Sunday 23rd September 2018

Resource Clips


Ashes to ashes, carbon to…

Could synthetics bring death to diamond mining? Or a kind of reincarnation?

by Greg Klein

Somehow a real diamond got mixed up with the fakes.

This summer the Gemological Institute of America reported its highest-ever single swoop of synthetic diamonds masquerading as naturals—1,101 artificial stones out of a parcel of 1,102. Efforts to pass off synthetic melee (variously given as under 0.15 or 0.2 carats) have increased exponentially since the GIA offered its detection service in 2016, the organization stated. But while synthetics have improved substantially in quality, their chief risk to the diamond trade appears to be not false pretenses but positive consumer response. Customers willingly buy the man-made versions, attracted by lower prices as well as claims of ethical superiority that challenge the allure of a naturally created wonder.

And in a high-tech society, the lab-created substitutes can inspire a sense of wonder too. They’re created by one of two methods. Expressed simply, the high-pressure, high-temperature (HPHT) process dissolves graphite or another form of carbon through a metal alloy to bond with tiny seed diamonds and grow atomically into gem-sized diamonds. In another process, chemical vapor deposition (CVD) precipitates carbon through a mix of hydrogen and methane gases to grow onto the seed diamonds. Colour might appear as the stones grow or might be applied post-growth. The lab rough then undergoes cutting and polishing.

Could synthetics bring death to diamond mining? Or a kind of reincarnation?

Among the larger faceted synthetics seen so far by the GIA, one came to over five carats from the CVD process. Another weighed over 10 carats, originating from an HPHT rough surpassing 32 carats.

Although initially dismissed, then denigrated and denounced by diamonds’ Ancien Régime, synthetics have grabbed enough market share to attract De Beers. Last May the former one-company cartel announced its entry into the synthetic jewel market, although with a condescension that had observers speculating on the real motives. Manipulating De Beers’ legendary slogan “a diamond is forever,” CEO Bruce Cleaver described the company’s new Lightbox brand as “affordable fashion jewelry that may not be forever, but is perfect for right now.”

But De Beers simply admitted defeat, countered synthetic manufacturer Diamond Foundry. The San Francisco-based outfit portrays synthetics—which adherents also call cultured or cultivated stones—as the future of diamonds. Insisting that each of its products is unique, Diamond Foundry quotes a GIA director who describes synthetics as “real diamonds. They have the same optical, chemical, thermal and physical features.”

Additionally, the company’s marketing boldly counters De Beers’ sentimentality with a “morally pure” image free of “brute-force industrial mining.” And what other carbon-based product can be “100% carbon-neutral”? That’s a distinction Diamond Foundry claims due to solar power credits for its environmentally correct factory.

The company also boasts celebrity support, both through investment and publicity, from Leonardo DiCaprio. To the muddle-headed, his starring role in the 2006 movie Blood Diamond gives him even greater authority than run-of-the-Hollywood-mill activists.

In 2016 DiCaprio’s efforts drew a rebuke from industry player and spokesperson Martin Rapaport, who said the actor’s campaign:

… threatens the lives and livelihood of millions of artisanal diggers in Africa. One and a half million diggers support an additional seven million people by digging for diamonds. These diggers are among the poorest people in the world, earning as little as one dollar per day…. What will happen to the millions of poor diggers and their families if you succeed in convincing a new generation of millennial diamond consumers that it is more ethical to buy your synthetic diamonds than their natural diamonds? Will you feed these people? Will you provide them with an alternate livelihood?

Rapaport invited DiCaprio to discuss ways of improving the lives of artisanal miners. But earlier that year, Diamond Foundry offered to build a factory in Botswana, the diamond-mining country whose government is De Beers’ biggest partner, or to set up in any other interested African nation.

Ironically Rapaport noted that continent’s jurisdictional risk when De Beers unveiled its Lightbox line. He pointed out that “a future in synthetics makes them less reliant on natural diamonds and puts them in a better negotiation position should they have ‘Africa problems.’”

But a marketing approach that combines the sentimentality of natural diamonds with the ethical posturing of synthetics comes from the memorial diamond industry. Using the carbon content of hair or deceased’s cremated ashes, several companies will use HPHT to transform the remains into gems with a size, cut, colour and setting determined by the customer. Memorial stones challenge not only the usual synthetics and traditional naturals but also, through relatively low costs, the funeral industry.

Could that become diamonds’ strongest association—no longer marriage and subsequent new life, but death? If so, memorial diamonds might ironically co-opt the “forever” image created by De Beers.

Read Resource Clips visits the diamond industry in Belgium and the Netherlands.

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