Perhaps earth's most storied gem, diamonds have been prized for centuries for their brilliance, extreme hardness and romantic cachet.
First set as an engagement ring by Archduke Maximilian of Austria for Mary of Burgundy in 1477, diamonds have remained symbols of everlasting love and status for more than 500 years, an industry fact sheet notes.
But there is also an ugly side to diamonds: The "conflict diamond" trade has reportedly financed rebel and terrorist groups; ethical issues have been raised due to the industry's use of child labor and poor working conditions among miners; and mining has devastated the environment and river ecosystems, according to greenKarat, an online business selling certified "green" gold and synthetic diamond jewelry.
Anyone wanting to sport that sparkling bauble but not wanting blood on their hands had little way out except to pointedly shun Earth's most alluring gem.
But cultured diamonds, with a brilliance, hardness and fire indistinguishable from their mined counterparts, now offer alternatives, eliminating the ethical issues surrounding diamond mining, some industry gemologists say.
They're not talking about cubic zirconia or Moissanite, which are made to look like diamonds -- these sparklers are the real thing.
"Lab-grown stones are chemically, physically and optically the same as a mined diamond. It will stand up the same. It's a matter of where it is born," said Rick Velayo, president-elect of the California Jewelers Association and manager of Gleim Jewelers' University Avenue store in Palo Alto.
While there are some differences, including the number and type of inclusions between mined diamonds and synthetics (synthetics have fewer), most can't be detected without sophisticated equipment, Velayo said.
Gleim doesn't carry any synthetic gems, preferring to stick with stones of known provenance and a natural pedigree, he said. Pure "white" or colorless diamonds aren't yet available, but the technology will probably improve, he added.
Apollo Diamond, Inc., a Boston-based manufacturer of cultured diamonds, has been focusing on white (colorless) or near-colorless diamonds. The company's diamonds are 30 percent less expensive than their mined diamond counterparts, according to Daina Cardillo, a public relations spokesperson for the company. Detractors say that they aren't entirely colorless, but the company is planning a Web-based store in the first half of 2006, and consumers will have a chance to see for themselves how the stones match up.
Most cultured diamonds are indeed colored --- a boon to fans of the very rare colored natural diamonds, which can cost many thousands of dollars. Colored diamond manufacturer Gemesis offers the diamonds at a nearly 75 percent savings over the cost of mined colored diamonds, according to its Web site.
Chatham Created Gems and Diamonds, a San Francisco-based company that is known for bringing cultured emeralds and other colored gems to the market, and Gemesis make pink, yellow and blue diamonds in a variety of intensities, with a natural diamond's brilliance.
In a lab, the culturing process can take anywhere from 4.5 days to two weeks to produce a one- to three-carat rough diamond, depending on the company.
The diamonds are made by subjecting carbon to the same kinds of heat and pressure that takes place deep within the earth to create diamonds, according to manufacturer Chatham.
Apollo subjects a tiny "seed" diamond to a chemical-vapor process. The diamond seeds are placed in a vacuum and carbon is inserted into the chamber. The diamond grows on top of the seed. When the seed diamond is shaved off, the resulting diamond is nearly flawless, Cardillo said.
Cultured diamonds aren't yet available through most local jewelers, but can be found online through the manufacturers and at sites such as eco-jeweler greenCarat, which carries fair trade gold and gemstones, and jewelry made from recycled gold. Some manufacturers also list a select group of retailers who carry their products.
Some people may be leery about purchasing cultured diamonds, fearing they may be sold as the more expensive mined product by unscrupulous dealers, Cardillo said. But each of Apollo's diamonds will be microscopically laser-etched with an identifying serial number, and each will come with a certificate authenticating its grade, Cardillo said.
The natural diamond cartel has had a tenacious hold on the industry, with its "diamonds-are-forever," symbols of everlasting love cachet. Cultured diamonds may translate to meaning diamonds aren't special anymore.
Will brides bite?
"I think there will be a niche, like the cultured pearl. It will be complementary to the mined diamond, Cardillo said. Brides have been responding favorably, she added. "Most inquiries have been from brides."