De Beers fights fakes with technology as China’s lab-grown diamonds threaten viability of the real gems

The arrival of lab-grown diamonds has challenged the widely-held assumption that diamond prices could only go up

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 March, 2017, 7:42pm
UPDATED : Friday, 09 March, 2018, 4:01pm

The spread of synthetic diamonds in China, originally designed for industrial purposes such as oil drilling, is posing such a threat to the global diamond market that it has forced dominant player De Beers to invest tens of millions of dollars on methods to identify the man-made stones that look exactly like the real thing.

A team of scientists at the mining giant are dedicated to fundamental research into the difference between synthetic and natural diamonds, while others work around the clock developing high-tech machines capable of screening out these tiny, “fake” gemstones, a popular investment among jewellery makers, particularly for those in China and India.

“They want to be confident in the diamonds they are buying for their business or selling to jewellery retailers,” Jonathan Kendall, president of De Beers’ International Institute of Diamond Grading and Research, told the South China Morning Post in an interview. For years, Kendall has led a team of researchers in London in the fight against synthetic diamonds being sold as real ones.

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Indeed, even the most experienced diamantaire’s in the world can’t tell the fakes from those extracted from mines when using their naked eye, which is where technology comes in. More affordable prices, which are only seen dropping further over time, have already prompted budget shoppers to gravitate towards the man-made gems.

“The arrival of lab-grown diamonds has challenged the widely-held assumption that diamond prices could only increase because supply in natural diamonds has peaked and due to strong Asian demand,” said Georgette Boele, a coordinator of precious metals strategy at Dutch bank ABN Amro.

Created in labs in a matter of weeks, synthetic diamonds are chemically identical to the real thing. They are made from a diamond “seed” which grows new crystals with the help of carbon-containing gas in a microwave chamber operating at extremely high temperature and pressure.

Companies producing such stones have sprung up all over China, churning out an estimated 160,000 to 200,000 carats of gem-quality diamonds every month. That’s enough to propel the country to the world’s top spot in terms of synthetic production, industry insiders believe.

“About half of China’s diamond output comes from synthetics,” said Zu Endong, deputy director with the Gemological Institute of Yunnan, a Chinese province known as a gem-trading hub.

Lab-made diamonds account for a negligible 1 per cent of global rough diamond sales, yet their share may expand to 7.5 to 15 per cent by 2020, according to Morgan Stanley. The growth is likely to accelerate as more global marques jump on the bandwagon.In April, Swarovski was the first to unveil a line of so-called “created diamonds”, targeting ethically- and money-conscious millennials, who don’t want to support so-called “blood diamonds”.

While experts warn synthetics may erode the allure of the naturally mined stones adored by the wealthy in society, a looming issue is a surge in cases where undisclosed lab-grown gems were intercepted in diamond parcels circulating among the trade or in gem sets sold in Asia.

In a 2015 case in Shanghai, authorities found that 14 per cent of the rough diamonds and set jewellery in a sample labelled “natural” were man-made. Similar incidents happened in Mumbai, India, which is the world’s No.1 diamond exporting country.

Such incidents could well undermine buyers’ confidence, a major concern for any luxury goods retailer whose priority is to give consumers what they pay for.

Man-made diamonds trace their beginnings back to the 1950s when the mostly yellow to brown coloured stones were used in industrial applications due to their hardness.

It is only in the last half decade that technology has advanced to a level that scientists at De Beers, itself a pioneer in lab-grown diamond production, have been able to invent high-tech detectors that can trace the colourless synthetic versions.

“Much revolves around the use of lights and the analysis of certain natural diamonds. The burst of light into the stones is able to be interpreted in a scientific way,” Kendall said.

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Demand for these detecting machines is particularly robust in China, including Hong Kong, with about a third of the De Beers institute’s global sales shipped to the country, he added. For example, Hong Kong-based Chow Tai Fook, the world’s largest jeweller, is a top client.

“In China, they make lots of jewellery that will ultimately go all over the world in terms of purchasing. [Shoppers] will not be happy if they buy a very nice large stone and find that the small ones around it are not natural,”Kendall said.

While China’s nouveaux riche are driving growth of global diamond sales, the country’s booming output of natural polished diamonds is also challenging India’s long-held position as the world’s top diamond polisher, official data showed.

At a trade fair in Hong Kong on Tuesday De Beers unveiled its latest diamond verification technology, the coffee-machine sized AMS2 that costs US$45,000 – already a substantial discount to the US$65,000 price tag of its predecessor. Within the first few hours of its release, over a dozen orders had flooded in, the company said.

Much of the focus of the Anglo American PLC-owned De Beers is now on so-called “diamond melees,” gemstones normally less than 0.5 carats in weight and widely used in diamond-encrusted watches.

The AMS2 fires red spectrum light into the gems to detect fake melee stones and can process 500 carats per hour.

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In the past most of the tiny lab-grown diamonds were used as drill bits. “[But] demand for drills has gone down dramatically with the decline of the oil industry, [so] such type of material was clearly passed onto the diamond marketplace,” Kendall said.

On the retail side, apart from stocking up on detectors at high cost, there is more to be done to contain the risks.

“As lab-grown diamonds become more indistinguishable over time, the marketing of natural stones is paramount,” said Zu from the Yunnan Gemological Institute.

Chow Tai Fook, for example, attached a unique serial number to each of its diamond stones under a brand it launched in August last year in order to make the jewellery pieces more trackable. “[The number represented] a resume of the diamond from procurement to manufacturing to reassure buyers that the diamond is all-natural,” a Chow Tai Fook spokesperson said.