Sept. 25, 2003 -- They are dazzling, outrageously expensive and the very symbol of wealth and romance.
As the product of millions of years of natural forces, diamonds have a special mystique. But now, scientists at two U.S. companies are manufacturing that mystique.
In an industrial warehouse outside Boston, scientists at one company have perfected a complex process for making diamonds in a lab. The stones are so perfect they can fool the experts.
"They simply cannot tell cannot tell the difference," says Robert Linares, founder and chairman of Apollo Diamond. "And that's because they are diamond."
Finding the ‘Sweet Spot’
Linares and his team start by taking a tiny diamond wafer less than one-tenth of a carat — the "seed" — and placing it inside a vacuum chamber. When carbon gas is added, the carbon atoms stick to the surface of the seed, and it grows into a larger diamond of up to three carats.
After only a few days, it comes out as an ugly blackened nugget. But when polished and cut, the resulting diamond is indistinguishable from a naturally mined diamond, both chemically and aesthetically.
"It's groundbreaking technology," says professional gemologist and author Antoinette Matlins. "The new Apollo process has taken the art, if you will, of growing a diamond in a laboratory to a whole new level."
Linares has been trying to make diamonds this way for 30 years. It took that long before he and his team found the right combination of conditions, what he and his son Bryant call the "sweet spot."
And when you hit the sweet spot? "You get a pure and perfect diamond," says Bryant with a smile.
Apollo diamonds are expected to hit the market in early 2004 and will sell for about 20 percent less than mined diamonds.
A Fraction of the Cost of a Natural Stone
A thousand miles away in Florida, a company called Gemesis is already mass-producing "yellow" diamonds using a very different technology — by putting carbon under heat and pressure, just like in nature.
"This is the first diamond mine in the United States. It just happens to be above ground, not below ground," said Gemesis founder Carter Clarke.
About 20 machines are online now, producing around 180 diamonds a month. And there is plenty of room to expand. Clarke says the Sarasota warehouse could eventually hold up to 250 machines.
A one-carat Gemesis diamond sells for around $3,500. A comparable natural diamond costs as much $18,000, according to Clarke.
All of this has spooked the $8 billion-a-year natural diamond industry. The DeBeers Diamond Trading Co., which dominates the world's diamond market, scoffs at comparisons between what it is calls "imitations" and a product of eons of time.
"They are in the end a piece of forever, a piece of eternity," says DeBeers' Stephen Lussier. "And I don't think you can make a piece of eternity in a factory the day before yesterday."
Scientists at the DeBeers research facility in Maidenhead, England, are constantly striving to develop technology to detect the synthetic stones. Its DiamondSure, DiamondView, and the newer DiamondPlus machines are being deployed around the world to help gem dealers test stones they suspect may not be natural. But it's not always easy.
Filling a Specific Niche
"Obviously as technology improves, that task gets more challenging and the imitations get better and better," Lussier admits.
Both Apollo and Gemesis, who prefer the term "cultured diamond," deny any plans to peddle their products as natural. For one thing, they say it isn't necessary.
"There are people who want to have the natural stone at all costs," says Apollo's Linares. "There are some people who don't care."
There's a niche for us, and a very specific niche," adds Clarke. "We see ourselves as expanding retail sales, not taking out of one pocket and putting it in another. We don't see ourselves as competitive, we see ourselves as being able to expand the marketplace."
For Apollo, it's not just about jewelry. What it really wants to do someday is use diamonds to make semiconductors for computers and electronics.
But that's probably years away. Diamond jewelry made in a lab — as flawless and pure as anything made by nature — is here now.