All over the world, people think of diamond as a natural product, mined from the earth. But that’s not the complete picture. Diamond can also be grown in a lab, where the natural process that leads to diamond can be simulated. Madestones, established in the centre of the Antwerp diamond district, is the European market leader in a laboratory-grown diamond.
Thierry Silber, the founder of Madestones, also plays a leading role in the family company, Diamaz International. “Our family company has a long history in the natural polished diamond trade. I belong to the third generation in Diamaz International. I started as a diamond cutter in 1978 and continued to cut and polish diamonds for two years. It’s an experience that gave me a thorough knowledge of the product.”
Armed with this knowledge, Thierry Silber nurtured the growth of the company. “We were very active in the Soviet Union. I departed to Russia for the first time in the eighties. Those were good years for us until the financial crisis struck in 2008. All of a sudden, prices dropped by 50%. Russia decided not to trade a single rough diamond for a year. We had no other choice than to put an end to our operations in Russia.”
The financial crisis gave Thierry Silber pause for thought. “Consumers started to spend their money more carefully. I wondered how the diamond industry could respond to this change. Then I got in touch with an American company that produced a laboratory-grown diamond. I was intrigued right away.” Thierry Silber flew to the United States and was impressed with what he saw there. “I knew synthetic diamond for industrial use was already in production for quite a long time. But laboratory-grown diamonds for jewellery? That was something new. Right from the start, I saw the possibilities for designers and jewellers. I acquired exclusivity for Europe and got on board.”
There are two prevailing methods to produce a laboratory-grown diamond. Thierry Silber: “A laboratory-grown diamond starts with what we call a diamond seed: a tiny piece of laboratory-grown diamond. To make the seed grow into a rough diamond, our production units employ one of two technologies: HPHT (high pressure, high temperature) and CVD (chemical vapour disposition).”
The oldest and still widely used technology is HPHT. Thierry Silber: “HPHT works with a diamond seed to which carbon is added. Under high pressure and at high temperatures, the carbon melts and adheres to the diamond seed. The seed then starts to grow, atom by atom. After three to four weeks, a rough diamond emerges, ready to be cut and polished like a natural diamond.”
CVD is a more recent technology. Thierry Silber: “CVD uses a tiny slice of laboratory-grown diamond and hydrocarbon gas. The slices are inserted in a metal chamber, which is filled with hydrocarbon gases. Then the carbon is extracted from the gases and a cloud of plasma is formed. The carbon particles adhere to the diamond slice like snowflakes falling on the roof of a car.”
You can tell which technology was used to produce a laboratory-grown diamond by examining the structure of the atoms. Thierry Silber: “In a CVD diamond, you will notice the layers in the structure of the diamond. In an HPHT diamond, you can see the symmetry of the atoms. In both cases, you can perceive a structure that you will never find in a natural diamond. The difference is easily detected in a lab.”
Are laboratory-grown diamonds considered to be real diamonds? Thierry Silber: “Their provenance differs, but the actual matter has the same properties. You can compare it to ice that occurs in nature when the temperature drops below zero, and ice that occurs in our freezer at home. The ice is the same, only the place of origin is different.
Madestones is the European market leader in the laboratory-grown diamond trade. but the company doesn’t have a production facility of its own. Thierry Silber: “We are probably the only company in the world that can offer the full range of laboratory-grown diamonds. That’s why we work with four production units. Each unit has its speciality: blue diamonds, yellow and pink diamonds, small white diamonds or large white diamonds. The production units are located in the United States, Russia, China, and India.”
Technology and innovation
Thierry Silber believes in the power of technology and innovation. “Where other industries embrace technology to innovate and to move forward, the diamond industry is conservative by nature. When I started trading synthetic diamonds in 2009, in a pioneering role, I encountered a lot of resistance. I get a great deal more respect today.”
Madestones’ future looks bright. Thierry Silber: “It takes a great deal of time and money to introduce a new product and build a brand. Today, the market is booming and we’re reaping the rewards of our efforts. Two years ago, laboratory-grown diamond represented about 1% of the worldwide diamond market. Currently, its market share amounts to 3 to 4%.”
Antwerp has every interest in safeguarding and reinforcing its position as the world capital of diamond, be it natural or laboratory-grown. Thierry Silber: “I love the diamond trade, I love my city and I want the best for the diamond industry in Antwerp. Traders in natural and laboratory-grown diamond should work together to increase the diamond industry’s share in the market for luxury products. Laboratory-grown diamond is catching on. But it could never have become the success story it is today without natural diamond.”