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In the rough

A diamond by any other name -- or created by any process other than natural -- shines as bright.

January 27, 2007

THE GEMOLOGICAL Institute of America has just become a girl's best friend. The venerable industry authority, best known for promulgating the four Cs of diamond judging -- color, clarity, cut and carat -- has ended its long-standing practice of grading only natural diamonds. This month, over the objections of the powerful diamond mining lobby, it began rating gemstones created in a lab.

Laboratory diamonds, even though they're labeled by the Carlsbad-based institute as synthetic, are not to be confused with cubic zirconia or other shopping-channel substitutes. That would be like comparing lentil loaf to chicken. Manufactured diamonds are molecularly identical to the ones extracted from the Earth.

Real diamonds, but without the messy ethical concerns? Less environmentally damaging and less expensive? And with Valentine's Day coming up? Some may wonder what's the controversy.

Controversy comes when technology disrupts an industry -- and diamonds are a $60-billion industry. In nature, a diamond crystallizes over billions of years as carbon material is subjected to enormous amounts of heat and pressure. About 250 tons of ore are mined for each one-carat gem. In a laboratory, on the other hand, the carbon-to-diamond transformation takes a few days.

The emergence of technology that can create diamonds sometimes superior to mined ones poses yet another challenge to an industry already combating an image problem. Heightened awareness about the role of diamonds in funding African civil wars in the late 1990s created a backlash, and the movie "Blood Diamond" brought more attention to the issue. The industry has been working overtime to reassure consumers averse to "conflict diamonds" that procedures have changed; now most diamonds are certified as "conflict free."

The industry's latest battle, over terminology, is being fought with the non-mined competition. The synthetic diamond industry wants to market its gems as "cultured diamonds," hoping to gain wider acceptance. The diamond establishment, mindful that cultured pearls destroyed the natural pearl industry, has filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission seeking to prohibit the use of the term. The FTC will post its decision on its website, though it has set no deadline.

The Gemological Institute, however, is not taking sides. One kind of diamond is a geological (and marketing) wonder, the other a triumph of human ingenuity. Either way, whether it's lab-grown, synthetic, natural or mined, the old saw still rings true: a piece of heated and pressurized carbon lasts forever.

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