The incentive to create man made diamonds resulted from the desire of scientists and researchers to improve technology at a much lower cost than expensive mined diamonds. Valued for their brilliance and luster, diamonds are also extremely hard and durable. A cheaper, more readily available solution like man made diamonds would be a boon to both the world of gemstones and the world of technology. Attempts to find that cheaper, more readily available solution have occurred for years. In fact, man made diamonds history truly began over a century ago.
In 1847, Karl Marx wrote in the book Capital, A Critique on the Political Economy, “If we could succeed, at a small expenditure of labor, in converting carbon into diamonds, their value might fall below that of bricks.” In his short story, “The Diamond Maker”, writer H. G. Wells, also referred to the concept of synthetic diamonds.
Political commentary and science-fiction aside, man made diamonds are produced in two ways: synthetic and simulant. Synthetics are exact in structure and chemistry as natural diamonds. Simulants echo diamond’s fire, brilliance and crystalline structure, but are made from different materials. The first stone in the history of man made diamonds was Moissanite, a simulant. Discovered in 1893 by Dr. Henri Moissan in a meteorite-created crater in Arizona, these tiny diamond-like stones were really silicon carbide (SiC). By heating charcoal with iron at high temperatures in an electric furnace, and by introducing an electric arc between carbon rods and blocks of lime, Dr. Moissan, recreated these tiny “diamonds”. The iron contracted on rapid cooling, generating the high pressure required to transform graphite into diamond.
Others duplicated Moissan’s process, but produced only very small diamonds. Ruff in 1917 and Dr. Willard Hersey in 1926, both “grew” these tiny diamonds. McPherson College still displays Hersey’s synthetic diamond in Kansas at its museum.
Two mineralogists discovered a diamond-like mineral in 1937, but the occurrence in nature was so rare, the German scientists didn’t bother naming it. Only after almost 50 years and a few inventions in technology, did that mineral, zirconium oxide (ZrO2), get synthesized into a man made diamond, one that took the industry by storm and down a new path of production.
Sweden’s major electrical manufacturing company in Stockholm, ASEA, produced a true synthetic diamond (exact structure and chemistry as a diamond) in 1953. Under extreme pressures (8.4 GPa) for an hour, inside a cumbersome machine designed by Baltzar von Platen and the Anders Kämpe, a few small crystals were produced. This formation of a synthetic diamond, however, was never published. So, when General Electric’s Tracy Hall produced in 1954, via a “belt” apparatus, successfully synthesized a diamond, it was that discovery that was published in “Nature” Colleagues easily replicated Hall’s work, and the industrial man made diamond industry was born, dominated for years by DeBeers Industrial Diamonds and GE Superabrasives.
Remember that mineral discovered in 1937 by the Germans? Well in the 1970s, the then Soviet Union took that mineral, and using the latest microwave technology changed the history of man made diamonds. Cubic zirconia, produced from zirconium oxide and stabilizing oxides and using temperatures of more than 2,700 degrees Centigrade, burst onto the scene. This diamond simulant, marketed as “Djevalite” in 1977, skyrocketed into popularity in the 1980s when Swarovski & Company, world-renowned producer of leaded crystal began mass marketing it. Annual production in 1980 topped out at 50 million carats, 10,000 kilograms.
While cubic zirconia was booming in the 1980s, a Korean company, lljin Diamond, emerged as a competitor for GE’s and De Beers’ chunk of the market. Later, due to misappropriation of trade secrets by a former Korean GE employee, over a hundred Chinese companies entered the market in 1988.
Element Six, a rebrand of De Beers Industrial Diamonds, broke from the parent company and became independent in 2002. An equity firm called LittleJohn, bought GE Superabrasives in 2003, then changed its name to Diamond Innovations, and in January 2007 sold it to Sandvik.
The industrial diamond industry now has many more major players, including Novotek, US Synthetic, Sumitomo Electric Hardmetal, and Smith Megadiamond. Producing 3 billion carats or 600 metric tons in 2006, the industrial diamond industry annually brings in $1 billion. In comparison the naturally occurring diamonds are mined at an annual rate of 130 million carats (26 metric tons).
As methods of growing synthetic diamonds improves, more and more companies enter the market, especially for diamonds of gemstone quality. Recent entrants include Apollo Diamonds in 2005, who by using an improved method of chemical vapor deposition, CVD, grew a colorless and pure diamond of gemstone size and quality. Other companies, very new like Aida Diamonds and Gemesis, unique like LifeGem, and veteran of the technology, but new to the free trade like the former Soviet based company Tairus, are striving to create a niche for themselves, too.
The history of man made diamonds is fraught with accidents. Apollo Diamonds and the Russians were seeking a way to create synthetic diamonds to aid science. The resulting gemstones were like icing on the cake, a beautiful and exciting addition.