In this day and age, shopping for an engagement ring can feel downright overwhelming. With such a large variety of stones, shapes, and styles to choose from, settling on one design is no easy task. For those interested in the classic diamond, there’s now one more level to consider: Do you want to opt for a mined diamond, or would you prefer to purchase a lab-grown stone?
Before you can decide, you might be wondering what sets lab-grown and natural mined diamonds apart. Ultimately, not much. In fact, as far as the average consumer is concerned, there’s very little difference between the two. “Chemically, optically, and gemologically, lab-grown and mined diamonds are the same,” says Clean Origin’s Brandon Cook. However, where the two chiefly diverge is how they are created and the ethical and environmental ramifications they have on the world at large. "The differences are not in the physical make-up of the stone but in the source," says fine jewelry expert Maria Doulton. "What matters is how you feel about that."
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To learn more about lab-grown diamonds vs. natural diamonds—including how they also may vary in price, durability, and clarity—read on.
The Difference Between Lab-Grown and Natural Diamonds
Aside from the stark difference in how they are made, there are a few defining characteristics that define a lab-grown versus a natural diamond.
How They’re Created
Most naturally-occurring diamonds on the market today were formed far beneath Earth’s surface, in the planet’s mantle layer. Billions of years of intense heat and pressure caused the element carbon to rearrange on an atomic level, and thus take on the solid form of a diamond. In areas of the globe where the conditions and temperatures have been ripe to create diamonds, deep-source volcanic eruptions sent the stones closer to the surface via kimberlite pipes. "Diamonds are shattered in the process, producing more small pieces than big," Doulton explains. These massive, deep-reaching craters are then mined for the precious stones.
Lab-grown diamonds, on the other hand, are just that: diamonds grown in a lab.“ The most common way is through a process called chemical vapor deposition,” Cook explains. “You start with a very slim slice of a diamond, where the crystalline structure for the diamond is already formed. This is often called the diamond ‘seed’ and is composed of pure carbon; either natural or existing lab-created diamond. The seed is placed in a vacuum where carbon molecules assimilate to the diamond seed. It’s almost like 3-D printing a diamond. Once the diamond is ‘grown’ in this chamber, it will be ready to be cut and polished, just like a natural diamond.” And because a diamond created in a lab is still pure carbon, it is, chemically speaking, the exact same as a natural diamond.
Per Cook, the first lab-grown diamonds were produced in the 1950s, but “it took about sixty more years to produce gem-quality diamonds—that is, a diamond of sufficient color and clarity you’d want to wear on your finger.”
Part of the reason natural diamonds are so pricey is because of their rarity. "They depend on complex and expensive mining operations and there are no guarantees about what is going to come out of the earth," says Doulton.
There is thought to be a finite amount of natural stones on the planet, and the circumstances under which each is created are unique—so the characteristics the gemstones are graded on will be similarly special. Other aspects that contribute to their cost are the labor and energy that goes into mining and polishing the stones, and, of course, the strategic and somewhat dubious origins of, control of, and advertising behind the diamond market itself.
Lab diamonds are going to be less expensive than natural diamonds—sometimes up to 50 percent less than a natural stone of similar grade—because they aren’t controlled by the same supply chains. “Advances in technology also allow for more efficiency in crafting lab-created diamonds,” says Cook.
Lab-grown diamonds are comprised of carbon, the same material natural diamonds are comprised of. They remain the hardest material on earth—a 10 on the Mohs hardness scale—and thus are as difficult to chip as a natural diamond.
“Many of the same grading agencies, namely the Gemological Institute of America and the International Gemological Institute, grade lab-created diamonds using the same methods and standards used for natural diamonds,” says Cook. That’s important to note because, if these standard-bearing institutions are using the same scales to evaluate both lab-grown and natural diamonds, that means the differences between the two when it comes to the 4Cs—cut, clarity, color, and carat—are nil.
Because lab-grown diamonds are grown, not built, they will also take on the inclusions or “flaws” that affect a stone’s sparkle and clarity grade. (The more inclusions in a stone, the cloudier it may be, and the lower its clarity grade becomes.) Just as with natural diamonds, clarity grades for lab-grown diamonds range from Flawless (F1) to Included 3 (I3).
Same deal here: a high-quality lab-grown diamond will be graded on the same scale as a natural one when it comes to color. There is no visual difference between a lab-grown and a natural diamond, and most couples seek out gems of both varieties graded between G and J, which are near colorless. Graded D through F, true colorless diamonds are exceedingly rare and thus exceedingly expensive.
Looking to maximize your spend? “Consider a lower color grading, as there are large differences in price between a top D and G color, or accept slight illusions over a flawless stone,” says Doulton.
Perhaps the strongest case for purchasing lab-grown diamonds has to do with the ethical and environmental ramifications of bringing natural diamonds to market. As the consumer values of Millennials and Gen Z evolve, they are more concerned with ensuring their dollars back companies with values similar to their own than previous generations were.
“It only takes one Google image search of the Orapa diamond mine to understand the amount of ecological destruction and outright pollution that can stem from diamond mining,” says Cook. “This goes hand-in-hand with the historically murky ethics of diamond mining. While the industry has made progress in cleaning up its act, the only way to know with certainty that your diamond is truly 100 percent conflict-free”—that is a diamond that did not originate from an area controlled by warring factions—“is by purchasing a lab-created diamond.”
That said, lab-grown diamonds are not without their own drawbacks. "The reality is that most lab-grown diamonds still require large amounts of energy to power the high-temperature machines in which they are grown," says Doulton. "But there is no arguing that they have a clear chain of custody to market."
As the diamond industry continues to evolve to keep up with consumer preferences, improvements are being made on both sides of the coin. Doulton commends sources in Canada, such as the Diavik Diamond Mine and other participants in the Canadamark program, for being fully traceable sources of naturally occurring diamonds, and notes that U.K. lab-grown diamond brand SkyDiamond is carbon negative.
Is it accurate to call a lab-grown diamond a “synthetic” diamond?
No. Per a 2018 revision by the Federal Trade Commission to their jewelry marketing guidelines—that removed the word “natural” from its definition of a diamond—the term synthetic cannot be applied to lab-grown diamonds because they are made from pure carbon, the same material natural diamonds are made of. Because they have the same chemical makeup, they are both considered diamonds.
Are lab-grown diamonds valued less than natural diamonds?
Here, it’s important to understand that the monetary “value” of a stone is assigned by the market and what a customer is willing to pay for it. No stone, no matter how rare or flawless, has an inherent value of its own. If a lab-grown diamond is documented and known to be lab-grown, it will be valued less than a natural diamond of similar gradation, just as the initial purchase cost of that stone would have been less. Meaning: It’s important to purchase your diamond engagement ring not because it can be used for capital, but because it’s a symbol of love and commitment to your partner. But, no, an appraiser will not dock the value of your stone just because it is lab-grown. They will instead just grade it on a different value scale.
The technology of lab-grown diamonds is also still evolving, which could lead to changes in their value. If they become easier to produce and cost less to make, their price will likely go down, which will drive down their value. Also, if future generations continue to deprioritize the diamond as a symbol of love and marriage, the value of both lab and natural diamonds may go down as there is less of a demand for them.
Can the average person spot the difference?
“Absolutely not,” says Cook. “In fact, most jewelers wouldn’t know the difference under a diamond loupe if there weren’t a tiny laser inscription on the girdle of the diamond that identifies it as lab-created.”
What kind of diamond should I choose?
That is an extremely personal question, and should be made by taking into consideration the points outlined above. However, if you'd like an expert opinion, Doulton offers this: "My advice is to choose lab-grown for a design-led ring where the stone is not the major source of value of the ring, and a mined diamond if an investment-grade solitaire is your dream ring."