The ability to manufacture nature’s most precious materials has been one of mankind’s great quests for centuries, but it’s only in recent decades that the technical innovations of visionary entrepreneurs have made that dream a reality – at least when it comes to diamonds.
Contrary to some common assumptions, lab-grown diamonds are identical to natural diamonds in their structure and appearance, with the same chemical composition. To explain why, TAG Heuer recently spoke to inventor and entrepreneur Benny Landa, Chairman of Lusix: ‘Nature grows diamonds a couple of hundred kilometres below the surface of the earth at enormous pressures and temperatures, but the fundamental process – the migration of carbon atoms to combine with one another, and self-assemble into diamond – that’s our process, too. All we do is create the conditions that allow nature to grow the diamond.’ Diamond expert Professor Alexander Zaitsev of the City University of New York has gone one step further: ‘What nature does somewhere in unknown environments, of course, is not always ideal. But in a laboratory you can create the ideal conditions for diamond growth’.
Lab-grown diamonds first became a reality as early as the 1950s when they were manufactured using HPHT [high pressure, high temperature] technology. These early yields were mostly used in industrial applications, and unable to create gem quality diamonds. Many manufacturers still use the process today, but the most significant recent advances have been made in CVD technology – Chemical Vapour Deposition, which we refer to as “Diamant d’Avant-Garde” at TAG Heuer. Lusix co-founder Yossi Yayon does a good job of explaining the process in layman’s terms: ‘We put a ‘seed’ of diamond into a vacuum chamber and insert certain gases, the most important being a gas that contains carbon, and the second being hydrogen. We ignite a plasma of these gases with high powered microwave radiation, and this plasma decomposes the gases into radicals that contain the carbon atoms, and those atoms gradually bond to the ‘seed’, and grow the crystal’.
The key market-disrupting aspect of lab-grown diamonds is their versatility – in the design possibilities for jewellery and gems, and in the wide range of applications beyond that.
Diamaze Microtechnology SA are a leading Swiss company who specialise in ultra-precise micro-components of pure diamond for use in the aesthetic design of luxury watches. Their CEO, Peter Gluche, spoke to TAG Heuer recently to expound the possibilities of their process: ‘We can create diamonds with whichever qualities we want, in terms of texture and level of light reflection. You can modify the colour of the diamond, from clear to black, and any shade in between’.
The exact shade, shape and cut of the diamonds can be precisely controlled to meet demand, meaning the possibilities for bespoke and original designs are endless. Yossi Yayon at Lusix confirmed: ‘You can change the properties of the material according to your needs, and you can grow layers with different properties. We have the ability to grow D-colour diamonds, but we can also make beautiful pink diamonds, blue diamonds, all by precisely controlling the process. This is important for the gem industry, but it’s also very important for the high-tech industry.’
And not just the high-tech industry. Diamond components are already used in all kinds of systems, and may eventually replace silicon in computer processors due to being a far superior semiconductor – but its other unique properties make it the ideal material for a range of other uses, as Professor Zaitsev elaborated: ‘You can add additional properties and modify the structure artificially at your wish for the purpose of superior mechanical applications, optical components, thermal management of high-power transistors, and now new fields like quantum computing, quantum communication. The diamonds used in the research of quantum communication are lab-grown. You would never be able to do such research with natural diamonds’.
Regardless of the future of any particular industry, diamonds are forever, and it would seem their appeal and potential are too. As Benny Landa summarised eloquently for TAG Heuer: ‘People want to be associated with this amazing, magical material that has so many extreme properties. The hardest material, the most transparent material, the most thermally conductive material, the most sparkling material. There’s nothing on earth that you could carry on your person that has that same mystique. And then to associate those qualities with oneself, because a watch says, ‘this is who I am’ – in my opinion is a brilliant concept.’