History of Man Made Diamonds

Diamonds are nature’s hardest substance, valued for their brilliance, luster, and durability, but are rare and expensive to mine. Man made diamonds provide a cheaper, more readily available solution. Recent breakthroughs have produced methods to mass produce synthetic gems, for both the jewelry industry and for technology, but the history of man made diamonds is over a hundred years old.

Science-fiction writer H. G. Wells described the concept of synthetic diamonds in his short story "The Diamond Maker," published in 1911. In his book Capital, Karl Marx commented, "If we could succeed, at a small expenditure of labor, in converting carbon into diamonds, their value might fall below that of bricks.”

In the real world, man made diamonds come in two types: synthetics which possess the same chemical composition and structure, and simulants, which are of different materials, but appear diamond-like and posses some of a diamond’s characteristics such as hardness and refractive capabilities.

In the history of man made diamonds, the first were of the simulant type, synthesized by Dr. Henri Moissan in 1893, after discovering tiny “diamonds” in a crater in Arizona, which was created by a meteorite. Dr. Moissan, recreated these tiny “diamonds” by heating charcoal at high temperatures with iron in an electric furnace, in which an electric arc was struck between carbon rods inside blocks of lime. The iron contracted on rapid cooling, generating the high pressure required to transform graphite into diamond. The results of this method were named “Moissanite”, after its discoverer.

Ruff in 1917, repeated Moissan’s experiment, producing very small diamonds, the largest of which measured 0.7mm. In 1926, Dr. Willard Hersey of McPherson College read journal articles about Moissan's and Ruff's experiments and replicated their work, producing a synthetic diamond. That diamond is on display today in Kansas at the McPherson Museum.

In 1937, two German mineralogists discovered a diamond-like mineral called zirconium oxide (ZrO2), but the mineral occurred so rarely, they didn’t even name it. Around 40 years later, this discovery would have a huge impact on the market and take the history of man made diamonds down a new path.

In 1953, a synthetic diamond (the same chemical composition of a diamond) was produced in Stockholm, Sweden by ASEA, Sweden's major electrical manufacturing company. Using a bulky apparatus designed by Baltzar von Platen and the young engineer Anders Kämpe, pressure was maintained at an estimated 83,000 atmospheres (8.4 GPa) for an hour, producing a few small crystals. The discovery, however, was kept secret.

The first commercially successful synthesis of diamond was produced on December 16, 1954, by Tracy Hall at General Electric (GE), using an elegant "belt" apparatus. Hall was able to have co-workers replicate his work and the discovery was published in Nature. This gave rise to an industrial man made diamond industry that for decades was represented was for by two main players: GE Superabrasives and De Beers Industrial Diamonds.

In the 1970s, as a result of the invention of the microwave, scientists in the then Soviet Union, took another look at the mineral discovered in 1937 by the Germans and changed the history of man made diamonds. Under extreme heat, more than 2,700 degrees Centigrade, the scientists took zirconium oxide, with the addition of stabilizing oxides, and created cubic crystals with diamond-like appearance--cubic zirconia (CZ).

First marketed as “Djevalite" in 1977, this diamond stimulant didn’t skyrocket into popularity until Swarovski & Company, world-renowned producer of leaded crystal began mass marketing it. In 1980, global production had already reached 50 million carats, 10,000 kilograms, annually.

During the 1980s, while cubic zirconia was bursting onto the market, a new competitor in synthetic diamonds for GE and De Beers emerged in Korea called Iljin Diamond. Hundreds of Chinese entrants soon followed, allegedly due to a former Korean GE employer misappropriating trade secrets in 1988.

in 2002, De Beers Industrial Diamonds rebranded to Element Six and is operating as an independent company from De Beers. In 2003, GE sold GE Superabrasives to a private equity firm called Littlejohn and it was renamed to Diamond Innovations. Littlejohn sold Diamond Innovations to Sandvik in January of 2007.

Many more companies have become important players in the industrial diamond market. The main ones are Sumitomo Electric Hardmetal, US Synthetic, Smith Megadiamond and Novatek. As of 2006, the industrial diamond industry is an annual US$1 billion market, producing some 3 billion carats, or 600 metric tons, of synthetic diamond, as compared to 130 million carats (26 metric tons) of naturally occurring diamonds that are mined annually for gemstone market.

Recent breakthroughs in synthetic diamond “growth” have enabled some smaller companies to attempt entrance into the market for man made diamonds of gemstone quality. In 2005, Apollo Diamond, using an improved method of chemical vapor deposition (CVD), created a large, pure, colorless diamond worthy of the jewelry industry. Aida Diamonds, Gemesis, LifeGem and Tairus have also signaled their intent to enter the market for gems using synthetic diamond.

It is interesting to note that throughout the history of man made diamonds, the incentive to grow them was for use in technology. For many, such as the Russian scientists who developed cubic zirconia, and for Apollo Diamond, the intent was to aid science. The resulting gemstones were simply a happy, and profitable, accident.

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