Diamonds, the next generation

Man-made gems offer less costly sparkle, but don't call them fake

February 21, 2007|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun reporter

Diamonds may be a girl's best friend, but when it comes to paying for the pricey sparklers, the boy's best friend may be Stephen D. Lux, a chemical engineer whose company, the Gemesis Corp., turns out thousands of gem-quality yellow diamonds every month from a factory in Sarasota, Fla.

Gem snobs might never go for them. But they're not fakes - no cheap cubic zirconias, no moissanites these. Lux is a 21st-century alchemist who is turning pure carbon into real diamonds, squeezing it into sturdy carbon crystals under intense heat and pressure inside his machines.

That's how nature made diamonds, billions of years ago, deep beneath Earth's crust. Cut and polished, natural diamonds are among the most beautiful and durable gemstones in the world. But they can also be frighteningly expensive.

Gemesis Corp. is one of three U.S.-based manufacturers now producing "cultured" or "created" diamonds. They're chemically, physically and optically identical to natural diamonds, no more "synthetic" than a baby conceived by in-vitro fertilization, their boosters say.

Experienced gemologists can tell the difference, but consumers find them indistinguishable from the natural stones, except for the price tag - a half to one-tenth of the price of comparable mined stones.

Traditionalists shudder at the thought.

"There's a market for everything," said Bruce S. Chase, who manages loose diamond sales for Smyth Jewelers in Timonium. But his store won't be carrying them. "All I know is what my fiancee would have done if I handed her a synthetic stone."

On the other hand, consider Till Somers, 64, of Scottsdale, Ariz. Three years ago she spent $2,500 for a 2-carat "lemony-yellow," square-cut Gemesis diamond, set in a white-gold ring amid smaller, colorless natural diamonds.

"It really is stunning. I loved it," she said. "If no one knows the difference, what difference does it make?"

Third-generation diamond retailer Joe Schubach sold the diamond to Somers at a charity benefit. He has carried Gemesis diamonds in his Scottsdale store since 2003.

"My whole philosophy is, `Let the customer decide,'" he said. "People can have something that's a quality product, a beautiful product, and for less" than a comparable natural diamond.

A 1-carat yellow Gemesis diamond in his store sells for $4,000, compared with $8,000 for a similar natural yellow stone.

At a few carats a month, he said, man-made diamonds are still far outsold by the natural variety, but their popularity is growing.

"Some people just don't want to spend the money" for a natural stone, he said. Others are turned off by the human and environmental costs of diamond mining - and the violence that surrounds parts of the African diamond trade.

Whatever the reason, acceptance is growing. Last month, the Gemological Institute of America, which created the industry's International Diamond Grading System half a century ago, began grading machine-made diamonds much as it grades natural stones.

"The GIA's view is that material like this has a place in the jewelry trade market, as long as people know what it is and it's sold at an appropriate price," said James E. Shigley, who has a doctorate in geology and is the institute's director of research.

More jewelers and designers are taking a crack at Gemesis's raw diamonds, too. "We're selling at three times the rate we did even last summer," said Lux, the CEO of Gemesis.

Gemesis adds a new diamond growth chamber to its factory floor every few days and should approach a thousand machines in the coming year, Lux said, creating "a virtual diamond mine here in Florida."

By way of contrast, natural diamonds formed as long as 3.3 billion years ago, under intense pressure and temperatures more than 90 miles below the planet's surface. There, atoms of carbon reorganized themselves into cubes, and the cubes grew into crystals.

Carried back to the surface by volcanic eruptions, then exposed by erosion and mining, they've been prized throughout history for their beauty and durability.

According to the gem institute's Shigley, most natural diamond crystals are "octohedrons," a pair of four-sided pyramids joined at the base. Most are colorless, too, but many contain traces of other elements and impurities that lend them a variety of "fancy" hues such as yellow, orange, pink and blue.

Thanks to publicity from celebrity "bling," such as the 6-carat pink diamond that actress Jennifer Lopez got from Ben Affleck, colored natural diamonds are becoming increasingly popular, jewelers say.

Although scientists first produced man-made diamonds a century ago, it wasn't until 1954 that General Electric patented the first commercially viable process.

GE's diamonds weren't jewelry-grade, but their hardness made them ideal for industrial saws, grinders and drills. Today manufacturers produce 3 billion carats of industrial-grade diamonds a year, collectively worth $1 billion.

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