Mined diamonds are not the only choice anymore. Today’s market features a variety of stone options, from lab-grown diamonds to diamond alternatives. Each one is created in a different way, and because of that, may feature different qualities. Physical characteristics, optical brilliance, price point and origin are the most common differences between these stones. Before purchasing an engagement ring or piece of fine diamond jewelry, know what sets the three most common diamond and diamond alternatives apart.
About Mined Diamonds
The first distinction lies in the answer to the question, how are diamonds made? A mined diamond is a crystalized carbon structure that is formed beneath the earth’s surface over millions (or sometimes billions) of years under the perfect conditions of heat and pressure. The diamonds are brought to the surface during natural events (like volcanic eruptions) and then mined from the land.
By now, you may have heard that mined diamonds come from a very dark place, and we’re not talking about the ground. A one carat mined diamond costs the mining plant between 88,000 and 176,000 pounds of earth. The pollution that diamond mining causes destroys sea habitats and can even cause acid rock drainage that leaks into ground water, contaminating all living things that depend on the water source. The diamond mining industry impacts not only the environment, but human rights as well. The industry is known for inhumane treatment of workers and even child labor, not to mention the higher risk of health-related issues.
Another intriguing fact about mined diamonds is that they weren’t a popular commodity for engagement rings until the early 1900s, when diamond corporation De Beers first ran their “A Diamond is Forever” advertising campaign, executed by ad agency N.W. Ayer. This campaign is known as one of the most successful campaigns because it created demand out of a non-existent market. Today, this psychological necessity has continued to be practiced by the majority of couples.
How Mined Diamonds are Made
Let’s delve a bit more into the details of how natural diamonds are made. Diamonds are formed naturally in the earth’s mantle under conditions of extreme temperature and pressure. These conditions occur in limited zones about 100 miles or more below the earth’s surface, where temperatures are at least 2000 degrees Fahrenheit and pressure is, or exceeds, 725,000 pounds per square inch. This is the critical temperature and pressure needed for diamond formation and stability. The carbon atoms then bond together under the extreme environment, creating a diamond.
Diamonds formed and stored in these limited zones are delivered to the earth's surface through deep volcanic eruptions. These eruptions tear out pieces of the mantle and carry them to the surface. Only volcanoes that erupt from deep depths will cause this to happen, the average volcano does not.
A common misconception is that coal is correlated with diamond formation. Coal is also made of carbon, which makes sense why there would be confusion. However, it also includes many other substances, making it a sedimentary rock. Coal originates from plant debris, fungi and even bacteria. The impurities alone prevent coal from becoming a diamond. It is also rarely buried to depths greater than two miles, which makes it very unlikely that it would have been moved from the crust down to such an extreme depth. Instead, the carbon source for diamonds is most likely carbon trapped in earth's interior.
About Lab Diamonds
Are lab diamonds real? Yes, lab diamonds are the same as mined diamonds, except they are grown in a lab instead of mined from the earth. They are made of a crystallized carbon structure, which means they have the same chemical, physical and optical properties as mined diamonds. The only difference between lab diamonds and mined diamonds is their origin.
Because there is no mining involved with the creation of lab grown diamonds, they are better for the environment and better for you (yes, they even cost less). Carbon emissions and other environmental hardships are greatly reduced because mining is eliminated. With lab diamonds, you get the same quality stone for around 20-30% less, and reassurance that your purchase doesn’t contribute to the blood diamond trade.
Lab diamonds are created under the same conditions as mined diamonds, which is why each one will turn out completely different. Due to this, they are graded on the same 4Cs of Diamond Quality. This grading system rates a stone’s overall quality, which determines how much a diamond is worth.
How Lab Diamonds are Made
Lab diamonds are grown from a carbon seed, like flowers in a greenhouse. Because technology has evolved so much, scientists are able to replicate the conditions in which a diamond grows naturally, with two main methods: Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD) and High Pressure High Temperature (HPHT).
The newer and more adapted method is through Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD). In this process, a small slice of diamond seed (which is often a HPHT produced diamond) is placed in a chamber and heated to extreme temperatures, much like a diamond would undergo in the ground. The chamber is then filled with gases that help form the diamond, like methane. The gases are ionized into plasma using lasers. The ionization breaks the molecular bonds and the carbon adheres to the diamond seed, slowly crystalizing. The final result is a crystalized carbon structure, exactly the same as a mined diamond.
The High Temperature High Pressure method is still widely used and results in the same product. One of three manufacturing processes are used in this method: a belt press, cubic press and split-sphere press. All three of these processes create an environment of high pressure and temperature. In this method, a diamond seed is placed into carbon. Using one of the three methods, it is then exposed to temperatures around 2000 degrees Fahrenheit and pressurized to approximately 1.5 million pounds per square inch. The carbon melts and starts to form a diamond starter seed. Once the cooling process is finished, the result is a crystalized carbon structure.
About Diamond Alternatives
Diamond alternatives are simulant stones that resemble diamonds, but are chemically distinct. There are many options on the market today, such as cubic zirconia, morganite and amethyst. Each stone features completely different characteristics as they are made out of different materials. CZ is one of the most common diamond alternatives on the market, commonly seen in inexpensive jewelry. Although a well-cut CZ may look similar to a diamond at first, it is much more porous than a diamond, which causes it to absorb contaminants and dull over time.
The most superior diamond alternative on the market is the Nexus Diamond™ alternative, which most closely simulates the look, feel and wear of a flawless mined diamond, with two exceptions- it costs significantly less and is perfect in every way. Nexus Diamonds are made of a proprietary formula and patented coating material which causes them to reflect light at a much closer rate to diamonds than all other simulants. The final product is a stone that is harder, heavier and less porous than other alternative stones, making it much more similar to a colorless, flawless diamond.
How Nexus Diamond™ Alternatives are Made
The diamond simulant creation process begins similar to the lab diamond process. A proprietary blend of elements is heated to extreme temperatures. The elements then reach a molten state. The next step is to carefully cool the molten matrix in controlled stages that allow crystals to form. This is one of the most critical phases in creating diamond simulants. If cooled too slowly, crystals will not form; if cooled too quickly, crystals will shatter.
Following the cooling stage, a solid object containing both crystallized and non-crystallized material will be left. The crystals are a hard, heavy, dense material that closely resembles the look of an uncut diamond crystal. The crystals are inspected for quality in a similar way to how rough diamonds are inspected and graded using the 4Cs.
After the stones are rough cut, they contain no inclusions or other flaws. They are sorted and moved to the final cutting stage. Because each crystal is flawless, our master cutters can be much more precise, because they are not trying to cut around and hide flaws. This means all of our diamond simulants are cut to Ideal standards, which produces the desirable “Hearts & Arrows” effect found in the finest mined diamonds on the diamond cut scale. Our diamond simulants are then coated in a patented coating material, which seals them completely and makes them even harder and non-porous. The coating finishes the diamond simulant creation process.
The Difference Between Options
Each of these stone options are created in different ways, which results in different characteristics. It’s important to know the other main differences between these three options as well before making a decision.
Mined vs. Lab Diamonds
The differences between the two stone options come down to price point, environmental damage and ethical concerns.
Because lab diamonds are fairly new to the market, they are currently less expensive than mined diamonds. The average lab diamond averages around 20-30% less than a comparable mined diamond. This means you can get the exact chemical, optical and physical quality that you would from a mined diamond, for up to 30% less. Or, you could use that savings to afford a higher quality stone.
With lab diamonds, environmental concerns are almost eliminated. The act of mining produces horrendous and irreversible ecological damage, which is not seen in lab-grown diamonds. In addition, the carbon footprint left behind from mining is greatly reduced, and may be a fraction of what is caused from mined diamonds.
Lab diamonds are also not associated with the ethical concerns inherent in mined diamonds. Companies cultivate good working conditions, unlike the blood diamond trade where working conditions are akin to slave labor. There is also no concern of employees being at-risk for mining related accidents.
Lab Diamonds vs. Diamond Alternatives
Comparing lab diamonds and diamond alternatives primarily involves a matter of composition. Diamond alternatives are not made of a crystalized carbon structure, making them chemically different than diamonds. This also has a resulting impact on the quality of the stones in ways.
Lab diamonds are graded using the 4Cs of Diamond Quality, just as mined diamonds are. Each diamond will turn out differently due to the chemical composition, and because of that, so will the quality.
Clarity: A stone’s grading on the diamond clarity scale will depend on how many and the position of its inclusions and blemishes. Since a perfect stone is extremely rare, most stones will have some inclusions, but whether they are noticeable to the naked eye will determine their price point.
Cut: All lab diamonds can be cut differently, and will depend on the company who sells them. Some companies exclusively offer higher cut grades, meaning stones that are cut to an Ideal standard will allow them to emit the most brilliance and fire. The higher the grade, the more light the stone will reflect.
Color: Although all diamonds (lab or mined) are made of a crystalized carbon structure, a stone’s chemical makeup can differ slightly due to trace amounts of elements other than carbon during the formation. This can cause stones to show slightly yellow in color. All stones are measured on the diamond color scale, and the less color a stone shows, the more valuable it will be.
Carat: Diamonds vary in weight. In a lab, diamonds are in a controlled state and can be grown for a longer period of time to reach a larger size. The larger a stone is, as indicated on the diamond carat chart, the higher the price point will be.
Diamond alternatives have a slightly different quality to them. Nexus Diamond™ alternatives are also graded on the 4Cs of Diamond Quality, but are created to be more perfect than the average lab or mined diamond.
Clarity: The Nexus Diamond™ alternative is rated Internally Flawless, meaning it has no inclusions or blemishes due to its chemical makeup.
Cut: All Nexus Diamond™ are Ideal Cut, which means they emit the most amount of brilliance and fire.
Color: The Nexus Diamond™ is D color, meaning it is completely colorless.
Carat: Just like a diamond, the Nexus Diamond™ alternative varies in carat weight. The difference is that it costs up to 80% less than mined diamonds. The average one carat engagement ring set with the Nexus Diamond™ alternative costs around $1,300*.
When you decide to embark on the journey of finding the best diamond for your engagement ring or other fine jewelry, the best route is to be informed. By taking all of the information about how diamonds are made and how that impacts quality, appearance and price, you will be equipped to find the perfect diamond for you.
*Diamond Nexus strives to provide valuable information, while being clear and honest about our products. The Nexus Diamond™ alternative is a patented lab grown stone that, among all simulants, most closely imitates the look, weight and wear of a mined diamond, with two exceptions - it is absolutely perfect in every way, and it costs significantly less. Price points and environmental facts expressed in this blog were taken from popular online retailers and may vary. Learn more about the environmental impact of mining by visiting out blog: blog.