Diamonds: Shine on – Even the ring finger cannot escape the effects of technological change (The Economist – July 2, 2016)

BY ANY standards, the journey taken by the Lesedi La Rona, an enormous rough diamond on auction in London this week, has been epic. The stone was forged 2.5 billion years ago in molten rocks hundreds of kilometres beneath the Earth’s surface, then thrust up out of the planet’s mantle by volcanic eruptions.

There, the diamond lay for millennia, while humans evolved, nation-states formed and technologies developed, until it was unearthed last year by miners in Botswana. The vastness of time and the power of nature give diamonds their mystique. But they could not stop the auction from flopping (see article). And they cannot protect the industry from a trio of forces that are upending businesses everywhere.

One is new technology. Synthetic diamonds can be made in laboratories, using either large presses to simulate the pressures and temperatures experienced deep underground, or a process called chemical vapour deposition to grow diamonds as carbon atoms settle on top of each other.

Such man-made stones are virtually indistinguishable from the natural sort. They already dominate the market for industrial use; as technology improves and costs decline, they will become more competitive in the jewellery market, too.

That process will be helped by the second force, the rising power of the socially aware consumer. In 2003 the diamond industry responded to concerns that sales of illicit stones were being used to finance warfare in Africa by launching the Kimberley Process certification scheme.

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