Lab or mined diamond: Why jewelers can't tell the difference

While summer is the season of weddings, winter is the season of proposals.

A News 13 investigation found there's more to consider than the cut and clarity when ring shopping.

Consumers have a choice, whether they want a diamond mined from deep in the earth or one grown in a lab.

Lab diamonds are touted as socially and environmentally friendly. They’re made of the same compounds as a mined diamond, in a fraction of the time, and our investigation found most local jewelers can’t tell a lab diamond from a mined one.

There’s a lab in Greenville, South Carolina, making these stones, and News 13 is taking you inside the process.

“All of our friends sort of use our relationship as a bar, you know what I mean,” Patrick Foley said from John Laughter Jewelry.

With those high expectations, you'd think Foley might be nervous, instead he’s certain.

“I've been kind of feeling like it's time to start asking the questions for a couple of months now, and we talked about rings maybe eight months ago,” Foley said.

Casual hints help with what to rule out.

“She's not really a fan of diamonds because of kind of the negative stigma around them and stuff like that,” Foley said.

He's been working with John Laughter Jewelers for an alternative.

“I carried this beam all the way up,” Grant Laughter explained, as he showed Foley plans for the special ring they’re designing.

“I didn't just pick her out of a set up. It's very much, she's special to me, I'm special to her, we're a unique couple,” Foley said.

And a unique couple necessitates a unique stone.

“This is the laboratory created alexandrite,” Laughter explained as he showed Foley several choices.

The other is a purple sapphire, representing her birthstone, which is actually an amethyst, but that’s a softer stone and may not hold up over time. Because he wants the ring to last a lifetime, they’ve made a small adjustment.

“It's very nontraditional, and I think that's also true of her, as well,” said Foley.

Nontraditional lab created gems, including diamonds, are gaining ground.

“As a gem, it's identical,” SCIODiamond CEO and President Jerry McGuire said.

What you may not know is SCIODiamond in Greenville, South Carolina, is one of the few labs in the U.S. growing diamonds.

Just like a relationship, McGuire said, it starts with a seed.

“It's the exact same chemistry as what you dig out of the earth."

Through chemical vapor deposition, just like love, the process throws off lightning-like sparks.

“There you go, the plasma just lit,” McGuire said.

Using intense heat versus the earth's pressure, the diamond crystal grows.

“It's as hot as the sun. We basically have very pure carbon rich gases excited to this high energy state called a plasma, and then we push the atoms down onto the seed and grow a crystal,” McGuire said.

After a month, the one to two carat rough diamond is cut with a laser, polished and set off to be cut into the desired shape and sold.

“Frankly, they're actually more rare, than mined diamonds, so there's an argument that they should be more,” McGuire said.

Lab created diamonds, however, traditionally cost 20 to 25 percent less when sold. The FTC requires jewelers disclose if what you're buying is lab-created, cultured, man-made or synthetic.

“We're quite proud of what we do here in Greenville, South Carolina, and we want people to know it is lab-grown,” McGuire said.

The danger, jeweler Andy Marthaler warns, is not everyone is as honest.

“Unfortunately, anything with extreme value, people are going to find ways to cut corners and really take advantage of people,” Marthaler said.

While testing stones, the International Gemological Institute in Antwerp uncovered hundreds of lab-created stones mixed in with natural diamonds in 2012. It's called peppering, and it’s done to drive up lab-created stones' values.

“At a store level, it's going to be almost impossible to tell, so we have to put safeguards in place from our manufacturers and our diamond cutters,” Marthaler said.

Diamond growers, like SCIO, are labeling the stones with special technology.

“When you get a diamond certified, it would get certified as a lab-created diamond and it would get marked on the girdle of the diamond,” McGuire said.

Others ...

“What safeguards do you have from a dot-com? You're not going to have the same. They're not going to have the same safeguards put in place like somebody, like myself with a reputation and a business, is going to go through,” said Marthaler.

Marthaler also cautions consumers about products bought at gem shows.

While Marthaler Jewelers has opted not to sell lab-created gems, back at John Laughter Jewelry ...

“I put the lab created alexandrite on top and the purple sapphire underneath,” Laughter explained.

Customers, including Foley, are requesting lab-created stones for their eco-friendly, economic advantages.

The lab-created alexandrite gives Foley an opportunity to create a ring without equal, a ring that’s now cast in wax.

“It's very pretty. And I like the cut of the stones. They're rounder on the bottom than I was imagining, but that makes, I like it,” Foley said.

Paying off and raising that relationship bar, these two set, just a little higher.

“I can't wait to see her reaction,” Foley said.

Jewelers said it all comes down to doing your homework.

The GIA, or Gemological Institute of America, calls itself the foremost authority on diamonds, colored stones and pearls. It's a nonprofit institute and a source for knowledge, standards and education in gems.

Jewelers recommend asking a jeweler to see the paperwork, or the diamond's certificate. If it's lab created, it should be marked on the certificate. In the same breath, they said paperwork is easily forged, after all it's just paper. That's why it's important to build a relationship with a jeweler and shop with those you feel most comfortable with.

You can find GIA's quality assurance benchmarks here.

You can check to see if your jeweler subscribes to the GIA's standards here, although it is a voluntary process and not all jewelers may agree for their information to be published.

Click here if you want more information on SCIODiamond.

If you want more information from John Laughter Jewelry or Marthaler Jewelers, click on their names for links to their websites.

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