Diamonds Vs. Synthetics, Moissanites, Cubic Zirconias and More
Diamonds are one of the oldest, hardest and most coveted materials on Earth. So what else makes them stand out from synthetics and their imitators?
How Old are Natural Diamonds and How do they Form?
Diamonds are one of the most unique and special materials in the world, and for so many reasons. Not only have they been one of the most coveted treasures since the 4th century BC and throughout history, they are known as the hardest material on Earth, as well as one of the oldest.
All natural, Earth-mined Diamonds are between twenty million and two and a half billion years old! After forming in the upper mantle of the Earth, about 140 metres below the Earth’s surface, they get pushed to the surface in magma and a rare combination of extreme heat and pressure. In reality, most of the world’s diamonds never make it to the Earth’s surface at all. Plus, If any change of pressure occurs during this process, the pure carbon of the Diamond will simply convert into a graphite-like material resembling pencil lead. The process of a Diamond forming in the Earth over millions to billions of years and finally making it to the surface in one piece, especially as a glittering, colourless specimen of high clarity (or even rarer, in a fancy colour!) is truly a magical and rare occurrence.
What are Lab-Made or Synthetic Diamonds?
Synthetic Diamonds were first created by scientists in the 1950s and were originally used for industrial purposes due to their excellent hardness and ability to cut and polish other materials. Synthetic Diamonds have the same all-carbon chemical structure and composition as natural Diamonds. However, instead of being created naturally in the Earth through millions of years of heat and pressure, they’re created in a factory in a process that now takes a matter of weeks. The original method for creating a synthetic Diamond (also sometimes called a “lab-made Diamond”) was referred to as High Pressure High Temperature (HPHT), which re-creates the very high heat and pressure environment required for a Diamond to form, and is also used to colour treat natural Diamonds.
In the early 2000s synthetic Diamonds were also created using the Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD) method, which still requires very high temperatures (up to 1130° celsius) but lower pressure. During this method, carbon-rich gas is used to build a Diamond crystal one very thin layer at a time.
What is the Difference Between Diamond and Cubic Zirconia or Moissanite?
Diamond simulants appeared on the market as early as the 1700s and were usually made of glass, and sometimes backed by foil or metal to create extra colour and more realistic sparkle. Due to their lower hardness level, Diamond simulants generally have a softer lustre, more rounded-looking facet edges, and can get scratched much easier. They also have lower thermal conductivity (they get much hotter faster when exposed to heat versus Diamonds which are always cool to the touch) and higher specific gravity, which means they’re usually much heavier than they look. Of course, one of Diamond’s most unique and special traits, it’s fire and dispersion, is what sets it apart from almost all other gemstones, and what definitely sets it apart from simulants. Both attributes contribute to Diamond’s trademark sparkle and ability to break white light into flashes of rainbow colours.
Now, simulants have come a long way, with two of the most popular currently being Cubic Zirconia and Moissanite. Natural Moissanite was actually discovered in the United States in 1893 by Nobel Prize winning chemist Dr. Henri Moissan. He discovered its tiny crystals when analyzing meteorites in Arizona. While both Cubic Zirconia and Moissanite can occur as natural minerals, they are both very rare on Earth, and so all gems found on the market today are synthetic and factory-made. One of the biggest tell-tale signs of Moissanite, which is made of silicon carbide, is that while it's generally darker in appearance, it actually has more fire than Diamond and is doubly refractive, which means it displays far more spectral (or rainbow) colours when you look at it face-up, and the appearance of its facets will look “doubled.” While some may find themselves attracted to this high-wattage sparkle, others feel it makes the gem look particularly synthetic. Moissanites can also sometimes have a yellow or greenish tint. Cubic Zirconia remains the most popular Diamond simulant and has been on the market since the 1970s. While also softer than Diamond (and more prone to getting abrasions and a ‘hazy’ look over time) it has the benefits of coming in various colours as well as having high brilliance and lustre, similar to a Diamond.
Diamond imitation jewels, including Moissanite and Cubic Zirconia, can be excellent pieces to use for travelling, surprise proposals, promise rings, and of course, for generally getting the look of a rare and priceless Diamond for a very budget-friendly price.
Wondering which form of Diamond is considered the most sustainable? Read about Sustainable Jewellery here.