Lab Diamonds vs Natural Diamonds
Diamonds are forever. If you go into a jewelry store today, you’ll see many of the same gems and jewelry designs that you would have seen in the 1950s. But just in the last few years, a revolutionary new option for engagement rings and fine jewelry has entered the market: actual diamonds that are grown in a laboratory rather than mined from the earth. The product of decades of research and investment, lab grown diamonds are virtually identical to natural diamonds. Here are the similarities and differences of lab grown diamonds vs natural diamonds so you can decide which kind of diamond is right for you.
Similarities of Lab Grown Diamonds vs Natural Diamonds
First, let’s talk about the similarities of lab created diamonds vs natural diamonds. Both are the gem form of the element carbon. Diamond is the only gemstone formed from a single element. Carbon isn’t rare: it’s a common element on earth. All organic compounds contain carbon, which is why 18% of your body is carbon too. Carbon is found in proteins, carbs, fats, and nucleic acids like DNA.
But the carbon in diamonds is very unusual because it has a very special crystal structure with the atoms tightly packed together, closer than any other material on earth. It’s this crystal structure that gives diamond its special properties: it’s the hardest mineral, it has remarkable transparency, and it slows down the speed of light passing through it, bending it into brilliance and rainbow dispersion.
All of these chemical, physical and optical properties are exactly the same in natural diamond and lab grown diamond. The look the same, they sparkle the same, and they have the same hardness and long-lasting durability. You could never tell the difference by looking at them or by standard gemological testing.
Because the crystal structure is the same, lab grown diamonds and natural diamonds are cut and polished in the same way with exactly the same equipment. In fact, many cutting factories cut both lab diamonds and mined gems.
The quality of lab diamonds and mined gems are graded the same way too. The 4Cs of diamond quality, color, clarity, cut and carat weight are assessed with the same standards by the same independent grading labs. For many years the Gemological Institute of America or GIA, the leading lab for diamond certification, didn’t provide specific grades for color and clarity for lab-created diamonds in lab reports. As a result, most lab-grown diamonds were sold with reports from other grading labs, like the International Gemological Institute, or IGI. However recently GIA updated this policy and now grades lab diamonds in the same way as it grades natural diamonds and produces online grading reports for lab grown diamonds with a different color background. More lab diamonds are now sold with GIA reports although they still lag behind IGI in the market. If a GIA report is important to you, it may be more difficult to find a lab grown diamond that has one.
Differences of Lab Created Diamonds and Natural Diamonds
There are two main differences when comparing lab diamonds vs natural diamonds. The first one is origin: where they come from and how they form.
First, let’s talk about the origin of natural diamonds. Natural diamonds formed deep within the earth’s crust about a billion years ago (or even more.) At these depths, about 100 miles below earth’s surface, the pressures and temperatures are immense. The energy of the heat and pressure pushes the carbon atoms together until they crystallize into diamond.
But obviously, it would be impossible to mine diamonds that far below the surface of the earth. Some of the diamonds that form deep in the earth were carried to the surface in rare super-deep volcanic eruptions that took place about 100 million years ago. That’s why diamonds are rare near earth’s surface. Most large diamond mining operations recover diamonds from primary deposits: the volcanic pipes that brought the diamonds to the surface.
Diamonds are so rare that most mines have to move 250 tons of earth to find one carat of diamond. Still natural diamonds are so valuable that large mines can be profitable even when it takes so much work to find and recover these gems. Many mines are built in remote places like the desert coastline of Namibia, the frozen tundra or Siberia or the savannah of Botswana. Mining can be risky for the watershed and ecology of these areas. Everything and everyone must be brought in to operate the mine. The mine has to build roads, housing, offices and water and power infrastructure.
Although many people don’t want to support the environmental impact of diamond mining in these remote places, they do provide jobs for many workers in places where there aren’t many other employment options. And when large mines close, as they have recently in Australia and Canada, mining companies do rehabilitate the land. Communities are left with roads and other infrastructure they might not otherwise have had even when the jobs no longer exist.
Other diamonds are found in secondary deposits, where rivers have carried the diamonds after the volcanic pipe that carried them to the surface has eroded away. This kind of secondary deposits usually isn't mined by big companies but instead by individual miners. This kind of artisanal mining is often unregulated and can lead to environmental damage and unsafe labor conditions. However, artisanal mining is also how hundreds of thousands of people make a living.
In contrast, lab grown diamonds are created using high-tech machinery. There are two processes. HPHT, high pressure high temperature, is just what it sounds like. A diamond seed is put into a crucible with a liquid that contains carbon. The crucible is cranked up to the same kind of heart and pressure that occur deep in the earth and help there until carbon precipitates out onto the diamond seed, growing crystals of diamonds.
The second kind of process in CVD, carbon vapor deposition. A diamond seed is placed into a vessel filled with methane gas. The gas is heated until it becomes a plasma, stripping off the hydrogen atoms in the process. The carbon then deposits onto the seed, growing a diamond layer by layer. CVD diamonds are Type IIa, the purest type of diamonds chemically. Less than 2% of natural diamonds are Type IIa.
Both ways of growing a diamond in a lab use a lot of energy to create the heat and pressure necessary. Some growers use solar power, hydropower or carbon offsets to reduce the impact of their energy use. At Brilliant Carbon we have committed to source our diamonds only from growers who reduce their energy use impact.
The difference in origin, mining vs laboratory, is the most significant difference between lab grown and natural diamonds. The different growing conditions in the earth vs the lab leave clues in the growth zones of the crystal structure, the fluorescence and the inclusions that gemologists can use to separate natural and lab grown diamonds.
Lab-grown diamonds can have differences in their absorption spectroscopy, microscopic metallic inclusions, and fluorescence and phosphorescence. The Gemological Institute of America sells the iD100 diamond origin testing machine for about $5000, which can identify lab grown diamonds, pass 98% of natural diamonds and refer the other 2% for advanced testing.
There is one other important difference between natural diamonds and lab grown diamonds. That difference is price. Because lab-grown diamonds don’t require the immense investment of mining, they cost less. Most sizes and qualities of lab grown diamonds are 30-40% less than the equivalent natural mined diamond. You can trade up to a larger size or a higher quality or just spend less.
Which is Better: Lab Diamonds or Natural Diamonds?
So which should you buy: lab diamonds or natural diamonds? It depends on what is most important to you. Natural diamonds have a lot of history behind them. If you want a traditional engagement ring, natural diamonds have an advantage because they have been the choice for centuries. Natural diamonds also are like a time capsule from the distant past, containing fragments of the early earth and the deep crust. There are no new diamond deposits forming today so they are likely to get more rare in the future.
Lab diamonds are a better choice if you prefer to look to the future instead of the past. They are the high-tech choice, made with human innovation not natural forces. They don’t require mining so don’t have any of the issues associated with it. Lab diamonds are also the best choice if you are looking for the biggest best-looking diamond for your money. Because they are more affordable, you can afford a larger, higher quality, more beautiful gem for the same price.
To see how beautiful lab grown diamond jewelry can be, browse Brilliant Carbon’s lab grown diamond jewelry and lab grown diamond engagement rings. You can even find the perfect lab grown loose diamond and design custom lab grown diamond jewelry that’s crafted to your specifications.