Diamonds, the next generation

The Baltimore Sun

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.

The industrial market is dominated by De Beers, the South African cartel that also controls nearly half of the much smaller market (130 million carats) in mined gem-quality diamonds.

One of the first to pursue man-made gem-quality diamonds was Carroll Chatham of California's Chatham Created Gems Inc., who grew the first man-made emerald in 1938.

In 1992, with the collapse of Soviet communism, his son and heir, Thomas Chatham, visited Russia, where he bought diamond-making technology originally developed to serve Soviet military and aerospace needs.

His venture was soon making 200 carats a month but struggled with Russian business conditions he described as "total chaos."

"We are now working in Asia," he wrote in an e-mail from Hong Kong, "selling about 1,000 stones per month in yellow, blue or pink. It is not yet cost-effective to grow colorless [stones]."

Meanwhile, Gemesis founder Carter Clarke followed Chatham to Russia looking for other business opportunities, but leaped at the chance to buy diamond-making technology.

He brought the Russian engineers and their diamond-making machines to Florida, where he and a scientist at the University of Florida spent the next decade trying to perfect the machinery.

They succeeded. Today, Gemesis' 4-foot-high, HPHT diamond machines start with a natural diamond "seed" that's slipped inside a pressure capsule 2 feet in diameter - and secured against the internal pressure with a clamping collar 4 feet wide.

The capsule is filled with a "flux" of pure carbon dissolved in a molten metal solvent and brought to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit under 850,000 pounds of pressure per square inch.

"It's like growing sugar crystals in water," Shigley said. The carbon at the hotter end of the chamber migrates to the cooler end and attaches itself to the seed diamond, growing the crystal atom by atom.

Each of the factory's U.S.-made growth chambers spits out a gem-quality diamond every two to three days. The factory makes "thousands of carats per month," Lux said, and is heading toward profitability.

"We are out of the serious cash-burn phase; we're holding our own," he said.

The Gemesis stones are cut, polished and mounted by middlemen, then retailed in a handful of stores in the U.S. and South Africa. (The nearest to Baltimore are in King of Prussia, Pa., and Lynchburg, Va.)

A third manufacturer, Apollo Diamond Gemstones of Boston, makes hundreds of carats of rough diamonds each year - stones up to 1.5 carats in weight. Apollo uses a different technology, called "chemical vapor deposition," a process that forms diamond wafers out of a gas medium in a vacuum chamber.

Apollo's technology was developed to produce semiconductors for cutting-edge research and development labs, said its president, Bryant Linares.

When the process began yielding wafers large enough to be cut into high-purity, colorless diamonds, Apollo saw gemstone production as a way to generate cash for its high-tech development work, which ultimately could be much more.

Linares' process is slower than HPHT diamond-making - two to four weeks per stone. But its advantage is that he can make the colorless diamonds that most consumers prefer, and sell them at a profit.

"We're moving production from the hundreds, to thousands of carats this year," he said. Finished gems are sold through inquiries at the company's Web site and through a single Boston jeweler.

By far the most common man-made diamonds on the retail market are yellow - a color produced by nitrogen absorbed from the atmosphere. To get a colorless stone, HPHT diamond makers must slow down the crystal growth and add to the cost.

"We would still have to sell [colorless stones] at $3,000 per carat," Chatham said. "Many naturals are less, so our model does not work."

Natural yellows, on the other hand, already command a premium. "In natural yellow it's about $30,000 per carat ... while the Chatham [yellow] is $3,000," Chatham said. "In pink diamond of good color ... you're looking at $100,000 per carat for a one-carat stone. Same in blue. In Chatham you're looking at around $4,000 per carat."

Given that price spread, the temptation to pass off lab-grown diamonds as natural would be enormous.

"I think that, unfortunately, does happen," said the Gemological Institute's Shigley. While manufacturers don't misrepresent their stones, he said, "once they're out in the market, they may not be identified correctly."

He urges consumers to have any stones they're considering examined and graded by an independent lab. All man-made diamonds the GIA grades are laser-inscribed as lab-grown, along with their report numbers.

One issue the diamond makers and AGI are not worried about is disrupting the market for natural diamonds - there just aren't enough man-made stones to matter at this point. Nor did man-made emeralds, rubies, sapphires and other gems take over their markets.

"I think the area we affect most is the low end, the [diamonds] of low quality in our price range. Why buy a stone that is unattractive, even if it is natural?" Chatham said.

Still, he said, his diamonds do attract upscale buyers: "The ones who can buy whatever they want [but] don't want to walk around with some earrings that could buy a house."

frank.roylance@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
59°