A diamond is forever but its chemical composition is just carbon, the fourth most abundant element in the universe.
Before being cut and polished to what may cost over $2,000 per carat — one-fifth of a gram, or the weight of two grains of rice, diamonds have traditionally been mined from earth where they were forged in extreme pressure and heat over millennia.
But companies in China and elsewhere have mastered the technologies to manufacture them en masse in a matter of weeks or days, with the products practically indistinguishable from those mined from earth.
China, long a major consumer of mined diamonds, now has a realistic chance to become a supplier of man-made ones and shape the industry, analysts said, but the scenario for substitution — when consumers become indifferent to provenance — is far from certain and depends on public perception.
OVER ONE MILLION CARATS, FROM ONE FACTORY
By Chinese industry estimates, the country has been producing well over 10 billion carats of diamond annually for almost a decade, but most of the products have gone to industrial use such as in abrasives.
Before foraying into consumer use, Chinese manufacturers provided them for aeronautics, oil rigs and electronic chips and honed their craft, said Hu Junheng, head of gemstone business at Henan Huanghe Whirlwind, which calls itself the world’s largest synthetic diamond manufacturer with an annual production of 1.2 billion carats, mostly for industrial use.
As competition intensified and technology matured, these companies, mainly based in central China’s Henan Province, have ventured from abrasives to jewelry.
The English-language “product list” of Henan Huanghe Whirlwind now starts with “superhard materials” and ends with “Lab-Grown Diamond (Gem Quality)”.
Liu Yongqi, general manager of Sino-Crystal, another Henan-based company, said it now produces between 2 million and 3 million carats a year, over half of which are for jewelry.
“We began our transformation in 2014 to expand to gem-grade diamonds,” said Liu, citing over-competition for industry use and a “blue sea” consumer market.
“It is important to understand that even if synthetic diamond production is initially lower quality, the diamonds can be ‘enhanced’ with processes that turn lower quality goods into higher-quality,” Paul Zimnisky, an independent diamond analyst in New York, told Xinhua.
If even a fraction of Chinese production is upgraded to jewelry-quality diamonds, it would have a very significant impact on the global supply which is only in the low-millions-of-carats, Zimnisky said.
“China, and by extension Asia, is the main producer of synthetic diamonds,” Margaux Donckier, spokeswoman for Antwerp World Diamond Center, told Xinhua. “Synthetic goods only represent about 3-5 percent of the [consumer] market, but the share is growing rapidly.”