De Beers’ undertaking highlights the dilemma faced by diamond miners, who are forecasting diminishing supplies if they don’t discover new caches of gems. Only a blockbuster discovery will enable them to keep long-term production at current levels, according to De Beers and analysts. ... The problem: Only a fraction of the world’s underground diamond deposits are large enough to justify the expense of harvesting them. ... Global diamond production is expected to peak in 2017, when 164 million carats of diamonds are forecast to be produced, according to McKinsey & Co. After that, production is expected to go into a long-term decline, unless major new discoveries are made, McKinsey’s forecasts show. ... De Beers is marshaling new technology, including advanced computer algorithms that can comb through the mass of data the company gathers as it scans the Kalahari for signs of a diamond-studded kimberlite, a pipe of solidified lava containing rich veins of diamonds pushed up from the earth’s mantle. Only about 15 in 100 kimberlite pipes contains even one diamond, and only a fraction of those have enough to make them worth building a mine to harvest the diamonds
I wondered whether a diamond grown in a lab could carry the same emotional weight as the real thing, without the guilt. And really, if it was identical to a natural diamond down to every last atom, as Roscheisen swore it was, what does it even mean to be the real thing? ... A carbon atom has four electrons in the shell around its nucleus—four little guys just looking to bond with electrons of other atoms. If four of those electrons form single bonds with, say, four hydrogen atoms, you’ll get CH4, methane. If the carbon atoms bond with more carbon atoms in a layered, chicken-wire pattern, you’ll have graphite—just one of many forms of pure carbon. ... So when you think about it, diamonds are a life force in its mightiest form: The densest, hardest, strongest expression of carbon, the element underlying all of life on earth. ... As scientific knowledge goes, our understanding of the conditions that cause carbon to bond this way, or exactly how long it takes, is limited. That’s because it occurs over 100 miles inside the planet, at extreme temperatures and pressures. Many of the world’s diamonds were formed billions of years ago, and scientists don’t know exactly how those carbon atoms got down there inside the mantle to begin with.
American Grown, which has exclusive rights to buy diamonds from several undisclosed labs in the US, started selling synthetics (a scientific term loathed by the lab-grown industry, but routinely used in the greater jewelry world) a little over three years ago and now wholesales stones to some 250 stores around the country. ... Though lab-growns have been around for a while, it was only recently that the science of creating colorless, nearly flawless diamonds was finally perfected. ... With technology advancing, and with younger shoppers drawn to synthetic options, the question of whether or not lab-grown diamonds will invade the market is now a matter of when, not if. ... the stones first gained commercial popularity in India, where diamond trading began as early as the 4th century BC. During the Middle Ages, caravans that unearthed diamonds in India's rivers traded them with Western Europe, where they became coveted by the upper class. The world's diamond capital moved from India to Brazil in the 1700s, and then to South Africa, when a giant diamond mine was discovered in the city of Kimberley in 1866. In 1888, British businessman Cecil Rhodes established his mining company, De Beers, in the country, and effectively founded the diamond industry as we now know it. ... A century before this, however, scientists began their quest to make diamonds in a lab. Ignited by Antoine Lavoisier's discovery that diamonds were merely a crystalline form of carbon, the result of pressure deep within the earth, in the late 1700s, little progress was made for nearly 200 years. ... Then came General Electric. Physical chemist H.Tracy Hall joined its "Project Superpressure," and in 1954, after nearly four years of synthetic diamond experimentation, Hall lead his team to a breakthrough. They were able to create small diamonds after heating carbon to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit and applying extreme pressure with a heavy hydraulic press — a method referred to as high pressure and temperature, or HPHT.
Twenty-five years after the first diamonds were found in Canada’s Northwest Territories, it’s still a game of hurry-up-and-wait. For every thousand grassroots exploration projects, only one becomes a mine. Snap Lake, one of three operating mines in the region, was shuttered by De Beers last year, a casualty of harsh geography and falling diamond prices. Government attempts to add production value with a cutting industry collapsed years ago; all that remains of “Diamond Row” in the territorial capital Yellowknife is a line of derelict buildings behind barbed wire. ... And yet the dream lives on. At a time when global miners are shedding assets, De Beers is about to open the largest new diamond mine in the world, Gahcho Kué, 280 kilometers (175 miles) northeast of Yellowknife. A little further north, Rio Tinto Group last year found—and just sold—the largest gem-quality diamond ever recorded in North America at its Diavik mine, the 187-carat Foxfire. Dominion Diamond Corp. last week agreed to extend the life of the neighboring Ekati mine beyond 2020.
Concerns over the devaluation of gold currency led the Roman emperor Diocletian to ban alchemy in the third century, and worries about counterfeiting and debased coinage also lay behind the condemnations of the art by Pope John XXII in 1317 and of King Henry IV of England in 1403. ... “Fake” diamonds are cheaper, and for industrial uses they have utterly eclipsed their natural counterparts. But at the luxury end of the market—gemstones for jewelry—artificial diamonds account for only 2 percent of global sales. How come? ... When it comes to luxury and exotic materials, the competition between fake and real is partly a technical, chemical affair: how to create a good imitation, and how to spot it. But, as artificial gold and diamonds show, there is a deeper level to it, which is about something very human and socially constructed: the concept and value of authenticity. ... Mixed up with the human code of privilege and power is an ancient belief in the moral authority of nature’s divine handywork. ... the narrative often insinuates an almost moral authority of the “real” over the “fake.”
De Beers, the world’s biggest diamond company, marked the opening of its Gahcho Kué mine in September. ... the aim of extracting more than 12,000 carats (2.4kg) of diamonds each day. Gahcho Kué is an astonishing endeavour, the biggest new mine in the world in over a decade. De Beers has no plans for another. ... The diamond business gained its sparkle around 1866, when a farmer’s son picked up a glistening pebble on the bank of the Orange river in South Africa. For most of the next 150 years, De Beers would dominate the global market. Success depended on manipulated supply and skilfully cultivated demand. ... Much has changed since then. De Beers can no longer control the market. Though it is the biggest producer by value, it accounts for only a third of global sales, down from 45% in 2007. It faces many uncertainties, from synthetic diamonds to changing relationships with polishers and cutters. Its loosening grip is reflected in increased volatility: its sales fell 34% in 2015, before bouncing back by 30% last year. Meanwhile the source of the demand that drives sales—the link between diamonds and love—looks weaker than it used to. ... But one forecast seems solid: there will be fewer new diamonds. ... diamonds’ principal value has nothing to do with science. ... They are a “Veblen good”, as items that gain their value solely from their ability to signal status are named, after Thorstein Veblen, an economist who wrote about the spending of the rich.