Carbon Taxed

Diamonds shouldn’t be confusing, but they are. Or at least the diamond market is confusing, a minefield of prevarication and hype. I know this because I’ve just been doing a little diamond shopping, more out of curiosity than the itch to buy. Though I do frequently have that itch.

Carbon atoms in diamond are arranged in a lattice. In graphite, they’re arranged in layers.

Diamond, my favorite gem, is made of carbon, which is everywhere. (All living organisms are carbon based.) What gives diamond its super hardness and heat conductivity is the way its atoms are arranged, in a rigid crystal structure called a lattice. Graphite—the soft stuff in your pencil—is made of the selfsame carbon atoms arranged in slippery layers. I’m telling you this because carbon is one of the most common elements in the universe, and diamonds are not rare. They’re expensive because the market has been controlled by cartels and pumped up by advertising. But I still want them, dammit.

Lately I’ve been hearing about synthetic, lab-grown diamonds that are structurally identical to natural stones. Until recently, manmade diamonds were yellow-orange things grown for industrial use. But gem growers have figured out how to produce clean white stones that look exactly like natural ones; it takes an experienced gemologist to tell the difference (read more about this here).

Lab-grown stones are being marketed at fancy prices to people who want to avoid buying conflict diamonds—stones mined in war zones and sold illegally to fund warlords or insurgencies. Makes sense, right? If you want to be absolutely sure you don’t have blood on your hands, why not buy a stone that’s just as beautiful, just as much a diamond, and ethically pure? Well, I’ll tell you.

I ran a shopping experiment: What would it cost to buy a pair of diamond stud earrings of about a carat each (2 carats total weight)? Would lab-grown diamonds be a bargain?

Natural one-carat stones from a dealer on 47th Street

My jeweler friend Nan took me to New York’s diamond district to look at some natural stones from dealers she trusts. (The first lesson of diamond buying is that not every dealer is trustworthy.) The one-carat stones above—nice cut, decent clarity and color—would have set me back around $7,500, and that was a good price. The dealer told me that if I wanted similar stones that had been certified by the GIA (the most important gem grading organization), they would cost significantly more. And why is that? Because, he said, if you want to sell them someday, you won’t get what you paid for them without that GIA certificate.

Wait. What? I’m supposed to put out $7,500 in the full knowledge that if I try to sell those stones tomorrow I won’t get anywhere near that much? Yep. You almost never get what you paid for a diamond when you go to sell it, even if the market goes up. You’re basically buying something sparkly to amuse yourself with, something for your daughters to fight over when you’re gone. The exception: larger stones, two carats or more. These actually are rare. But you still need that certificate.


The 2.3 carat stone above, for example, a gift from my husband on our 25th anniversary, came with a GIA certificate. If it hadn’t had one, I’d have had to go out and get one. It’s…god, I love this stone. But for a little pair of studs, maybe lab-grown diamonds would do. They’re advertised as being 30 percent cheaper than natural stones. But it turns out this isn’t always the case. A jewelry designer friend researched lab-grown studs for me—two diamonds, one carat each—and came up with a price of $5,000 to $7,000, depending on the quality of the stones. This is an insider’s price, mind you.

And even if these lab-grown stones were perfect, gorgeous, to die for, they would have no resale value. No jeweler would buy them back from me. That’s the problem with lab-grown diamonds: structurally they’re the real thing, but you can’t sell them like the real thing. (Read more about this here.) And there’s another problem: unscrupulous dealers who mix lab-grown stones in with real ones. This happens with the tiny diamonds used in pavé jewelry, but it does happen. Synthetic stones are shaking up the diamond market in a major way, which you can read about here.

Cubic zirconia, sparkly as they come, and cheap

Why was I obsessing about diamond studs? I already own a pair of cubic zirconia studs, set in gold, that are just as sparkly as the real thing. I think I paid a big fat fifty dollars for them back in the 90s. That’s one at left—my phone camera doesn’t do it justice. The only problem with it is that I know it’s not a diamond.

Wee pause for a wee lesson. Cubic zirconia (CZ) is a diamond simulant that’s been around since the mid-1970s. Like synthetic diamond, it’s grown in a lab, but it’s a different mineral— zirconium dioxide (not to be confused with zircon). CZ is clear and sparkly, and you can buy it for a song.

Diamond simulants alongside the real thing

Most diamond simulants are forms of cubic zirconia, though they’re sold under a bunch of different names, like Jewelry Television’s ‘Bella Luce’ and QVC’s ‘Diamonique’.

There’s another diamond simulant called Moissanite, a form of silicon carbide that’s been manufactured since the late 1990s. It’s harder and sparklier than CZ and quite a bit more expensive.

I finally had to admit that I wanted real diamond studs, the Little Black Dress of earrings. (I’ve often thought that if I had a coat of arms, the motto would read: Of Course They’re Real!) But instead of one-carat stones I bought smaller ones, nice but not flawless, because they were much, much cheaper. Besides…my earlobes are too small for one-carat stones. Really.

The one-carat CZ, left, next to a real diamond just over half its size. Sometimes sparkle is just sparkle—and sometimes not.


2 thoughts on “Carbon Taxed

  1. This is enormously educational. Really interesting. I don’t think I could *love* a diamond though, no matter how hard I tried. They are so hard and white, and I just don’t get it. Having said this, my kids when quite young, elevated the film ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ to cult status and used to be able to sing the words of ‘Diamonds are a girl’s best friend’ almost entirely by heart. Square-cut or pear-shaped these rocks don’t lose their shape….


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