- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 3, 2007

They sparkle and shine and are society’s symbol of enduring love. However, these diamonds did not grow in the ground, cultivated over millions of years of volcanic activity. These stones were made in a lab in a matter of days.

Lab-created diamonds — also known as cultured diamonds — are new to the $60 billion diamond business, but the handful of companies manufacturing the gems are hoping eventually to have a large market share.

Prices for lab-created diamonds run 15 percent to 30 percent lower (depending on size and quality) than for mined diamonds. Stones come colorless as well as fancy-colored. Manufacturers are working on the size of the gems. Currently, colorless gems can be found in the one-third to half-carat range; colored stones can be made up to 1.5 carats.

“We’ve sold everything we have been able to produce,” says Bryant Linares, president and chief executive of Apollo Diamonds, a Boston-area company that started selling cultured diamonds last year. “Later we hope to make stones that are half-carat to 1 carat. We see that as the breaking point for the market.”

Diamond substitutes have been around for years. Known by names such as cubic zirconia, Diamonique or Moissanite, these stones sparkle like diamonds, but they are made of other materials. That is reflected in the price — a 1-carat cubic zirconia can be had for less than $20. The same size stone in Moissanite can run about $700.

Scientifically, lab-created diamonds are the real thing. They are created when tiny bits of diamond material are combined with carbon, which is one of the materials in nature’s diamonds. The ingredients are placed in a controlled lab under high heat and pressure to make the gem.

“They are identical,” Mr. Linares says. “They are difficult to distinguish from mined diamonds. A consumer can’t tell the difference.”

To prevent fraud, Apollo Diamonds and Gemesis, another company whose cultured diamonds recently hit the market, laser-inscribe their stones with the information that they were lab-created.

The Gemological Institute of America, the independent nonprofit organization that created the International Diamond Grading System, last month began issuing grading reports for cultured diamonds. That means a lab-grown diamond will come with “papers” announcing its color, cut, clarity and inclusions, just like a natural stone.

“It is the GIA’s mission as a public benefit institution to grade any stone, whether naturally mined or man-made,” says Ralph Destino, chairman of the GIA.

Mr. Destino says now that lab-grown stones are becoming more readily available, it is his group’s responsibility to recognize and classify them.

He says it is not a matter of whether the stones are “real” or not because lab-made is just another classification of diamonds. Other jewelry, such as pearls, have had lab-created materials for years without any stigma.

“In the jewelry business, you can have a lovely piece of jewelry that is costume,” Mr. Destino says. “You can have silver plate or sterling, or white gold or platinum. There are various levels of categories. The same is true with diamonds. You can have naturally mined or, down a notch, lab-created or then glass or cubic zirconia. One doesn’t really compete with another.”

Clark McEwan, chief executive of Gemesis, a Florida company that specializes in creating fancy-colored stones, says his diamonds are meant to offer an alternative to traditional diamonds. He says someone may want a lab-created stone for political or environmental reasons. Or he or she may simply want more for the money.

“There seems to be a niche for people who want something that sets them apart,” he says. “They can get a 100 percent diamond at a much lower price.”

Because cultured diamonds are so new, they are mostly available through the manufacturers or through a few online jewelry stores.

Kurt Rose, owner of Aspen Jewelry Designs in Herndon, says he would carry lab-created diamonds if his customers asked for them.

“It would be providing another option at a different price point,” he says.

However, Ronnie Mervis, president of Mervis Diamond Importers, a Washington-area diamond seller, says nothing created in a tank can ever replace the symbolism of a mined diamond.

“Manufactured diamonds are synthetics,” Mr. Mervis says emphatically. “A real diamond is formed by nature over millions of years. That is what people want to give their partner as a symbol of love. Are you going to say, ‘I got 20 percent off’? Maybe she’ll say, ‘Do you love me 20 percent less?’ We don’t intend to carry manufactured diamonds.”

Mr. McEwan says his colored stones aren’t in competition with the type of solitaire that would go into a traditional engagement ring.

“We’re more about fashionable fun,” he says.

Besides, most mined diamonds aren’t as rare or special as the mined-diamond industry would like consumers to believe, Mr. McEwan says.

“The mystique of natural diamonds has been built by the industry,” he says. “One hundred fifty million carats of mined diamonds are produced every year, so they are really not that special if you look at those terms. Actually, if you look at lab-grown diamonds, there are less than 100,000 carats being produced. So actually, cultured diamonds are the much rarer stone.”

Mr. Linares of Apollo Diamonds says there is enough demand for the market to support natural and lab-created diamonds. Apollo wants to complement, rather than directly compete with the mined market — sort of like California wines expanding the array of choices that French wines created.

“Where would the pearl market be today without cultured pearls?” Mr. Linares asks rhetorically.

For jewelry lovers seeking something unique, LifeGem, a company in suburban Chicago, will create a lab-grown diamond with the carbon from a loved one’s remains.

“Love knows no boundaries; love knows no end,” declare the company’s promotional materials.

LifeGem has created about 3,000 “memorial” diamonds since 2002, says LifeGem founder Dean VandenBiesen. Cost: about $13,000 for a 1-carat colored stone.

LifeGem purifies cremated remains down to carbon elements, then uses heat and pressure to grow a diamond in its lab, Mr. VandenBiesen says.

“We can do the same with a lock of hair,” he says. “The true value of the stone is that we are giving a family a close connection with something they lost. It is very personal. It is a unique and specific item that provides comfort and closeness.”

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