Monday, January 30, 2017

Not your usual C&EN article opening

Also in C&EN, a fascinating and education article with a rather clandestinely-oriented beginning by Alex Scott: 
The international gem trade can be a shady business. In a quiet corner of a busy London pub, a trader, who asked to remain anonymous, tells C&EN about passing off synthetic gems, made in a manufacturing plant, as natural. 
“This is worth more than $500,000,” the trader says, flashing a hand upward to reveal a gold ring clasping an emerald the size of a sugar cube. “Well it would be, depending on whether you consider it real or fake.” 
The trader admits to buying synthetic gems—which can be 30–40% cheaper to produce than natural gems—and then selling them to jewelers as natural. The trader is unwilling to discuss specific deals, as this could bring some heat from previous customers. 
Scientists have been able to make synthetic diamonds and other precious gems for decades, but in the past couple of years, technologies such as the one used to make the London trader’s emerald are enabling the production of jewelry-quality synthetic gems that are identical to natural gems at the molecular level...
It will be interesting to see how the gemstone mining business will be disrupted by the synthetic gemstone folks. I admit I won't shed too many tears for DeBeers. 

9 comments:

  1. As someone currently shopping for an engagement ring, yes please!

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  2. That's arguable unethical to pass synthetic diamonds off as natural diamonds. But as someone who recently purchased a synthetic diamond for an engagement ring I support this growing industry and think we should just be more transparent about it. Some of my thoughts on the matter include:
    1) Natural vs synthetic diamonds is a meaningless distinction, in the same way that natural, extracted vanillin is the same as synthetic vanillin. And in fact the synthetic diamonds can be created with fewer impurities, which can lead to better clarity and subdued color hues. (and maybe in the future we can intentionally dope with certain elements to get richer color hues)
    2) A normal person just looking at the diamond won't be able to tell synthetic vs natural, only a jeweler with a loupe could. This would only matter if you plan to sell the diamond later (and regardless of natural or synthetic you will lose much money on this action). For most purposes a nice looking gem is what matters, and if you are surrounded by high-brow-judgy people they you won't consider a synthetic stone anyway.
    3) The diamond business is a monopoly, and would be better for the customer if more competition were introduced.
    4) Mined diamonds are expensive, and synthetic diamonds are cheaper (this is a not insignificant consideration for someone on a grad-student budget). Currently synthetic diamonds are frowned upon (for tradition reasons and resisting market forces), but as they grow in acceptance I imagine that synthetic diamond prices could rise and natural diamond prices decrease to meet somewhere in the middle. I do not know many people who have synthetic diamonds (or are open about it), so I (in my non-expert opinion) think this is on the beginning edge of the production curve, and good deals are available for the next few years.
    5) Synthetic diamonds are "conflict-free" since they have been made in a lab, rather than extracted from the ground under fair labor practices in countries that are not politically stable.
    6) When negotiating with a lab creating synthetic diamonds, they have more control over the size of the diamond that you want. I had the option to grow one of a certain carat (well to within 1/10 of a gram), and if the size or final price was not within my specific window I could wait for them to grow another diamond.
    7) Better diamond-growing technology can only help chemical and industrial sectors, which can rely of tools like diamond-blades and high-pressure containers.

    And yes my partner knows that the diamond is synthetic, and it not a contentious issue. Although I am a bit annoyed to say that we have been ring shopping together, and also fake-ring shopping together, to get a cheap/plastic/glass ring that looks similar and is worn in non-special circumstances.

    I will answer any questions you have about my experience.

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    1. You're probably also aware that "cut color clarity" is complete BS.

      If we had a law requiring diamonds to be characterized with scientific methods, you'd see the market disintegrate as people would realize that the "perfect" diamond is completely fictional.

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    2. Do you mind revealing which company you used? I've been looking for a company to make diamonds using a source of carbon that I supply, because I think giving my SO an isotopically labeled diamond gemstone would be pretty cool.

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    3. @Anon 8:16 PM -- my understanding of the diamond industry is that originally carat size was the only metric that mattered, but then caches of small gems were found and so other metrics were created to increase the value of these smaller gems. I know there are gradations on each of these metrics, and I would be surprised if there are not stringent definitions for each class, but would not be surprised if they are not strictly followed by merchants trying to sell you their wares. I will comment though that the cut is the most important aspect, because it has the largest effect on how brilliant and lustrous the stone appears (which is another reason that the round cut is the most popular since it has the fewest dark spaces and appears the most shiny)

      check out this Science for the people podcast episode that discusses the diamond industry through the focus of game theory http://www.scienceforthepeople.ca/episodes/game-change view 22:48 for that specific segment

      @Anon 11:53 AM -- I was based in Chicago at the time, and purchased my stone/band through DimendScaasi, and they get their synthetic stones through Numined. I was looking for a standard round cut diamond on a budget, and did not inquire as to the control they have of the growing process. The lab does offer their Nustar design, but to me it looks just like a different cut rather than something innate about the diamond composition. An isotopically labeled gem would be pretty cool (like the necklace Spock gave Uhura in Star Trek: Into Darkness), be sure to follow up if they could accommodate such a request

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  3. A large synthetic gem. The perfectly appropriate gift for a woman with large synthetic breasts.

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    1. For the record, I don't approve of this comment.

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    2. with attitudes like this, you wouldn't make it in the current administration

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  4. I don't have large or synthetic breasts, but I'd happily take a synthetic ring if I were (hypothetically) in the position of getting engaged. I've only known one person associated with the diamond mining industry, and despite recognizing that n=1 is not very meaningful, that one was much more than enough.

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