HomeBlogSynthetic diamondsVs natural diamonds

Synthetic Diamonds vs Natural Diamonds

by Willyou.net * Mar 29, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Natural diamonds are formed deep underground, over the course of billions of years. Their significance for cultures around the world reaches back into the ancient world, and the singularity of each stone is one of the most compelling reasons behind their popularity.
  • Lab grown diamonds are formed, as the name suggests, in a laboratory, where chemical processes can be carried out and accelerated to create diamonds in a matter of weeks.
  • Lab grown diamonds are often marketed as a more ethical choice, but this is far from the truth.
  • In countries with strong diamond industries, natural diamonds represent a major source of employment and GDP. The same cannot be said for lab grown diamonds.
  • While they both look the same, most shoppers prefer natural diamonds for their long-term value and cultural significance.
Synthetic Diamonds vs Natural Diamonds

There’s no single reason why diamonds are so heavily associated with engagements and lifelong commitment. Sure, a lot of it comes down to De Beers’ genius marketing back in the 1930s, when they first started to change the jewelry world with their infamous slogan, ‘A diamond is forever’. But, even if those words had never made it onto a single billboard or magazine ad, diamonds would still be closely associated with the purest kind of romance.

Why? Because they’ve been a part of marriage and engagement traditions around the world, in some way or another, throughout most of human history. Even the Ancient Greeks recognized some magical properties in these stones, even when they existed solely in their rough, natural form – not the cut and polished diamonds we know today.

But what makes them so different from any other gemstone? Their beauty and brilliance, yes, as well as their ability to last lifetimes. Beyond that, however, there’s another reason: their age.

Each diamond given during a proposal started life more than a billion years ago and made a slow journey into daylight – across thousands of miles – to its future owners. There’s something undeniably romantic about that.

This is what made diamond the clear choice as a symbol of eternal love and commitment.

But, in recent years, the diamond world has had to make room for an alternative. Synthetic diamonds offer their own selling points and, for any shopper, it’s a case of figuring out what you’re willing to sacrifice – and what you’re hoping to gain.

What Do We Mean by Natural Diamond?

Natural diamonds are diamonds that formed in nature. They started developing long before human history and are one of a limited number of natural diamonds that will ever exist.

Contrary to popular belief, diamonds are not coal – but they are formed from carbon which, if you paid attention in high school chemistry, is also the building blocks of coal.

Diamonds are the result of an incredibly tight structure of carbon atoms, pressed unimaginably close together by the weight of the earth’s mantle, and the extreme temperatures that exist down there. This is why diamond is as smooth, strong, and durable as it is – its atomic structure is about as rigid as it gets in nature.

In fact, diamond ranks at a 10 (the highest point) on the Mohs scale of hardness, making it tougher than substances like corundum, calcite, and topaz.

The natural diamonds the world produces have been gradually pushed closer and closer to the earth’s surface via kimberlite pipes. Sometimes, they are deposited in rivers and, eventually, ocean floors – other times, they remain locked in these massive kimberlite pipes and must be mined from the earth.

A part of the romance of any diamond stems from the unlikeliness of it ever reaching its eventual owners. From deep underground to dense volcanic deposits in countries like Botswana, Russia, and South Africa – across the world and into the hands of the right jeweler – there are many, many steps involved in a diamond’s journey.

Another part of the appeal of natural diamonds is their uniqueness. Every stone is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence – each inclusion the result of a different chemical imbalance or imperfection caused by the conditions of the earth’s mantle – and, whether you’re talking about desirable or undesirable characteristics, it’s all a part of the diamond’s unique history.

What Do We Mean by Synthetic Diamond?

Synthetic diamonds have been produced in a lab, artificially. They are created using a couple different methods designed to replicate the conditions of the earth’s mantle, but form diamonds in a fraction of the time.

Synthetic diamonds are often confused with diamond simulants, but they’re not the same thing. Diamond simulants is a group of gemstones including things like cubic zirconia, moissanite, and white sapphire, whereas synthetic diamonds are generally classed as real (but non-natural) diamonds.

In recent years, diamond labs have grown more and more common, and lab grown diamonds – often referred to as either CVD or HPHT diamonds, depending on what method of production was used – have become a relatively prominent sight for diamond shoppers. Plenty of jewelers still avoid associating themselves with them (for reasons we’ll look at below) but some big names like James Allen, which we’ve reviewed here, have started to offer them as an alternative to natural diamond.

Lab grown synthetic diamonds are marketed toward shoppers looking to save money on their diamond purchase, without having to opt for a gemstone that is totally different to diamond (and inferior). Sometimes, they are marketed as the more ethical alternative, since, in the past, natural diamond mining practices have been called into question. The issue of ‘blood diamonds’, while largely eradicated, still compels some shoppers to look for an alternative.

Can You Tell the Difference Between Real and Synthetic Diamonds?

Not by looking at them with your naked eye. Physically, lab grown diamonds are identical to natural diamonds – to identify the difference, you would have to look at their growth patterns under a strong microscope, or their chemical makeup, since most natural diamonds contain traces of nitrogen.

Since lab grown diamonds develop so much faster – by millions and millions of years, in fact – than natural diamonds, their growth patterns are pretty different. For the most part, natural diamonds developed at an inconsistent rate – they often feature internal graining which, like the rings in a tree, indicates times of accelerated or slowed growth.

Lab grown diamonds often only take a few weeks to grow to their desired size. This is done through the exertion of continuous heat and pressure (HTHP), which means that, through the right microscope, an expert will identify differences in growing patterns.

Some natural diamonds don’t contain traces of nitrogen. These diamonds are known as Type IIa and Type IIb diamonds, and are incredibly rare by comparison to Type Ia diamonds (which represent more than 95% of all natural diamonds).

This is why, in general, looking for any chemical impurities offer will usually help identify any synthetic diamonds.

Lab grown diamonds are often typically engraved (along the girdle) with a word or phrase that confirms their origins. This will be visible under a microscope, or noted in the diamond’s report (although a good diamond report will also clearly identify how the diamond was created anyway).

So, If They Look and Act the Same, What’s the Issue?

There’s a lot more to it than appearance alone. To a lot of non-experts, moissanite does a good enough job of imitating diamond but, even so, they don’t want it for their engagement rings. Even cubic zirconia, from across a crowded room, could fool some people, but – even if you overlook its lack of durability – it’s still a terrible choice for fine jewelry.

Why? Because diamonds hold cultural significance. They are ancient and all the more meaningful for it. They are also now part of a thriving global industry – one that has transformed itself over the last couple of decades, and proven itself to be a major source of work and GDP in many countries around the world.

Here’s what you’ll want to know before you make your choice.

Ethics

When it comes to looking at the ethics of the diamond industry, there are so many threads to be woven together before the whole picture can be revealed. For a consumer with very little knowledge of or experience in the industry, it’s easy to see everything through a lens that was much more relevant twenty years ago. A lot has changed since then, and given all of us reason to change our perspective on the industry.

But how should that influence your opinion of synthetic diamonds? Here’s what you need to know.

The Ethics of Natural Diamonds

For the past twenty to thirty years, a growing number of shoppers have been concerned by the origins of the diamonds on the market – and for good reason. While plenty of diamond-producing countries managed to develop robust and positive industries, others found that this natural resource (and, more importantly, the people who mined it) were easily exploited.

The issue of blood diamonds hung over the global diamond industry for a long time, particularly in the eighties and nineties, when civil wars in various African countries, including Sierra Leone and Angola, were partially funded by them. They flooded the market, and accounted for a devastatingly high percentage of diamonds put up for sale.

By the early 2000s, however, everything began to change. Countries from around the world joined the Kimberley Process, which has, as of the 2020s, almost eradicated the issue. Less than 1% of diamonds are now thought to stem from areas of conflict and exploitation, and even countries that were most devastated by the blood diamond trade are beginning to see a positive impact from the industry.

These days, natural diamonds support countless livelihoods, create an incredible number of opportunities for employment and career development. From boosting GDP (in Botswana, for instance, diamond mining accounts for around 30% of GDP) to improving infrastructure and education, the impact of the diamond industry is a far cry from what it was all those years ago. You can read more about buying ethical engagement rings here.

The Ethics of Lab Grown Diamonds

For obvious reasons, lab grown diamonds are not connected to the tragic history natural diamonds will always be associated with. This is, of course, one of their big selling points – shoppers don’t need to worry about the chances of investing in a blood diamond, or one that has been mined in terrible circumstances, if they know that it was simply pulled from a production line along with many, many more diamonds.

The trouble? As we mentioned above, diamond mining practices offer employment opportunities for countless people, and represent major sources of GDP for a long list of producing countries. Cutting them out of the equation does a lot of harm, and threatens to unravel massive amount of positive work completed over the past two decades.

What’s more, lab grown diamonds are often referred to as an eco-friendly alternative to natural diamonds, which obviously have to be mined using some pretty intensive practices. While it’s true that lab grown diamonds don’t require the same heavy machinery, these labs do require a tremendous amount of energy to produce diamonds to demand. Their diamonds require constant high pressure and high heat in order to form.

What’s more, while lab grown diamonds are often referred to as being ‘sustainable’, this simply means that the manufacturers can continue to create more diamonds indefinitely. There is, and always has been, a finite number of natural diamonds available to mine, but that’s never been a secret. It has, on the other hand, always been a major source of value for these stones.

Value

It’s no secret that natural diamonds are incredibly valuable. The average 1 carat diamond will cost between $6,700 and $8,700, but, for particularly rare diamonds of the same weight, prices can run as high as $20,000.

Some diamonds can sell for hundreds of thousands – or, sometimes, millions – of dollars more than that. Particularly large diamonds, fancy color diamonds (especially those with a rare pink or red coloration), or flawless diamonds all earn dizzyingly high prices among collectors, who can’t pass up the opportunity to own such a rare marvel of nature.

Diamonds can – and do – lose some value straight after purchase. For obvious reasons, most consumers don’t get wholesale prices (if they didn’t, jewelers wouldn’t make a living), but the key thing to remember is that diamonds hold long-term value. They are a finite resource, and a good quality diamond – provided it’s looked after and not damaged – will always be a good quality diamond.

One of the most important things shoppers can do to ensure they’re making a good purchase is to focus exclusively on GIA certified diamonds. The GIA is the most reputable and consistent lab out there, and choosing to rely on their methods for grading diamond quality is the wisest decision a shopper can make.

Are lab diamonds cheaper than real?

Yes. One of their greatest selling points is their low cost – around 30% – 40% cheaper than natural diamond – which makes it possible for shoppers to get a larger diamond within their budget.

If carat weight is the only thing on your mind, then there’s certainly an appear. However, despite the fact that a lot of shoppers start out focusing on the size of their future diamond, learning more about the significance and beauty of diamonds often means that, as a concern, it becomes a little less pressing. There’s more to a diamond than its measurements and, unfortunately, this is where lab grown diamonds fall short.

Here’s why…

Why are lab created diamonds cheaper?

Because they are a mass produced item, created to meet with demand, rather than a natural resource that takes millions of years to develop.

Consider the difference between a classic car – something that was released as one of a very limited number of that make and model – compared with a car produced on mass, to meet with a much larger demand. While it’s not an ideal analogy, it captures the crux of the issue – that lab grown diamonds are not rare like natural diamonds are, and, as a result, they aren’t valuable, either. 

In the long-term, this means lab grown diamonds just don’t hold onto value in the same way as natural diamonds. With so many being created in the space of a year, two years, a decade…there’s no reason for them to be worth anything in a few years’ time.

Obviously, most people aren’t looking to sell their diamonds at any time in the near future. Their sentimental value makes that a no-go for a lot of us. Speaking of which…

Social and Sentimental Value

This is something we touched on at the beginning of the article – the tremendous amount of sentimental value that has been attached to diamonds across so many eras of human history. It’s not something that can be recreated in a lab setting, as profitable as it might be to try.

In the work of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato believed that diamonds held onto ‘celestial spirits’, while the ancient Egyptians believed in a magical force possessed by these stones – one that, when worn on the left ring finger, created a powerful force related to love. There is an unquestionable and unbreakable significance that only a real, earth-made, billion-year-old diamond can bring to the table.

The social value behind a lab grown diamond is only as powerful as it is for any other mass produced product. Sure, they can take on a lot of sentimental meaning after the proposal and years of wear, but it’s never going to be the same as the age-old meaning a natural diamond has attached to it.

We often talk about the factors that contribute to a diamond’s value. Size, clarity, color – a long list of details listed in the GIA report. There is, however, more to it than that. You can’t put a grade on the social value diamonds hold, but it is clear to see. It’s exactly why a lab grown diamond can look, feel, and act just like a natural diamond, but can’t get anywhere near the same price on the market. Shoppers are more sentimental – and more in tune with the historic love affair humans have had with diamonds – than that.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Natural Diamonds – Advantages:

  • Highly valuable
  • Ancient
  • Deep social significance
  • The industry supports livelihoods and entire countries
  • The most traditional choice

Disadvantages:

  • They are more expensive
  • Mining them can put a strain on the surrounding environment (but mining groups have consistently augmented their efforts to support delicate ecosystems, rather than devastating them).

Lab Grown Diamonds – Advantages:

  • They are cheaper – more carat weight for your money
  • No risk of unethical mining practices (although, thanks to the Kimberley Process the work of large, influential mining groups like De Beers, and the support of jewelers across the globe, these issues have been replaced with positive stories and second chances throughout diamond-producing countries).

Disadvantages:

  • They’re mass produced
  • They don’t hold anywhere near the same long term value as natural diamond
  • They do not create the opportunities for employment and economic growth that diamond-producing countries are experiencing (or, in the case of some developing countries, have the potential to experience).
  • They are divorced from the historic significance diamonds will forever be tied to – which is a big deal when they’re being used for something as history-making as a proposal.

 Our Summary: Synthetic vs Natural

It’s understandable why synthetic diamonds hold some level of appeal for consumers, but it’s also totally understandable why they haven’t taken off and revolutionized the jewelry world in the way that some people may have expected them to. It’s fascinating how the chaos of nature can be recreated in a lab so accurately that a diamond can be made. It’s not a surprise, however, that some things just can’t be replicated, even with the most advanced technologies out there.

As we mentioned before, part of the appeal of a synthetic diamond stems from the idea of ‘more bang for your buck’. Shoppers with no prior experience in buying diamonds can experience a moment of disappointment when they find out how much it costs to go ‘above average’, and to get a veritable rock on their partner’s finger.

But, after that initial moment of discovery – and once they start learning more about diamonds, beyond size alone – it gets easier to care less about carat weight, and to care more about the full package.

Diamonds are powerful stones. They have been grabbing attention and imagination for thousands of years – and that’s not just the biggest ones. The list of the world’s most influential diamonds is a total mixed bag, but one thing that unites them all is their history – an earth-made, totally unlikely history that led them to us.