If you're ring shopping, you may find the options — and price ranges — for diamond jewelry to be dizzying. There's the color, clarity, carat, and cut of the gem, all of which can affect the price significantly. On top of that, if you're buying an engagement ring, conventional wisdom (or at least diamond industry advertising) says you should spend three months' salary on the stone. Ouch.
Increasingly common on the market, synthetic or lab-grown diamonds are perfect replicas of nature's diamonds, but they're grown in a laboratory instead of being mined from the earth. Plus, at costs that can be 20% to 40% cheaper than a natural diamond, they might help you get the ring you want without breaking the bank (or maxing out your credit cards).
Differences Between Traditional Diamonds and Alternatives
So should you be shopping for synthetic stones? Let's start by taking a look at what your options are if you're looking for diamond (or diamond-like) jewelry:
Simulant (or simulated) diamonds: These are materials that mimic the look of a diamond but are not diamonds. These stones are likely to be cubic zirconia or moissanite, both of which have their own chemical composition that doesn't match a real diamond. While these options are economical, anyone with a sharp eye can tell them from the real thing and they may not wear as well as a diamond. They do have that diamond sparkle (and some may even prefer their look), but if you're looking for a diamond, a simulant is not it.
Lab-created (or man-made, synthetic) diamonds: These artificially created diamonds are both chemically and visually indistinguishable from the real thing — even a jeweler won't be able to tell the difference without specialized equipment. While they cost less than natural diamonds, synthetic diamonds in exotic colors can be especially economical: some colors that are hard to find in natural diamonds are easy to create artificially, making for a steep price difference
Mined (or natural) diamonds: These are the diamonds you think of when you think of diamonds. They're created by nature and mined from the earth in a variety of sizes, qualities, and colors.
How Do You Know What Kind of Diamond You're Getting?
The seller should clearly identify what they're offering. Simulant diamonds will be labeled as the type of stone they are, and you may be able to tell the difference visibly if you know what to look for.
While lab-created and mined diamonds don't have the same visual differentiation, any reputable seller should still clearly identify the diamond's origin. If you're not sure, ask what kind of diamond you're looking at — and ask to see the diamond's certification as well. Man-made diamonds should have a certification identifying them as lab-created.
Lab-Created Diamonds Are More Reliably "Ethical"
The US gem industry has instituted safeguards to ensure that diamonds in the country are not conflict (or "blood) diamonds. But the non-conflict certification process has been criticized as ineffective, and can still allow for diamonds that fund war crimes or human rights abuses.
As a result, some jewelers have begun selling "ethical" diamonds, ensuring that workers were compensated fairly and that the environment wasn't harmed by their mining. However, this term and certification is not yet standardized across the industry, so it might not mean much.
However, buying a lab-created diamond completely avoids this ethical quagmire. No lab-created diamonds are blood diamonds and, for those with environmental concerns, they don't have the potential negative environmental impact that mining does.
Why Wouldn't I Buy a Lab-Created Diamond?
Lab-created diamonds are indistinguishable from real diamonds while being cheaper and assured of not funding conflict. So that leaves one big question: Why wouldn't you want to buy a lab-created diamond? There are a few reasons a man-made diamond might not be the right choice for you, both practical and sentimental.
Size: Synthetic diamonds come in an increasing range of sizes, but you can't yet get them in the variety of sizes you can get a mined diamond. Synthetic stones typically go up to about 1.5 carats, though you can find them larger for a cost.
Color: Natural diamonds come in a wide range of colors beyond white, including blue, yellow, green, purple, pink, orange, and red. While some of these colors are rarer — and thus more expensive — many simply don't exist in synthetic diamonds. Yellow, blue, and pink are common colors in synthetic diamonds, and are likely to be less expensive than their mined counterparts. But other colors are likely to be harder (or impossible) to find.
The "romance" factor: You're probably familiar with jeweler De Beers' tagline "A Diamond Is Forever." While this marketing campaign single handedly created the overwhelming demand for diamond engagement rings, there's certainly a sentimental factor to buying a natural diamond that may be millions of years old. Certainly, the message there is forever… and it might not feel the same to have a diamond that was grown in a lab in just a few months.
What you buy really comes down to what you're looking for and how much you're willing to pay for it. If you're aiming for economical, a synthetic diamond can be a great buy as long as they're available in the size and color you're interested in. But if the style you're looking for isn't available synthetically, a natural diamond may be your only option. Still, with the variety available in man-made diamonds, there's a good chance you can find something to suit if you can't afford a natural diamond.
Where Should I Buy Diamonds?
Diamonds — especially high-end diamonds — are something you probably want to see in person before you commit to purchasing. So the first step to buying the right stone should be calling around to your local jewelers to see which retailers offer what you're looking for, whether it's man-made, ethical, or just a natural diamond.
If you're having trouble finding synthetic gems locally, you can often buy them directly from the manufacturer (either in a setting or as loose stones to have a jeweler put into a setting of your choice), or contact the manufacturer to find the nearest dealer for their gems. Here are some synthetic diamond-makers to consider:
Would you ever consider buying or wearing a man-made diamond? Let us know in the comments below!