

After years of helping her family mine, Primus has also started extracting from her own small-scale pit in Tamakay. As of this post, she is the president of the Guyana Women Miners Organisation.

Many seasoned collectors tend to prefer natural diamonds due to the fact that they are well, natural, and more of a rare breed. Some say that they also may be more likely to retain their value as the years pass by.

Lab-grown or mined? Which one is better?

This decision is, of course, up to you. The physical and chemical differences between mined and lab-grown diamonds cannot be detected by the naked eye; but their pros and cons can outweigh each other in the respective minds of their collectors.

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