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Natural versus Synthetic Diamonds

Understanding the difference between imitation, synthetic and natural diamonds.

By Chris Holdsworth

All diamonds are formed from pure carbon. In fact diamond is the only gemstone that is an element. Carbon also forms other materials like graphite. But when the atoms of carbon are joined in a particular very rare and very beautiful way, diamond is the result.

For that reason there is no difference in the chemistry, physical properties, optical properties or mechanical properties between natural and synthetic diamonds. This point is important to note as there are many materials designed to imitate diamond, cubic zirconia (CZ) and moissanite for example. Both CZ and moissanite are synthetic materials and are common in jewellery, but they are not diamond. They do not have the durability of diamond, they do not have the appearance of diamond – they simply are not diamond no matter what the sellers of these materials tell you.

Distinguishing a brand new moissanite or CZ from a diamond is easy for an expert. Distinguishing between them after they have been set in jewellery for a year is easy for an amateur (particularly CZ set into a ring). The CZ will show obvious wear while the moissanite will show minor wear.

Distinguishing a natural diamond from a synthetic one however is very hard and currently requires complex lab equipment, though portable equipment is being developed and becoming more readily available. Any significant diamond over 0.50ct should come with a reputable certificate, preferably GIA, and will explicitly state that the diamond is either natural or synthetic.

But assuming that you know and understand the differences between imitation diamonds, synthetic diamonds and natural diamonds what are the pros and cons? Lets discard imitation diamonds straight away, they are a cheap product that have their place, but not in precious jewellery.

Natural Diamonds

Natural diamonds have an irresistible allure unmatched by any other gemstone. They are hard to find, hard to extract from the Earth and hard to cut and polish into the sparkly wonder you see in a jewellery store window. Nature does not make many of them and makes even fewer in large sizes, colourless (or vivid colours) and high purity. Skilled cutters are able to unlock the inner beauty of fire and brilliance through a complicated cutting process and this is what dazzles us now and has dazzled us for hundreds of years.

Nature has stopped producing diamonds now, she stopped making them a billion years ago and so there are a fixed amount of them hidden within the Earth. Add in to the mix that every diamond is different, they all have their own story, their own provenance and their own fingerprint from Nature herself. This rarity and background makes natural diamonds a true symbol of everlasting love.

Natural diamond crystals

Synthetic Diamonds

It is true that a synthetic diamond will look exactly like a natural diamond. It will have the same sparkle, the same fire and the same brilliance. The production of synthetic diamonds however is quite different to natural diamonds. They are mass produced in a laboratory and thus lose their individuality, their provenance and some of their allure. The mass production of these synthetic diamonds does have two distinct advantages however. Like for like prices of synthetic diamonds are half that of a natural and are still falling. They are a value proposition to consider when making a diamond purchase.

The other perceived advantage is the environmental footprint left behind. Synthetic diamonds are not extracted from large holes in the Earth’s surface, they are simply created in a laboratory. From an environmental standpoint whether the construction of a factory to grow these diamonds is better or worse than the construction of a diamond mine, or the energy used to produce the gem crystals themselves it would be hard to argue in favour of natural diamonds.

Synthetic diamond crystals