Just as the diamond industry mops up the mess of blood diamonds sold to finance war efforts in Africa, it faces a new threat: man-made diamonds that look exactly like the real thing.

At least two U.S. companies, Gemesis Corp. in Florida and Apollo Diamonds Ltd. in Boston, are producing diamonds that are identical to their naturally formed counterparts in every way but one: they were created over a few days in a growth chamber instead of over millions of years in the bowels of the earth.

Synthetic diamonds have been available for industrial applications since the 1960s. But only in the past few years have scientists been able to perfect the technology and create gem-quality diamonds that are large enough to market, consistent in their quality and commercially viable.

They are such good knock-offs that even experienced diamond valuators can’t tell the difference without expensive detection machinery.

Although Apollo and Gemesis have both
agreed to disclose that their diamonds are man-made, De Beers SA is wary. To help gemologists in labs and retail outlets detect synthetics, the South African-based diamond giant is selling its own detection devices over the Internet.

About 35 retailers sell Gemesis diamonds in the U.S. They are also available online.
Although the private company does not disclose production figures, it is said to have about 100 growth chambers, each capable of producing eight three-carat diamonds a month — for a total of 29,000 carats a year.

That’s a drop in the bucket compared with annual production of five million carats and eight million carats, respectively, from the Ekati and Diavik mines in the Northwest Territories.

But according to www.polishedprices.com, which provides diamond prices and industry news, Gemesis expects to triple production this year and extend its offering of yellow and orange stones to other colours, such as pink, purple and blue, to meet increased demand. These are high-end diamonds that will command premium prices.

“The key to our growth will be educating both
the trade and consumers that Gemesis diamonds are indeed diamonds in every sense of the word, that they are as beautiful as any mined diamond and that they are affordable for most jewellery consumers in North America,” says Chuck Meyer, vice president of worldwide sales for Gemesis.

De Beers, the world largest producer of natural diamonds (and the leading supplier of manufactured industrial diamonds) says the recent hype about man-made diamonds is misleading. The company believes that as long as consumers know what they are buying through proper disclosure, naturals will continue to dominate the diamond jewellery market.

“Beneath the media noise about synthetics, real women are talking,” De Beers is quoted in a recent commentary for IDEX magazine, an industry publication. “And they’re saying they don’t want to celebrate the milestones of their lives with something that was cooked up in an oven in a few days.”

But an informal survey of friends, family and colleagues by the author of this article tells a different story. Of the 41 people of both genders who responded to the survey, 28 (68%) said they would choose the man-made stone if it were identical to but one-quarter of the price of the natural stone. Only 11 would choose natural stones, while two said they wouldn’t buy a diamond under any circumstances.

The man-made camp had different reasons for their choices. Value for money was the biggest consideration, but the assurance that their purchase hadn’t contributed to bloodshed or environmental destruction was also a significant factor. Some women pointed out that they are happy to wear cultured pearls, so why not cultured diamonds?

Picking up on the ethical theme is Diamonds for Humanity. Posing the question “Can luxury and conscience co-exist?” the campaign, sponsored by Gemesis, recently launched the first jewellery line featuring “cultured diamonds,” auctioning 37 designs at prices of $5,000-$200,000. Proceeds of the auction will provide grants for health and educational programs for women and children in areas affected by wars financed by blood diamonds.

De Beers says natural diamonds circulating today are every bit as conflict-free as their man-made equivalents, thanks to the Kimberley process, an international certification scheme that tracks the origin of rough diamonds. The company adds that although man-made diamonds are cheaper than natural diamonds, they are too expensive — for an imitation — to attract a large following.

@page_break@“There will always be a market for naturally occurring diamonds,” says Neil Buxton of WWW International Diamond Consultants Ltd. “We think the emotional side of it is important: would you buy your wife or girlfriend a synthetic diamond?”

Indeed, the minority of those in the informal survey who said they would choose natural diamonds were passionate about their position, citing the appeal of geological history, the romance behind the discovery of the diamond and the long-term investment value.

“The whole point is authenticity,” says David Vainola, a Toronto screenwriter. “You can buy a forged Rembrandt that only a top art expert could determine was a fake. But, so what? It’s not the artifact itself that is valuable, but the knowledge of its origins.”

Ultimately, it will be consumers who decide the fate of the synthetic and natural diamond markets.

“Consumers will determine the success of [cultured diamonds] by what they decide to purchase. If they love the beautiful, rare colours that we produce set in amazing jewellery by noted designers, the outlook for the [synthetic] category is very bright,” says Meyer. IE