For people who want to get married, the diamond engagement ring is a tale as old as time—and advertisers and media companies alike make the rather expensive tradition seem inescapable. The slogans from South African diamond behemoth De Beers speak for themselves:
“A diamond is forever.”
“Is two months’ salary too much to spend for something that lasts forever?”
More From Popular Mechanics
“Show her you’ll love her for the next thousand years.”
On top of it, the marketplace for diamonds can be really confusing. There are grades of clarity and color that lead to an overall quality rating. And, of course, diamonds are very expensive. The International Gem Society reports that the average amount spent on a diamond ring in 2021 was $5,000. (At the iconic jewelry store Tiffany’s, a budget of $5,000 barely gets you into the diamonds, let alone the showy single diamonds people prefer on engagement rings.)
All of these reasons have driven consumer interest in lab-grown diamonds, and in lab-grown diamond engagement rings in particular. So, we spoke to an expert from the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) to learn everything you need to know about lab-grown diamonds—the production methods, the colors, the intangibles, and more. They say lab-grown diamond rings can cost up to 20 percent less than natural diamonds, which would knock that $5,000 ring down to $4,000. It’s not a Black Friday doorbuster percentage of discount, but that’s a lot of money to save.
Lab-Grown Diamonds vs. Natural Diamonds
Sally Magaña is a research scientist and the manager of diamond identification for the Carlsbad, California-based GIA, which now has locations around the world; the GIA creates and upholds standards and education for jewelers around the world. Today, one of its key concerns is telling apart lab-grown diamonds from natural diamonds, but when Robert Shipley started the GIA in 1931, the main priority was telling apart other natural gemstones without training. (For instance, a yellow stone might be a citrine, topaz, yellow diamond, garnet, or tourmaline—or something else entirely!) Without the right knowledge, jewelers couldn’t protect themselves from scammers.
Magaña explains the difference between a lab-grown diamond and a natural diamond succinctly: “The way they differ is in how they form. Natural diamonds were formed billions of years ago, and were brought to Earth’s surface millions of years ago by kimberlite volcanic eruptions. Each natural diamond is arguably unique. In contrast, laboratory-grown diamonds are, at most, 70 years old, and the vast majority were grown within the last decade in a factory,” she tells Popular Mechanics.
🌋 Know Your Terms: According to Oregon State University, kimberlite volcanic eruptions bring diamonds up from Earth’s mantle through a rare type of magma, called kimberlite. The eruption itself occurs at an unusual type of volcanic vent, called a diatreme or pipe.
Colors of Lab-Grown Diamond Rings
As research continues, lab-grown diamonds may become available in some colors that natural diamonds cannot be. On the other hand, there are also natural diamond colors that aren’t possible to recreate in a lab—yet. Magaña explains that colored diamonds were formed because of the presence of different elements, similar to how noble gasses like neon and argon display different colors when activated inside a tube light. And using the high pressure, high temperature method mentioned in the next section, natural diamonds can have their colors slightly altered. But overall, what’s there is what’s there.
Natural diamonds have some special and beautiful colors that have not been replicated so far, Magaña says; that includes chameleon diamonds that change color. True violet diamonds or certain orange diamonds have not been made in a lab thus far, she says. Because natural diamonds are as complex as the distinctive environments in which they were formed, it’s much harder to try to replicate these special colors. We can only know so much about the nearly infinite factors—like the particular chemical soup and temperature curve in a primordial volcano—involved in one place over a billion years ago.
Lab-grown diamonds can also display special colors. Magaña says these techniques are not well-explored yet, and the GIA has not seen very many, but labs can use “massive amounts of silicon” to create pinkish diamonds that turn blue in certain light. Colors are a great opportunity for lab-grown diamonds, because this turns their newness and changeability into a selling point rather than a hindrance.
What Exactly Is a Lab-Grown Diamond?
Diamonds are made of carbon, an element that Encyclopedia Britannica explains is part of “more compounds than all the other elements combined.” That makes intuitive sense, because carbon is such a key part of life on Earth; heck, the entire field of organic chemistry is about carbon. It’s one of the elements people have known about for the longest time, because charcoal, graphite, and diamond all have unique properties that people can see with the naked eye. (Britannica explains that a scientist first proved that diamonds were made of carbon over 225 years ago!)
In nature, diamonds formed under immense pressure over a very long period of time. But today, with technology, scientists try to mimic that process. “Laboratory-grown diamonds are made using two different methods: chemical vapor deposition (CVD) or high pressure, high temperature (HPHT),” Magaña explains. Both processes involve using a diamond seed, a shard of diamond placed in a specific environment and encouraged to grow through accumulation of additional carbon in a specific crystal structure.
Lattice structure of a diamond
The diamond seed can be natural or a new slice from a lab-grown diamond. This means that, in a way, all the lab-grown diamonds are a tiny, tiny, tiny bit natural—in much the same way a homeopathic “remedy” like colloidal silver solution is one part per billion trillion of the substance it purports to be.
High pressure, high temperature is the older process. It’s more similar to natural diamond formation, and is even used to help clarify and color-neutralize natural diamonds to improve their gemological value. A diamond seed (or “fully grown” diamond) is placed into a pressurized, heated chamber where carbon plus other, molten elements are pumped in to encourage the chemical reaction. The diamond crystals from HPHT accumulate at about a millimeter a day, reaching a carat in well under a month.
💍 The Four Cs of Diamonds
Of the four Cs, Blue Nile says cut is the most important factor. This is a measure of how well-proportioned the diamond’s dimensions are. A well-cut diamond displays a superior grade of the following characteristics:
• Brilliance: how the diamond reflects white light
• Fire: how the diamond disperses light into the colors of the rainbow
• Scintillation: how light and dark areas exhibit contrast, which is essentially that iconic diamond sparkle
(Note: diamond cut and diamond shape are not the same thing! A princess-shaped diamond and an emerald-shaped diamond, for instance, can each exhibit various grades of cut).
Chemical vapor deposition is newer, and also involves a small chamber full of carbon and other elements—this time a vacuum instead of a pressurized environment. A special mix of gases is pumped in, and heat causes the carbon to separate and stick to the seed diamond. Layer by layer, a new diamond accumulates. Some CVD stones can reach a carat in about a month. It’s slower than HPHT, but requires far less energy.
Are Lab-Grown Diamonds Real?
This is such a hard question, and the answer depends on what you want. Lab-grown diamonds are absolutely real in the sense that the resulting stone is a gem-quality diamond that can compete with natural stones in many ways. They sparkle and catch the light. They’re one of the hardest materials ever. They will last for many generations. They make beautiful diamond engagement rings. But that’s not all that a diamond is about in our society.
The diamond engagement ring industry seems ubiquitous today, but like bottled water and Listerine, demand for diamond engagement rings popped up almost overnight thanks to a groundbreaking ad campaign. De Beers had a monopolistic hold on its entire diamond industry, and had worked for decades to create the notion that diamonds were as precious and extremely rare as they always had been—but that was before the discovery of relatively plentiful diamonds in South Africa.
To keep diamonds costly and front of mind, they came up with an iconic slogan in the 1940s: “A Diamond Is Forever.” And today, 75 percent of engaged women wear a diamond engagement ring. Diamonds were always a part of the global mix of precious gemstones and jewelry, but the engagement ring, in particular, is what put them on the map.
But what Magaña says is still true: all natural diamonds formed during a particular time a billion or more years ago, and they formed in special conditions that were not common. There are only so many natural diamonds to find, even if the supply is more plentiful than humankind first believed. “Each natural diamond is arguably unique,” Magaña says. “In contrast, laboratory-grown diamonds are grown in a factory. It is the consumer’s choice to decide the value of these more intangible differences.”
Lab-Grown Diamond Engagement Rings
Since the explosion in popularity of the diamond engagement ring in the 1940s—well, since the beginning of gemstone jewelry, period—there have been alternatives to natural diamonds and other precious stones like emeralds and sapphires. (For a good time, check out the Wikipedia list of the 300+ minerals that are gemstones.) These include other natural stones that are less in-demand; glass and “paste” costume jewelry; and previous lab-created alternatives like cubic zirconia. People who could not afford natural diamonds have always had options.
But before 1955, those options were not diamonds. Today, they are. That means that your lab-grown diamond engagement ring will look like a peer to natural diamonds, with the durability and sparkle that go with it. Both CVD and HPHT lab-grown diamonds are prone to certain colors, but these can be treated and clarified in different ways. In fact, some lab-grown diamonds grow faster in certain colors because of the chemical reaction created by elements like nitrogen.
Natural diamonds are unique, Magaña says, because each is formed in what amounts to a natural crucible that can never be recreated. That’s true of the overall time period when natural diamonds formed, as well as the conditions of each individual diamond during that time. But natural diamonds have historically been linked with human rights problems and the political issues created by scarcity and wealth. Lab-grown diamond engagement rings offer people a path that can be more ethically transparent and less expensive.
Are Lab-Grown Diamonds the Best Option?
This is another hard question to answer, because it depends so much on the individual. A diamond engagement ring is not mandatory, no matter how much advertising has bent the culture to tell you that it is. Deciding to get engaged, and what that looks like, is very personal to each couple. You can choose a diamond engagement ring, a ring with another stone, a simple ring with no stones, or no ring at all. You can choose a new ring or a vintage ring, a new stone or an antique stone. And you can choose a natural or a lab-grown diamond.
Natural diamonds all have special histories that we simply can’t recreate with lab-grown diamonds. For some couples, that sense of place and time is the right option. For others, lab-grown diamonds offer freedom from the traditional trappings of the diamond industry. That, in itself, can be a statement that a couple wants to make as they plan a life together. These stones are beautiful, they are real diamonds, and they represent an accomplishment of science and human ingenuity that will make diamonds more available to everyone.
Caroline Delbert is a writer, avid reader, and contributing editor at Pop Mech. She’s also an enthusiast of just about everything. Her favorite topics include nuclear energy, cosmology, math of everyday things, and the philosophy of it all.
- NYC smash-and-grab nets over $2 million in jewelry: NYPD
- Caught on camera: $2 million in diamonds stolen from Bronx jewelry store
- Save $100 on Clean Origin engagement rings with this exclusive code—shop diamond rings now
- What is Frank Ocean’s net worth? Rapper’s brand Homer launches $25K diamond-encrusted gold penis ring
- Princess Beatrice's £300,000 engagement ring 'dazzles' with a 'modern twist'