The most popular gemstone. The hardest known substance. An amazing number of uses.
What is Diamond?
Diamond is a rare, naturally-occurring mineral composed of carbon. Each carbon atom in a diamond is surrounded by four other carbon atoms and connected to them by strong covalent bonds. This simple, uniform, tightly-bonded arrangement yields one of the most durable substances known.
Diamond is a fascinating mineral. It is chemically resistant and it is the hardest known natural substance. These properties make it suitable for use as a cutting tool and for other uses where durability is required. Diamond also has special optical properties such as a high index of refraction, high dispersion, and high luster. These properties help make diamond the world's most popular gemstone.
Diamonds are a bit of a mystery. They are composed of the element carbon, and because of that many people believe that they must have formed from coal. Many teachers still teach this in their classrooms. But that is not true!
Physical Properties of Diamond
|Chemical Classification||Native element|
|Color||Most diamonds are brown or yellow in color. The jewelry industry has favored colorless diamonds or those that have a color so subtle that it is difficult to notice. Diamonds in vivid hues of red, orange, green, blue, pink, purple, yellow and other hues are very rare and sell for high prices when the color is spectacular. Most industrial grade diamonds are brown, yellow, gray, green and black.|
|Streak||Diamond is harder than a streak plate. Its streak is known as "none" or "colorless"|
|Luster||Adamantine - the highest level of luster for a nonmetallic mineral.|
|Diaphaneity||Transparent, translucent, opaque.|
|Mohs Hardness||10 - the hardest mineral|
|Specific Gravity||3.4 to 3.6|
|Diagnostic Properties||Hardness, heat conductivity, crystal form, index of refraction, dispersion|
|Chemical Composition||C (elemental carbon)|
|Uses||Gemstones, industrial abrasives, diamond windows, speaker domes, heat sinks, low-friction microbearings, wear-resistant parts, dies for wire manufacturing.|
Diamond Consumption in the United States
In 2014, consumers in the United States spent about $24.3 billion on gemstones. Of that amount, $22.5 billion was spent on diamonds, and about $1.8 billion was spent on colored stones. These statistics clearly show that diamonds are the most popular gemstones with U.S. consumers by an enormous margin.
How Do Diamonds Form?
Diamonds are not native to Earth's surface. Instead they form at high temperatures and pressures that occur in Earth's mantle about 100 miles down.
Most of the diamonds that have been discovered were delivered to Earth's surface by deep-source volcanic eruptions. These eruptions begin in the mantle, and on their way up they tear out pieces of mantle rock and deliver them to Earth's surface without melting. These blocks from the mantle are known as xenoliths. They contain diamonds that were formed at the high temperature and pressure conditions of the mantle.
People produce diamonds by mining the rock that contains the xenoliths or by mining the soils and sediments that formed as the diamond-bearing rock weathered away.
Some diamonds are thought to form in the high temperature-pressure conditions of subduction zones or asteroid impact sites. Some are delivered to Earth in meteorites. No commercial diamond mines have been developed in deposits with these origins.
Gem Diamonds vs. Industrial Diamonds
Gem diamonds are stones with color and clarity that make them suitable for jewelry or investment use. These stones are especially rare and make up a minor portion of worldwide diamond production. Gemstone diamonds are sold for their beauty and quality.
Natural diamond crystals have a specific gravity that ranges between approximately 3.4 to 3.6. This range exists because most diamonds contain impurities and have irregularities in their crystal structure. Gem quality diamonds are the most perfect diamonds, with minimal impurities and defects. They have a specific gravity that is very close to 3.52.
Industrial diamonds are mostly used in cutting, grinding, drilling, and polishing procedures. Here, hardness and heat conductivity characteristics are the qualities being purchased. Size and other measures of quality relevant to gemstones are not important. Industrial diamonds are often crushed to produce micron-sized abrasive powders. Large amounts of diamonds that are gemstone quality but too small to cut are sold into the industrial diamond trade.
Diamond as a Gemstone
Diamonds are the world's most popular gemstones. Many times more money is spent on diamonds than on all other gemstones combined. Part of the reason for diamond's popularity is a result of its optical properties - or how it reacts with light. Other factors include fashion, custom, and marketing.
Diamonds have a very high luster. The high luster is a result of a diamond reflecting a high percentage of the light that strikes its surface and a high percentage of light that passes through the stone and is returned to the eye of the observer.
Diamond also has a high dispersion. As white light passes through a diamond, this high dispersion causes that light to separate into its component colors. Dispersion is what enables a prism to separate white light into the colors of the spectrum. This property of dispersion is what gives diamonds their colorful "fire."
Diamond Gemstone Quality
The quality of a diamond gemstone is primarily determined by four factors: color, cut, clarity, and carats. A standardized method of assessing diamond quality was developed in the 1950s by the Gemological Institute of America and is known as "The 4Cs of Diamond Quality" .
Color: Most gem-quality diamonds range from colorless to yellow. The most highly regarded stones are those that are completely colorless. These are the ones sold for the highest prices. However, another category of diamond gemstone is increasing in popularity. These are the "fancy" diamonds, which occur in a variety of colors including red, pink, yellow, purple, blue, and green. The value of these stones is based upon their color intensity, rarity, and popularity.
Cut: The quality of workmanship in a diamond has a large impact upon its quality. This influences not only the geometric appearance of the stone but also the stone's luster and fire. Ideal stones are perfectly polished to be highly reflective and emit a maximum amount of fire. The faceted faces are equal in size and identical in shape. And, the edges of each faceted face meet perfectly with each of its neighbors.
Clarity: The ideal diamond is free from internal flaws and inclusions (particles of foreign material within the stone). These detract from the appearance of the stone and interfere with the passage of light through the stone. When present in large numbers or sizes, they can also reduce the strength of the stone.
Carat: Diamonds are sold by the carat (a unit of weight equal to 1/5th of a gram or 1/142nd of an ounce). Small diamonds cost less per carat than larger stones of equal quality. This is because very small stones are very common and large stones are especially rare.
Diamonds Used as an Abrasive
Because diamonds are very hard (ten on the Mohs scale) they are often used as an abrasive. Most industrial diamonds are used for these purposes. Small particles of diamond are embedded in a saw blade, a drill bit or a grinding wheel for the purpose of cutting, drilling or grinding. They might also be ground into a powder and made into a diamond paste that is used for polishing or for very fine grinding.
There is a very large market for industrial diamonds. Demand for them exceeds the supply obtained through mining. Synthetic diamonds are being produced to meet this industrial demand. They can be produced at a low cost per carat and perform well in industrial use.
Other Uses of Diamonds
Most industrial diamonds are used as abrasives. However, small amounts of diamond are used in other applications.
Diamond windowsare made from thin diamond membranes and are used to cover openings in lasers, x-ray machines, and vacuum chambers. They are transparent, very durable, and resistant to heat and abrasion.
Diamond speaker domesenhance the performance of high-quality speakers. Diamond is a very stiff material, and when made into a thin dome it can vibrate rapidly without the deformation that would degrade sound quality.
Heat sinksare materials that absorb or transmit excess heat. Diamond has the highest thermal conductivity of any material. It is used to conduct heat away from the heat-sensitive parts of high-performance microelectronics.
Low-friction microbearingsare needed in tiny mechanical devices. Just as some watches have jewel bearings in their movements, diamonds are used where extreme abrasion resistance and durability are needed.
Wear-resistant partscan be produced by coating surfaces with a thin coating of diamond. In this process, diamond is converted into a vapor that deposits on the surface of parts prone to wear.
Diamond simulants are materials that look like diamonds and have many similar physical properties, but they have different chemical compositions. Diamond simulants can be natural materials such as colorless zircon or sapphire. More often they are man-made materials such as cubic zirconia (ZrO2), moissanite (SiC), YAG (yttrium aluminum garnet Y3Al5O12), or strontium titanate (SrTiO3).
 Gemstones: Donald W. Olson, U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries, January 2016.
 Gemstones: Donald W. Olson, U.S. Geological Survey, 2013 Minerals Yearbook, March 2016.
 Diamond, Industrial: Donald W. Olson, U.S. Geological Survey, 2016 Mineral Commodity Summaries, January 2016.
 Diamond, Industrial: Donald W. Olson, U.S. Geological Survey, 2013 Minerals Yearbook, December 2015.
 Diamond Quality Factors: An explanation of how diamonds are evaluated using the 4Cs. Gemological Institute of America. Last accessed July 2016.
Diamond is a very valuable material, and for over half a century many people and companies have worked to create them in laboratories and factories. Synthetic diamonds are man-made materials that have the same chemical composition, crystal structure, optical properties and physical behavior as natural diamonds.
The first commercially successful synthesis of diamond was accomplished in 1954 by workers at General Electric. Since then, many companies have been successful at producing synthetic diamond suitable for industrial use. Today, most of the industrial diamond consumed is synthetic, with China being the world leader with a production of over 4 billion carats per year.
In the last decade, a few companies have developed technology that enables them to produce gem-quality laboratory-created diamonds up to a few carats in size in several different colors - including colorless. Some companies use high-pressure, high-temperature methods, while others use chemical vapor deposition methods. Their man-made gems are being sold in jewelry stores and on the internet at a significant discount to natural stones of similar quality and size. They have a beautiful appearance and an attractive price tag. Synthetic diamonds are required to be sold with a disclosure that they are "synthetic" or "laboratory-created."
Will Consumers Accept Synthetic Diamonds?
Synthetic diamonds have been the dominant type of diamond in industrial applications since the end of the 20th century. Most of the diamonds used to make abrasives and cutting tools are now synthetic. Virtually all diamonds used to make windows, speaker domes, heat sinks, low-friction microbearings, wear-resistant parts, and other technology products are synthetic. Synthetic diamonds are less costly, have more consistent properties, and are becoming available in made-to-order specifications. There are no emotional barriers for synthetic diamonds to replace mined diamonds in these uses.
In the jewelry industry there is considerable debate about the willingness of consumers to accept synthetic diamonds. Some believe that jewelry consumers want "real diamonds." Others believe that synthetic diamonds will be favored by people who dislike the human rights and environmental problems associated with mined diamonds. However, the real motivator will likely be price. Currently, synthetic diamonds made for jewelry use have a 15 to 30% price advantage on mined diamonds. This will likely be the greatest motivator for consumers to accept synthetic diamonds.
Observation and speculation.... If you walk into almost any mall jewelry store and look into the cases where ruby, sapphire, and emeralds are being sold, you will see that most of the stones being offered are synthetic. A person with very little training can spot them on sight. The synthetic materials have a superior appearance and their prices are small compared to natural gems of similar size and appearance. Consumers get better appearance for a lower price, and the majority of them have accepted that transaction.
The battle for emotion and sales dominance in the popular-price ruby, sapphire, and emerald market was won by synthetics a couple decades ago. In the next decade the diamond market might also move in favor of synthetics. It's already starting as synthetic diamonds take a visible position in the market. The price of synthetic diamonds will likely decline as more and more machines to produce them are placed into service, become more efficient, and competition among manufacturers intensifies. Eventually, the price differential between natural and synthetic diamonds will be greater than most customers will be able to ignore, and they will buy the synthetic. If the next world-class advertising campaign promotes synthetic diamonds, the shift in consumer demand might come sooner and with greater intensity.
Contributor: Hobart King
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