Diamonds are Forever

I don’t need James Bond to explain to me the intrigue and allure of diamonds (though, hey Daniel Craig, if you want to stop on by and have a chat, my number is area code 859 CALLME!): I need DeBeers. Through their intense marketing campaign, diamonds skyrocketed in popularity and have become the go-to choice for symbolic romantic jewelry in the United States. The story of this colorless gem is far more colorful (ha! Word play!) than I first expected.

The story of diamonds starts about 3 billion years ago, when the earth looked nothing like how it looks now. Don’t worry, I’ll give you the short version. Basically put, your average natural (aka not synthetic) diamond is old as balls. If your jewelry had eyes, it’d have borne witness to evolution, the dinosaurs, Shakespeare, and the disco craze.

Diamonds require three things to form: carbon, high temperatures (but not too high), and high pressure. Diamonds form about 130-150 KM below the surface of the earth in the earth’s mantle, and are usually carried to the surface of the earth in magma. The magma pipes that once fed small volcanoes are your best bet for finding diamonds.

Diamond and graphite with their structures. Infographic made by wiki user ltub.

I haven’t even gotten to the good part yet: the atoms of carbon that make up the diamond have a very specific cubical structure.  Diamonds are entirely made of carbon ““ they’re the most dense pure carbon out there ““ and with their unique structure, it is very hard for other elements to elbow their way in to the chemical structure. Sometimes, diamonds will have boron or nitrogen inclusions, but these are rare.

And exciting! Boron inclusions give diamonds a rare and sought after blue color (think: Hope Diamond), while nitrogen will give the diamond a pretty yellow color (think JLo’s canary yellow engagement ring). Colored diamonds, like blue, pink, deep yellow, etc., are, I am serious, called “fancy” by the diamond industry. While colorless diamonds are prized above slightly colored diamonds, vibrant colored diamonds are prized most of all. They fancy, huh.

Photograph of brown diamonds on display at the National Museum of Natural History, by Jorfer

And while we’re on the topic of colors, brown diamonds are the result of issues in the diamond formation process that lead to not-quite-cubical atomic structure. These diamonds used to be used exclusively for industrial purposes until an Australian diamond mine got clever in the 1980s and started selling chocolate, champagne, and cognac colored diamonds for jewelry (the names sound delicious).

But that’s not the only thing about the chemical structure that’s interesting (who thought they’d ever read that sentence, all due respect to the chemists in the house). Graphite and diamonds are both made from pure carbon. Yes, graphite, the stuff that’s used in pencils, is made of the exact same thing as diamonds. However, because graphite isn’t made under the same temperature and pressure conditions as diamonds, it has a different chemical structure: the carbon atoms are arranged in sheets, not cubes. On the surface of the earth, graphite is actually more stable than diamonds and so all diamonds on the earth’s surface are currently very slowly turning into graphite (the converse would be true, too ““ bury some graphite at 150 KM below the earth’s surface and wait and you’ll get a diamond). This process is extremely, extremely slow, so don’t worry about your antique jewelry just yet. If you want graphite fast, set your diamonds on fire and you’ll very quickly have the most expensive pencil lead money can buy.

Darya-ye Noor Diamond, part of the crown jewels of Iran, is a gigantic pink diamond. Picture from wiki user Siroos777.

The shine and sparkle of diamonds has always made them popular in jewelry. Heck, the first known diamond engagement ring was given to Mary of Burgundy by Archduke Maximillian in 1477. The durability of the stone (diamonds rate a 10 on the Mohs hardness scale, making them as hard as they come ““ hard as nails, hard as True Blood’s Alcide’s abs”¦ I am getting carried away) makes it perfect for day-to-day wear. The mythology surrounding diamonds, which dates back to Rome and early India (the place the first diamonds were found), suggests that the gem works as a protector against evil spirits and insanity, make it a good choice for an engagement ring. But it wasn’t until DeBeers butted in that diamonds really took off in the fashion market.

The reason for this is twofold, really. First, DeBeers, founded by British colonialist Cecil Rhodes in 1888, found a lot of diamonds in South Africa. Diamonds were finally able to be mined, polished, and sold at quantities large enough for the common person (aka not an Archduke) to purchase. Second, DeBeers was able to create a hell of a marketing campaign: a diamond is forever. Because for the longest time, until the mid-2000s when U.S., Canadian, and Russian diamond mines went their own way, DeBeers basically had a monopoly on diamond production (at one point, DeBeers controlled 90% of rough diamonds ““ there was a time when the U.S. tried to Sherman Anti-Trust the fuck out of them, but without any holdings on U.S. soil, DeBeers was untouchable), they were able to launch a brand-neutral ad campaign, focusing instead on making diamonds The Thing rather than hyping their company. When you own that much of the market, any ad for the product will be a de facto ad for you. Before DeBeers, diamonds were used in jewelry ““ it’s an attractive, extremely shiny gem that’s hard as nails and old as balls, so why wouldn’t people like it? But after DeBeers, diamonds became The It Gem.

Since I mention DeBeers, I have to mention the human rights issues tied to diamonds. Conflict or blood diamonds (diamonds which are sold illegally to get money to finance war and/or warlords in conflict-torn African nations) are a big problem. There are certain safeguards in place, such as the Kimberly Process, established in 2003, which tries to make diamond buying a more transparent process, but even with that, an estimated 2-3% of all diamonds on the market are blood diamonds. It is absolutely possible to get diamonds that aren’t blood diamonds, but there’s still a long way to go before all diamonds sold are conflict-free.

4 replies on “Diamonds are Forever”

Irecently visited the richest diamond mine in the world (Jwaneng mine, Botswana), and it did make me a bit more interested in diamonds. While I know there are going to be ethical issues with any mining, Botswana doesn’t have issues with blood diamonds, and the money from the diamonds has transformed the country very quickly from one of the poorest countries in the world to a middle-income country, as well as allowed the government to pay for education and health care.

This was definitely interesting, and I didn’t know all that about the structure of diamonds. I was told that color in diamonds tends to be only on the surface and will disappear with cutting, but I don’t understand how that works, exactly.

It’s pretty amazing how much people will pay for shiny stones. I don’t think I’d care whether I had real diamonds or not (I really like some of the cheaper stones that look like diamonds, and I think synthetic diamonds sound like a great idea), but I know it’s really important to some people.

Thank you for sharing your experience, too! Botswana is a unique situation because the government owns shares in DeBeers and so gets some benefit from the company pulling in a good profit. Unfortunately, there are some issues with the forced displacement of Bushmen by diamond mining, an issue that I am hoping to explore in more depth. It seems that diamond mining can be a bit of a double-edged sword in many cases.

There are a ton of interesting diamond substitutes, some synthetic, some natural. It’s all a matter of taste what someone goes with, and I have to say, some of the alternatives are super cool in their own right.

This is awesome, and actually very useful. I didn’t know much about the chemical properties of diamonds previous to this and it’s a great run-down for non-scientists like myself.

I live in Yellowknife, NT – “North America’s Diamond Capital.” Diamonds adorn our official city stationary, signs, and buses. That being said, you don’t see a lot of diamonds sold in town. You certainly can’t get them cheaper here than other places. However, all Canadian diamonds come from either the Ekati or Diavik mines right outside of town. In response to the Kimberly Process, many Canadian diamonds come with a tracking number that will allow you to see the route the diamond took. IF you’re lucky, you can trace it back right to the mine. Although there are (I think) some existing land claims issues with local First Nations groups and the mines, both mining companies, BHP Billiton (Ekati Mine) in particular, have given huge amounts of money to this city for very worthy causes. If you want a diamond that is as conflict free as possible, plus was made in decent working conditions, Canadian is the way to go.

(I swear I don’t work in the industry. It’s just that diamonds are the only thing this town has going for it.)

Thank you so much for your comment! It’s cool to hear from someone who lives near Canada’s diamond mines. What you’re saying echoes everything I’ve read on the subject – if you want conflict-free diamonds, Canadian diamonds are a great choice.

One thing I didn’t get into in the post because it is an issue that transcends diamonds and affects all sorts of mining productions is the problem with land claims, and general mining practices. I am still in the early research stages on those issues, but they are super important and very complicated. I am hoping to read and hear more about it, though.

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