Health News Digest

January 29, 2007

Diamonds Are Forever—Whether Mined Or Synthetic


By  Michael D. Shaw

What makes diamonds a topic for this column? Any resource that is mined brings with it a host of health, safety, and environmental issues, and diamonds are no exception. Thus, they are more than fair game, especially since there is now an alternative.

A diamond is a transparent crystal of tetrahedrally bonded carbon atoms. That is, each carbon atom is linked to four equidistant neighbors throughout the crystal. It is this structure that gives diamonds their high refractive power and extreme hardness.

Up until recently, gem quality stones could not be produced by man, but it appears that the situation is rapidly changing.

An article in the September, 2003 issue of Wired Magazine describes an encounter between an Antwerp-based diamond merchant, and a reporter with three identical and beautiful yellow diamonds. When told that the diamonds are synthetic, the dealer reacts:

“Unless they can be detected,” he says, “these stones will bankrupt the industry.”

At the moment, the synthetics can be detected, but not by the naked eye. Spectroscopic techniques, including infrared, ultraviolet, or X-ray methods can distinguish the synthetics, but many regard this as a technical distinction that is largely irrelevant for consumers, since synthetic diamonds otherwise possess the same qualities of natural stones—at a fraction of the price. Synthetics also open the door to the promises of diamond-based (rather than silicon-based) computer chips, that could stand much higher temperatures, and could presumably operate at science fiction processing speeds.

If the traditional diamond traders are trying to poison the public’s perception by touting “natural” versus synthetic, they also have to convince the public to buy into the not particularly savory baggage that haunts their business: The despoliation of the environment, brutal working conditions, job-related deaths, secretive cartels, increased debt, and deceptive sales techniques.

We might add that reliance on “natural” versus “synthetic” could be something less than a brilliant marketing technique among the wealthy and celebs, who are certainly known to augment nature from time to time in improving their personal attributes.

On a more serious note, consider the war-torn nation of Sierra Leone. Rival mining companies, security firms and mercenaries—from Africa, Europe, Israel, and the former Soviet Union—have poured weapons, trainers and fighters into this land, backing the government or the rebels in a bid to win cheap access to diamond fields. The term “blood diamond” was coined by human rights organizations in the late 1990s to refer to stones that fuel a conflict by financing criminal activity.

According to Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI):

“Innocent citizens, many of them children, are forced to mine the gems in hazardous conditions while rebel groups reap large profits, which are used to pay for weapons that breed brutal violence.”

These blood diamonds, also called “conflict diamonds,” continue to fuel civil wars resulting in more than four million deaths and the displacement of millions of people in Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and now Ivory Coast.

Significant environmental damage can be wrought by this industry as well. The most common mining technique is called pipe mining, an open-pit method, in which massive amounts of rock and materials are removed, disrupting large areas and disturbing surrounding ecosystems. Acidic wastes can also be produced.

And, as you might suspect, environmental authorities in the affected countries, even where they exist, are not exactly aggressive or powerful.

As to the synthetics, one process—as practiced by The Gemesis Corporation—grows diamonds in a split sphere high-pressure, high-temperature (HPHT) chambers that resemble washing machines. In the process, a tiny sliver of natural diamond is bathed in molten carbon at 1500°C (2732°F) at a pressure of 58,000 atmospheres (852,365 pounds per square inch or 5,877 megapascals). This produces a 2.8 carat (560 mg) rough diamond which can be cut to 1.5 carats (300 mg).

Apollo Diamonds, Inc. was founded by semiconductor guru Robert Linares, and uses a chemical vapor deposition that produces nearly perfect colorless crystals.

Not surprisingly, the diamond cartel is concerned, and has even been giving away sophisticated instruments to detect the synthetics. Still, they should listen to the words of Kevin Castro, a jeweler from Utah, when shown some man-made gorgeous diamonds, and asked by a reporter if this bothers him:

“If you go into a florist and buy a beautiful orchid, it’s not grown in some steamy hot jungle in Central America,” he says. “It’s grown in a hothouse somewhere in California. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a beautiful orchid.”

“Do you care that it’s not from De Beers?” asks the reporter.

“De Beers?” he says. “Nobody cares if it’s from De Beers. My clients just want a nice diamond.”

Paradigm shift, anyone?