Deciding between buying a traditional, mined diamond and the growing-in-popularity lab-grown variety can be as tough as deciding which of the 4Cs to prioritize.
Basically, no one wants to overpay for a rock, and no one wants to look like a fraud.
Not being a gemologist myself, I decided to interview a few diamond experts to learn more about lab-grown diamonds and find out whether it’s best to buy traditional or lab grown.
What Is a Lab-Grown Diamond?
“A lab-grown diamond is a stone that has been engineered to match the visual and chemical qualities of natural diamonds,” said Chante Nieuwhof, a product marketer at Metal Artist Studio, a custom jeweler in South Africa. “They are not developed naturally, but rather are created intentionally in a factory.”
Lab-grown diamonds are graded by third-party gemological institutions such as the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), a nonprofit institute dedicated to research and education in the field of gemology and the jewelry arts.
What Are Lab-Grown Diamonds Called?
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which champions the interests of consumers, requires sellers of laboratory-created diamonds to “describe them as ‘laboratory-grown,’ ‘laboratory-created,’ ‘[manufacturer name]-created,’ or some other word or phrase of like meaning so as to disclose, immediately preceding the word ‘diamond’ and equally conspicuously, the nature of the product and the fact it is not a mined diamond,” according to the agency’s website.
GIA, the Carlsbad, California-based, nonprofit gem research institute, uses the term “laboratory-grown diamonds.”
When Did Lab-Grown Diamonds Start?
General Electric is credited by most historians as being the first company to create lab-grown diamonds in the 1950s, courtesy of its “Project Superpressure.” But those early lab-grown rocks weren’t usable for jewelry.
Stephen B. Morisseau, director of corporate communications at GIA, told me, “The first gem-quality laboratory-grown diamonds appeared in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until about 10 or so years ago that they were available in commercial quantities,” said Morisseau.
Are Lab-Grown Diamonds Real?
Natural and laboratory-grown diamonds look the same; they even have almost identical chemical and physical properties, said GIA’s Morisseau. The two types of diamonds are so similar that specialized equipment (or a GIA diamond grading report) is needed to tell the difference. But they’re not identical.
Because of the incredibly different ways they form, there are tell-tale signs — differences at the atomic level — that GIA can spot.
“Natural diamonds formed billions of years ago deep within the earth, and came to the surface millions of years ago in a type of volcanic eruption called a kimberlite,” Morisseau said. “Laboratory-grown diamonds were formed very recently over a short period of time in a laboratory or factory.”
How are Lab-Grown Diamonds Made?
Ryan Kelsie, a gemologist at Ritani, a White Plains, New York-headquartered company that specializes in engagement rings and bridal jewelry, said that there are two processes for a diamond to be made in a lab: the High Pressure High Temperature process (HPHT), and Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD).
“In the HPHT method, tiny ‘diamond seeds’ are placed in a high-pressure, high-temperature, airtight chamber,” said Kelsie. “The HPHT process closely replicates how diamonds are formed by the earth — when carbon undergoes high pressures and high temperatures, a diamond is formed.”
The CVD process was developed more recently, according to Kelsie. “This method mimics how diamonds are formed in interstellar gas clouds,” she said. “Tiny diamond seeds are placed in a vacuum chamber. Carbon-rich gasses are released, forming larger diamonds, and making them grow.”
Price of Lab-Grown Diamonds
“Lab-grown diamonds are typically more affordable than natural diamonds, usually cheaper by around 30%,” said Ty Wilson, co-founder of CustomMade, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based, online bespoke jeweler. “And just like natural diamonds, lab-grown diamond prices fluctuate based on the market.”
Due to the lower prices, Ashley Taylor, owner of Taylor Custom Rings, said people choose lab-grown diamonds to get a larger, higher-quality diamond or to save money on their preferred size.
Are Lab-Created Diamonds Worth Anything When Resold?
There’s no resale value for lab-created diamonds since they’re not considered rare, said Wilson of CustomMade, who offers the following example:
If you purchase a lab-created, 1.20 carat round diamond from James Allen — which costs $3,800 — you may only get around $50 back if you resell it.
Mined diamonds would resell for around 20% to 60% of the original purchase price, which, while superior to the resale price of lab-grown diamonds, still doesn’t hold up to the long-term value of other traditional investments.
“Diamonds are not a good investment, whether lab grown or mined,” said Wilson. “Diamonds may be the best option if you’re seeking a timeless piece of jewelry to pass down to future generations. They are durable and don’t go out of style. On the other hand, diamonds are not the way to go if you want an investment that will appreciate over time. You’re better off investing in stocks, real estate, or even precious metals like gold.”
Read more: How to Invest in Gold
Are Lab-Grown Diamonds More Ethical?
“As they require no mining, lab-grown diamonds are inherently more sustainable,” said Nicole Mihelson, CEO of Or & Elle, a luxury diamond atelier that uses lab-grown diamonds and recycled gold. “Mining is unbelievably destructive to the earth as quantified by ecosystems destroyed, carbon emissions, water required, and — perhaps most importantly — the unaccounted for and profoundly hazardous conditions for the miners.”
However, the diamond mining industry emphasizes that it supplies lots of jobs, often in developing nations.
According to the consumer-facing website of the Natural Diamonds Council, Only Natural Diamonds, “the natural diamond industry supports the livelihood of 10 million people worldwide and leading diamond producers create $16 billion of benefit annually for employees, communities, and the environment—and 80% of these benefits are retained by local communities. The wealth generated by laboratory-created diamond companies largely benefits only a select few venture capitalists and investors who have yet to demonstrate similar socioeconomic contributions.”
Natural diamond advocates further claim that the industry’s disreputable image is antiquated, due to the United Nations’ Kimberley Process Certification Scheme. The Kimberley Process is “an internationally recognized certification system that imposes extensive requirements on its members to enable them to certify shipments of rough diamonds as ‘conflict-free’ and prevent conflict diamonds from entering legitimate trade,” according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Pros and Cons of Lab-Grown Diamonds
- Affordability. Prices can be drastically lower than for comparable mined diamonds.
- Diversity. Offers colors not found in nature.
- Mining-free. May bypass some of the ethical concerns associated with mined rocks.
- Minimal resale value. Your local pawn shop might laugh at a lab-grown gem.
- Reputation. Historically stigmatized as the “fast food” of diamonds.
- Debatable ethicality. Not universally accepted as an ethical alternative to mining.
Pros and Cons of Mined Diamonds
- Rarity. Most natural diamonds took an estimated billions of years to form.
- Tradition. Natural diamonds don’t have to worry about imposter syndrome — they are the standard.
- Resale value. 20% to 60% resale value is superior to what you’ll get from lab-grown diamonds.
- Expense. Not financially feasible for everyone.
- Pollution. Waste from diamond mining can contaminate local waterways.
- Bloody history. Diamond mining historically financed violent conflict in Africa.
Should You Buy Lab-Grown or Mined Diamonds?
Buy Mined Diamonds If…
- You’re a history or geology buff. “I have heard a customer say that they felt there was something so magical about the fact that natural diamonds existed on the earth at the same time dinosaurs did,” said Ritani’s Kelsie.
- Money is no object. Mined diamonds often cost 50% to 70% more than lab-grown diamonds. But price isn’t the foremost concern for everyone.
- You’re a traditionalist. Let’s be honest: Whoever wrote all that ‘diamonds are forever a girl’s best friend in the rough’ stuff probably wasn’t referring to rocks concocted in a vacuum chamber.
Buy Lab-Grown Diamonds If…
- You want bling on a budget. People of all income levels buy lab-grown diamonds for their “everyday jewelry.” Others buy major-sized rocks to show off.
- You’re worried about buying “blood diamonds.” Lab-grown diamonds are made in a lab, not a war zone.
- You’re uncomfortable with depreciating assets. Diamonds, mined or lab grown, don’t hold their value as well as other investments. But a depreciated lab-grown diamond is not such a huge loss, because you didn’t invest much in it to begin with.
Where to Buy Lab-Grown or Mined Diamonds
James Allen is one of the big online jewelry retailers, famous for its low prices. With thousands of high-quality, conflict-free diamonds to choose from, easy customization options, and lifetime warranty, it’s easy to see why James Allen is still considered an engagement ring king.
- Larger selection
- Easy customization for price and quality
- Lower prices than brick and mortar
- Time-consuming selection process
- Less expert guidance
Blue Nile is hands-down one of the most popular online jewelers — and has been for some time. There are multiple reasons, but the company’s appeal comes from three main features:
- Discount prices
- Simplicity in narrowing down your search to the perfect stone to match your occasion
- An astonishingly large inventory of loose diamonds
- Enormous selection
- Easily customizable
- Conflict-free diamonds
- Not all diamonds offer a 360-degree view
- Can be time-consuming given selection
If you’re looking for a personal experience, L.A.’s SevenJune Jewelry is a private jewelry house that creates custom-designed pieces. Its owner, Howard University grad Zenobia Morrow, specializes in handmade engagement rings. If you’re interested in designing your own engagement ring, SevenJune offers a concierge service — just give yourself eight weeks’ lead time before your planned proposal date.
Read more: Where’s the Best Place to Buy Diamonds?
Buying jewelry is always an investment of some kind, be it financial or emotional. If you’re attached to the idea of a traditional, natural gemstone and you’re financially comfortable enough to afford one, it’s your right as a consumer to buy the rock you want.
But if your finances are still a work in progress and you’d have to drain your emergency fund or retirement accounts to get a mined diamond — you’re probably better off with the lab-grown rock.