Of all the latest and greatest engagement ring trends, none has been bigger than lab-grown diamonds. In recent years, there has been an influx in companies producing and selling the innovative gemstone, with many touting it as a more sustainable, eco-friendly and ethical choice over mined diamonds. But if you’ve found yourself wondering if lab-grown diamonds are real diamonds or how they might differ from traditionally ones, you’re not the only one. To educate ourselves on the ins and outs of this hot trend we reached out to a few expert jewelers to help us better understand what we’re buying when shopping for diamond jewelry.
Are Lab-Grown Diamonds Real? Everything You Need to Know About This Jewelry Trend
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Meet the Experts:
What is the difference between lab-grown diamonds and mined diamonds?
“Lab-grown diamonds and mined diamonds are chemically, physically and optically the same,” explains Cullinane. On the most basic level both lab-grown and mined diamonds have the exact same chemical structure (made entirely of carbon), so in that way they are identical. The only real differences are in the ways they are produced and sourced—it’s these differences that account for the price differential, as well. “Natural diamonds are created deep in the earth over millions of years and lab made diamonds are “grown” in a controlled laboratory setting,” says Zimmerman. “But lab-grown diamonds have the same visual and chemical components, making them identical to natural diamonds.”
How do you know if it’s lab-grown or mined?
According to the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), “In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission requires that any gem material produced in a laboratory be described in a way that leaves no doubt that it was not produced naturally.” So, if you’re purchasing from a reputable source, you will never be in the dark as to whether you’re buying a lab-grown or mined diamond.
Are lab-grown diamonds different from cubic zirconia?
Yes! Cubic zirconia looks similar to a diamond but contains no carbon and costs significantly less than both lab grown and mined diamonds. It’s also possible to identify CZ with the naked eye, even by those who aren’t expert jewelers—CZ gives off more of a rainbow light, whereas diamonds give off a white light—whereas you need specific equipment in order to differentiate between a lab grown diamond and a mined diamond (more on that in a bit).
What about moissanite or recycled diamonds?
Moissanite is also not a diamond and is more similar to CZ than a lab grown diamond. Just like with CZ, it’s possible to differentiate between moissanite and real diamonds with the naked eye. (Moissanite, like CZ, will give off rainbow flashes when held up to light, while a diamond will not.)
As for recycled diamonds—another more sustainable option— these are diamonds that are already in circulation and can be either mined or lab-grown in origin. “They might also be called vintage, estate, or secondhand diamonds,” notes Cullinane.
Why are lab-grown diamonds so much less expensive?
The basic answer is because the supply chain is much shorter. Lab-grown diamonds don’t require the same manual labor as those mined from the earth and can be made, cut and polished anywhere, meaning there are fewer shipping costs involved as well. “A mined diamond is likely to pass through over 20 different vendors before it gets to the consumer, usually traveling great distances over multiple continents and through governments,” says Cullinane. For reference, you can expect a lab-grown diamond to cost about 40 percent less than a mined diamond.
Can the average person tell the difference between lab grown and mined? What about an expert?
There’s no way for the average person (as jewelry obsessed as they might be) to tell the difference between a lab-grown diamond and a mined diamond with the naked eye. “An expert jeweler may be able to tell the difference by looking at the gem’s inclusions and any special markings,” says Zimmerman, “but a typical consumer shopping for diamonds wouldn’t be able to spot any difference if a lab-grown and natural diamond were next to each other.”
According to Cullinane many jewelers wouldn’t even necessarily house the equipment necessary to make that distinction. “[Plum Diamonds has] a standard diamond tester in our showroom that we use to determine whether a gemstone is a diamond or something else. The tester doesn’t differentiate between lab-grown or mined diamonds because they both have the same makeup and crystal structure. We use the tester to identify diamonds for purposes of care, design, manufacturing and maintenance, and it doesn’t matter in any of those areas whether the diamond originates from a lab or a mine.” Of course, there is equipment that can designate between the two, like a magnifier that can see laser inscriptions that ID the place of origin, be it a lab or a mine.
How are lab-grown diamonds made?
There are two methods used to make diamonds in a lab, but both start with what’s called a seed diamond, which is essentially just a very tiny piece of already existing diamond. “From here,” explains Cullinane, “there are two methods for growing diamonds: High-Pressure High-Temperature (HPHT) and Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD).”
The first, HPHT, replicates the intense pressure and temperature conditions necessary to create diamonds deep in the earth. “HPHT is the original method, where the pressure in the growth chamber exceeds 870k lbs per square inch and temperatures hit 1600°C,” says Cullinane. Though people have been attempting to grow diamonds in a lab since the late 1800s, it wasn’t until the 1950s that anyone found any real success. It was a Swedish company, Allmänna Svenska Elektriska Aktiebolaget (ASEA), that pioneered the HPHT method in 1953, but it was General Electric that first patented it in 1954.
The second method, CVD, was developed at roughly the same time but wasn’t reported until the ‘60s. “[For CVD,] instead of replicating nature’s exact high heat and pressure,” explains Cullinane, “gas with carbon is introduced to a chamber. As the gasses ionize, their carbon atoms deposit themselves on the seed diamond, layer by layer,” thus creating a larger and large diamond.
In either case, once a rough diamond has been formed it’s then cut, polished and graded, just like a mined diamond.
Are lab-grown diamonds really more sustainable or eco-friendly?
In the grand scheme of things, yes. However, there are a lot of factors to consider when talking about diamonds and sustainability. “Mined diamonds wreak environmental havoc in a number of ways in which lab grown diamonds have zero or minimal impact: waste creation, water usage and contamination, biodiversity destruction, wildlife degradation, air pollution and agricultural damage,” explains Cullinane. Not to mention human rights issues, like unfair wage, unsafe working conditions and unethical labor practices.
There are also multiple lab-grown diamond companies whose methods of production are carbon neutral, or in the case of Aether, even carbon negative. But as Cullinane points out, not everyone is so transparent about their energy usage. “There is a big push for lab growers to use sustainable energy sources and less energy overall. It can take up to 750-kilowatt hours to produce a rough carat in a lab. And we don’t know exactly what energy usage looks like for mined diamonds; companies don’t report the energy required to explore and locate mining sites, many of which are in very remote areas that require transporting entire mining operations very long distances.”
What limitations are there when creating a lab-grown diamond?
Although the technology has been around for quite some time, the process of creating a lab grown diamond is still incredibly complex. “My understanding is that diamond growing is part art and part science, and that all but the very best labs struggle to grow very high-quality rough in very high carat weights,” says Cullinane. So, while this technology can, in theory, produce an infinite supply of diamonds, it is still limited in its current capacity. As for what types of jewelry can be made with them, there are no bounds!
How do you care for lab-grown vs. mined diamonds?
Because lab-grown and mined diamonds are chemically identical, their care is also the same. “So, for example, regardless of what type of diamond is in an engagement ring, your ring should be removed when you’re working out, being rough on your hands or using harsh cleaning chemicals and/or doing anything where you risk banging or otherwise damaging your ring,” clarifies Cullinane. Zimmerman adds, “Lab created diamonds can be cleaned just as you’d clean natural diamonds. They’re sturdy enough for ultrasonic cleaners and can also be cleaned with a gentler jewelry cleaning solution.”
So, where can I buy lab grown diamonds?
Ready to shop the trend for yourself? Luckily, there are a ton of very cool jewelry brands you can shop online that use lab-grown diamonds to create stunning pieces, from one-of-a-kind engagement rings to timeless stud earrings. Here are five we recommend checking out.
Plum Diamonds works exclusively with lab-grown diamonds and sells both engagement rings and wedding bands. There are premade styles for you to choose from, or you can have some fun playing around with its custom ring designer to create something unique to your tastes. The site also offers a ton of information, on both the stones and engagement ring shopping in general, to help make the process easier for everyone.
2. Blue Nile
Blue Nile offers both lab-grown and mined diamonds, and similarly also allows you to design your very own custom engagement ring if you like. But who said diamonds are just for getting marries? The brand also sells earrings, necklaces, bracelets and fashion rings (again with both lab-grown and mined stones. And, much like Plum Diamonds, Blue Nile has an extensive education section on its site that explains everything from the 4Cs of diamond shopping to how different metals hold up over time, and has a ton of information about how it sources its conflict-free natural stones.
VRAI is another brand that works exclusively with lab-grown diamonds and offers both engagement rings as well as other jewelry perfect for gifting. And much like the two brands listed above, VRAI puts a big emphasis on education as well as transparency, with tons of information on exactly where the brand’s stones are coming from, how much carbon they produce and what the environmental impact is from start to finish.
4. Clean Origin
As you might have guessed from the name, Clean Origin uses only lab-grown diamonds to create its gorgeous designs. And while it focuses on engagement rings and wedding bands, there are also lots of other classic diamond jewelry options—like pave hoop earrings, tennis bracelets and stackable rings—to shop as well.
You can shop either mined or lab-grown diamonds at Frank Darling, which specializes in engagement rings and wedding bands. There are multiple ways to start shopping and even offers the option to try things on at home before you commit to a stone or setting. All you have to do is select up to three sterling silver replica rings you want to test, then wear them around to see what’s comfortable for five days before returning, now confident you know exactly how you’ll feel sporting the real deal.