Jewelers can't even tell the difference unless they have a $50,000 machine. http://moneycentral.msn.com/content/SavingandDebt/P97816.asp DollarWise Man-made diamonds: a girl's new best friend? No, not cubic zirconia. Real gem-quality diamonds grown in labs are now entering the market -- and are much cheaper than natural stones. By Jennifer Mulrean Most people are all too familiar with having champagne tastes on a beer budget. But when it comes to diamonds, you may be able to have it both ways. That's because gem-quality diamonds are now being grown in laboratories in places like Sarasota, Fla., and Boston. Forget cubic zirconia and Moissanite, which are made to pass as diamonds. Lab-grown stones are the real deal. And instead of the millions of years it takes to create natural diamonds, they're grown by man in a matter of days. "We've essentially recreated the same conditions that occur hundreds of miles below the surface," says David Hellier, president of Gemesis, the Florida company that specializes in growing colored diamonds. "After about four and a half days, we get a three-carat rough diamond. From that day forward, there's no difference between that diamond and one that comes from the ground." Even the Gemological Institute of America, the foremost diamond research and grading body, acknowledges that these are diamonds. "To say it's not diamond is really false," says William Boyajian, gemologist and GIA president. "It's just man-made diamond." Truth be told, General Electric has been producing synthetic diamonds for industrial purposes for years. But until recently, creating gem-quality colorless or near-colorless diamonds that were big enough to cut was a thing of fantasy. How much will you save? So, does this mean you can run to your neighborhood jeweler and save a bundle by opting for a man-made diamond? Not quite. They're just becoming available and as such are still a tiny part of the diamond market. "You could go into 1,000 stores and the jeweler probably wouldn't have one and may not have ever seen one," says Boyajian. You'll have to wait until sometime in 2005 to buy one from Apollo Diamond. The Massachusetts company specializes in the harder-to-grow colorless and near-colorless stones, though it will also offer some colored diamonds, as well. But you can find retailers selling Gemesis diamonds with a simple Web search or by going to the Gemesis site and clicking on its page of authorized retailers. Gemesis president Hellier says these diamonds, though colored, typically cost what you'd pay for a comparable natural white diamond. Because colored diamonds are so much more rare in nature, this generally amounts to a savings of 75%-80%. For example, this 1.36-carat vivid yellow natural diamond sells at IceStore.com for more than $22,000. But a similar, cultured diamond from Gemesis would cost closer to $6,800, and Hellier notes it would have more intense color saturation. Consumers "can have the bling they see on the stars but at a fraction of the cost," Hellier says. Remember JLo's pink diamond engagement ring? Gemesis mostly sells yellow and orange diamonds, but is starting to offer pinks and limited quantities of blues as well. Apollo's president and CEO Bryant Linares says a good estimate for what consumers will pay "is probably 30% less than mined diamonds." Cost-conscious consumers aren't the only ones who will want to pay attention. Because these diamonds can be color- and size-matched, Hellier notes that designers will be able to create jewelry that would have been impossible or prohibitively expensive with mined diamonds. Finally, conscientious objectors to natural diamonds can now have the real thing without worrying about supporting warlords or plundering the earth. 'Cultured' or 'synthetic' You'll probably hear these stones referred to as both "cultured" and "synthetic" diamonds. Don't be confused by the propaganda wars -- both terms describe the same thing. The diamond growers, such as Apollo and Gemesis, understandably prefer "cultured" for consumers' familiarity with the term from the pearl market. But the GIA prefers to refer to the diamonds as "synthetics," reserving "cultured" for organic materials. Whatever you call them, everyone seems to agree that they have the same chemical, physical and optical qualities of mined diamonds. There are some differences to be aware of, however. Among them: * Most of the lab-grown diamonds are one carat or smaller, though you can get stones up to 2 carats from Gemesis. * Colorless stones are more rare in synthetics than in nature, whereas colored stones are more rare among natural diamonds. You also won't be able to get a GIA grading of these stones -- a certificate that includes its "4 Cs" (cut, clarity, carat weight and color) -- though the GIA will offer an identification report that discloses that it's synthetic and lists its carat weight, measurements and transparency, among other things. However, other labs such as the European Gemological Laboratory U.S.A. can grade the stones for you. Grading is generally reserved for larger diamonds, which make up the smallest percentage of the market, and is generally important if you want to resell your diamond. The synthetic diamonds also have some differences that only a jeweler would be able to discern, such as different growth patterns and a lack of inclusions -- those bits of minerals that are enclosed in a natural diamond as it's formed beneath the earth's surface. Because inclusions are regarded as flaws, a lack of inclusions is actually a good thing. Can they be identified as man-made? Even to the trained, albeit naked, eye these diamonds look like the usual mined variety. "The material is beautiful," says the GIA's Boyajian. "You can't tell visually a synthetic from a natural diamond." Put them under a loupe (jeweler's magnifying tool), though, and a trained jeweler will likely suspect they're looking at a synthetic. "The average gemologist will at least know enough to check with a more sophisticated lab," Boyajian says. This proved true when I brought a few Apollo diamonds in to appraiser Ted Irwin of the Northwest Gemological Laboratory in Bellevue, Wash. I gave him no information on the stones' origins, but when I returned to his lab to retrieve his report I found him wary but not certain about what he was looking at. The green one, in particular, set off his alarms for its lack of inclusions. Combined with the stone's unusual color -- green diamonds are especially rare in nature -- and cut, Irwin alerted me to the fact that people were now synthesizing diamonds. Did I know anything about where the stones came from, he wondered. Once I told him that the diamonds were in fact synthetic, he noted that he'd thought so. But proving it would be time consuming. It could also be costly. The GIA is selling two machines, developed by natural diamond cartel De Beers, specifically designed to test for synthetics -- one for just over $10,000 and the other for closer to $50,000 -- to jewelers and labs. That's one way the natural diamond industry is reacting to the emergence of these lower-cost stones. But Linares and Hellier say their goal is not to pass off their diamonds as mined ones. Both say full disclosure is absolutely critical to ensuring consumers' confidence in diamonds of all types. To that end, Gemesis is laser-inscribing all its diamonds and has put trace amounts of nickel in its stones to make identification easier. Apollo hasn't yet determined whether it will inscribe stones, but will at minimum rely on documentation and authorized distributors for full disclosure. And they're both adamant that a complementary market is out there. "It's not a question of either/or -- you can have both," Linares says. "You can have an engagement ring that's a mined diamond if you want and a tennis bracelet and earrings of cultured diamonds." Sounds good to me.