With just one day remaining until DMCC’s Inaugural Lab-Grown Diamond Symposium, I am reminded of a journalist who asked me about the perceived conflict of interest in promoting the lab-grown industry adjacently to the world’s top trading hub for rough diamonds and whether it might be detrimental to its natural counterpart.
The answer is quite the opposite.
Since the emergence of a commercially viable lab-grown diamond industry, the coexistence of both sectors has catalysed the purpose of the other while providing an extensive list of benefits that reach beyond the myopic viewpoint of jewellery and into an exciting future for our industrial, scientific, medical, and electrical communities.
Before discussing why, it is worth answering why natural and lab-grown diamonds are complementary and not competitors.
As a decorative accessory which only became fashionable in the 19th century, wealthy socialites such as Evalyn Walsh McLean famously flaunted pieces such as the Hope Diamond and the Star of the East, which in conjunction with the development of Cecil Rhodes’ De Beers commercial mining company, ensured that diamonds would retain their desirability while ensuring their rarity.
By 1902, De Beers accounted for 90 per cent of the world’s rough diamond production and distribution. Still, after the great crash of 1929, the company realised it could no longer rely on social status and controlling supply alone.
A marketing campaign forever
So, they approached N. W. Ayer, who subsequently delivered one of the world’s most influential and enduring marketing campaigns in history. By associating diamonds with the idea of everlasting love, marriage and commitment, De Beers’ slogans, such as ‘A diamond is forever’, effectively bound the precious stone to the institution of marriage, not only positioning it as a standard for engagements around the world but a symbol of social status for young brides-to-be.
Spurred on by Hollywood movies such as ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ - featuring Marilyn Monroe affirming that diamonds really are a girl’s best friend - the precious stone further secured its status as an essential item for any worthy suitor.
A year later, in 1954, General Electric produced one of the world’s first lab-grown diamonds under a project codenamed ‘Project Superpressure’. Aptly named, the scientists achieved their ground-breaking result by mimicking the immense conditions required to forge naturally occurring diamonds; in this case, by subjecting small seed crystals to temperatures of 1,600 degrees Celsius and a pressure of 100,000 atmospheres.
By adding iron, nickel, and cobalt to accelerate the transformation, the team successfully turned graphite into diamond. While too small for jewellery, the outcome did provide use in the industrial sector. By 1971, GE could produce gem-quality diamonds.
Today, most lab-grown diamonds are created through chemical vapour deposition, which uses carbon gas to heat and stick to the diamond seed, giving scientists greater control over the finished product in terms of size and quality while reducing the cost of production.
Working its way into jewellery
As a result, natural and lab-grown diamonds have found their niches in the jewellery market - one upholding the prestige of the industry as a naturally occurring stone whose value is justified by its extraordinary development and extraction, with the other yielding a more cost-effective, yet still desirable entry point for consumers, particularly those who remain concerned about either the ethical or environmental implications of their earth-born counterparts.
As a side note, in my capacity as the former (and future) Chair of the Kimberley Process, I would like to clarify that today’s naturally occurring diamond industry is almost entirely free from child labour, inhumane working conditions and/or the involvement of conflict diamonds. The odds on an illicit stone ending up in the consumer supply chain are virtually nil.
That being said, it hasn’t stopped companies such as De Beers from hedging their bets and moving with increasing consumer demand to develop their own lab-grown business.
As highlighted by industry leader and Del Lima director Ali Pastorini, “The growth of lab-grown diamonds is a reality that paves the way for new customers who, until then, did not consider the acquisition of a jewel as a consumption item. I have always said natural and lab-grown diamonds can co-exist because they serve different target audiences.
“Ultimately, it contributes to an increase in the search for diamonds and more visibility to our sector.”
It is, however, beyond the jewellery sector where I believe lab-grown diamonds will come into their element. Where previously the high cost in the industrial sector was unavoidable, lab-grown diamonds have provided a more cost-effective way of supporting mining, construction, and machining.
Innate features that set apart a diamond
At the same time, their heat-resistant properties make them highly suited towards high-power electronics and thermal management systems. In Material Science, diamonds are known as the ‘ultimate material’ because of their unique properties. Not only are they the hardest material, but also in possession of the highest thermal conductivity, electrical resistivity, and acoustic wave velocity.
As such, lab-grown diamonds will have various technical applications that will disrupt many industries that require high thermal conductivity, high temperature operations, high radiation tolerance and high voltage resistance quantum circuits/optics.
In Dubai, over $1.5 billion of lab-grown diamonds were traded in 2022 – a year-on-year increase of 126 per cent. While I believe we are only at the beginning of the market’s true potential, DMCC’s LGD Symposium will set a precedent, as the first regional gathering that engages and discusses the true potential of this nascent industry.
As a sector that has been widely undervalued, misunderstood, or erroneously seen as a threat to the existing natural diamond business, I’ve been most pleased by the level of support shown by industry experts from both sides who understand the complementary value of lab-grown diamonds. And those whose industries will significantly benefit from having direct access to what will become a global industry centre.