The history of synthetic diamonds began with curiosity. Ever since we discovered the chemical composition of diamonds in 1797, humanity was fascinated with the idea of synthesizing its own pure carbon gem. Aside from its beauty, diamonds have many practical uses, and the ability to make your own from scratch seems like a dream come true. Brilliant chemists tried for years to come up with a way to do it, but for a long time it seemed like an impossible task.
It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that attempts to make synthetic diamonds started to pick up some steam. James Ballantyne Hannay was the first person to claim success in creating a synthetic diamond in 1880. His method involved heating up an iron tube to extremely high temperatures using coal. The combination of heat and pressure would force the contents inside to crush itself into diamonds. While the samples he brought to the public were indeed diamonds, scientists later showed that they were actually natural diamonds – not made from his experiment at all.
The next scientist in the race to make synthetic diamonds was Henri Moissan. Moissan used a system very similar to Hannay’s, but instead of heating up the iron using coal, he used something called an electric arc furnace – something he invented himself. Reports vary as to the success of his experiments. Over the years, other scientists tried to duplicate his results. A few claimed success, others initially claimed success then took back their claim, but most failed on the attempt.
The struggle to find a reproducible, reliable system for making synthetic diamonds continued for half a century. Then, in 1941, General Electric changed the history of synthetic diamonds when it announced plans produce their own. It seemed unachievable at the time – and it wasn’t until over a decade later that GE finally realized its goal. The GE team produced synthetic diamonds multiple times throughout the research process, but it wasn’t until early 1955 that they finally announced a reproducible, commercially viable synthetic diamond.
They made the diamond using a method called the HPHT (High Pressure High Temperature) process. They placed a combination of metal and carbon into a chamber , then applied over a million pounds of pressure per square inch at a temperature of over 2,700 degrees celsius! The process took about 20 minutes. When it was over, the chamber had successfully combined and compressed the materials inside. The first commercial synthetic diamond was born!
Or was it?
At least, that’s what everyone thought. Decades later, the world found learned about another story. Turns out, Swedish electrical manufacturing company ASEA had also conducted experiments to create synthetic diamonds. They used a similar method that GE used, following the HPHT process, and finally managed to create their own synthetic diamonds – in 1953. Despite this success, for some reason ASEA didn’t make their diamonds commercially available, and kept their discovery a secret.
Synthetic Diamonds Today
Although the diamonds created in these early experiments were small and darkly colored, they were great for things other than jewelry! These early synthetic diamonds were perfect for industrial use, and companies mass-produced them for many different needs. As time went on, the methods discovered in the 1950s were improved. Diamonds could be made larger, clearer, and with less imperfections. The Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD) process, which I have talked about before, was excellent for making jewel-quality gems. Today, we make synthetic diamonds in all shapes, sizes, and colors. We use synthetic diamonds to coat drill bits, make parts for electronics, fashion engagement rings, and much, much more. We’re still curious about what else we can do with them, though, and the work goes on to improve how we make them. We have great minds to thank for technology today, and the future of synthetic diamonds is looking very bright.