Updated 18 February 2021
Diamonds are seriously quirky. They're nothing like the shining thing that dots Uncle Scrooge's vast treasure vaults. They're not always diamond shaped, they're not always crystal clear (hello salt and pepper diamonds), and they're not even always the same color!
Have you met your first blue diamond yet? If you can't remember, you probably haven't. Because these babies are super memorable.
But first! Let's be clear. Blue diamonds are real.
Since the supply is so limited and the demand has skyrocketed, most blue diamonds on the market have been color enhanced. Does it make them fake? Absolutely not! They're as real as can be, they've just gone through a quick makeover.
Color treatments are deeply connected with diamonds, with the first treatment going as far back as 1904. A curious Sir Crookes wanted to find out what radiation does to the color of a diamond. He used radium salts to slowly turn the classic clear diamond into a dark green. As it was only an experiment, it wasn't perfect. The green only showed as blotchy patches, and the color didn't pass the surface of the stone.
Today’s technical advancements make it easy and affordable to enhance or even completely change color in diamonds. They're the preferred alternative as the prices for natural blue diamonds are off the charts for most folks (and hard to come by).
If you’re skeptical about the authenticity of these mermaid colored stones, or you simply want to know more about how they get to have such a wicked color, we have the answers to your burning blue diamond questions.
The traditional white (or technically colorless) diamonds that we’re most familiar with, are created by nature’s longer-term wizardry process, involving super-heated, highly pressurized carbon molecules close to the Earth’s core. Nature also makes green and blue colored diamonds by exposing them to radiation deep down under the Earth’s surface.
This radiation is what changes the position of the atoms within a diamond’s crystal structure, which affects the color.
Irradiation is the fancy word for exposing a stone to radiation.
Modern day irradiation processes has revolutionized color treatments for gemstones.
There are four processes to change a diamond’s color through irradiation; cyclotron, gamma rays, electron, or neutron bombardment.
In 1942, scientists at the University of Michigan put some diamonds in a cyclotron (a type of partile accelarator) and bombarded them with heavy radiation of protons and deuterons to turn regular diamonds into vivid green stones.
After a short quarantine period to get rid of any leftover radioactiveness, the world had its first safe to wear artificially colored diamonds!
The color from cyclotroned treated diamonds were uneven and depended largely on the direction of the treatment. This method is rare nowadays.
Gamma ray treatment through exposure to cobalt-60 produces a blue to blue-green color that penetrates the entire stone.
Even though it's the cheapest and safest method of irradiating diamonds, it's also the longest, and can last for several months. This method is quite uncommon these days.
Scientist have refined the irradiation to a process that’s more common today, by blasting diamonds with high-energy neutrons or electrons. These modern processes are safer and bring out the most vivid and even colors.
A bombardement of neutrons from a reactor are ‘fired’ at the diamond. It gives a deep color, as the beam penetrates the entire stone.
The diamond is penetrated about 1 millimeter deep, while it’s exposed to tiny high-energy electrons.
Scientists and diamond nerds have tried to copy this process from nature for over a century. Color enhanced diamonds are real diamonds exposed to similar radiation, but over a shorter period of a time, in a lab. The radiation can enhance, change, or brighten stones to all sorts of colors like pink, blue, green, yellow, red purple and orange. So color treated diamonds are not grown in a lab, just treated. Think of it like dying your hair pink or blue. It’s still your real hair.
Color treated diamonds tend to start their life as diamonds with 'undesirable' colors, like pale yellows or browns. They are either dramatically enhanced (e.g. from a pale yellow to vivid yellow) or changed completely.
Irradiated diamonds are not lab created, they're natural and real diamonds
After a purely experimental phase of changing diamond colors in the early 1940s, diamonds colored using irradiation flooded the market in the 1950s. As there was no simple test to distinguish hues created in nature from those changed in a lab, the market for colored diamonds crashed. Nowadays, a simple test using spectroscopes can tell natural from irradiated diamonds (each shows different spectra, or light absorption characteristics).
Irradiation is non-nuclear and leaves no kind of residual radiation behind. The color change is permanent, stable and irreversible under normal wear and tear.
The color is not affected by chemicals, ultrasonic cleaners, steam cleaning or polishing. Only when exposed to extremely high temperatures - like the 500 to 900 degrees Celsius fire blowing out of a jeweler's torch - blue and green colored diamonds may fade or even turn yellow.
Under normal circumstances, your diamond wouldn’t come in touch with such high temperatures. So this is only relevant when you’re taking your ring in for its annual checkup like prong repairs, resizing, cleaning or any other service.
Please be sure to tell your jeweler if your diamond has been irradiated. Your jeweler will know to take the appropriate precautions. Natural colored diamonds on the other hand are unaffected by heat.
Because this process is permanent, the GIA will grade and certify irradiated diamonds and can also laser inscribe the diamond to notify any potential buyer the diamond has been irradiated.
Out of all of the gemstone treatments currently on the market, irradiation is the one treatment that always raises questions. When the words 'irradiation' are whispered, the first thing that springs to mind is, ‘is it safe’? The good news is: yes it is!
All diamonds have been exposed to natural radiation over the millennia before man unearthed them, so technically all colored diamonds have been irradiated. And this exposure doesn't make them radioactive.
Irradiation changes a diamond’s color and it's the only diamond treatment that exists in nature as well as in laboratory conditions.
Radiation is measured by millirem or Radiation Absorbance Dose. The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) did a comparison of a large 6 carat blue topaz stone (blue topaz is another gemstone that is commonly irradiated to obtain its blue color) against other common forms of exposure. Activities like an intercontinental flight or watching TV also expose you to certain levels of radiation.
A dose of wearing a blue topaz for one year = 0.03 millerem
Wearing porcelain crown or false teeth for one year = 0.07 millerem
Chest X-ray = 60 millerem (2000x that of topaz)
Blue diamonds are safer to wear than a porcelain crown
Most irradiated diamonds have a very particular coloring to them that can be easy to spot once you've seen enough of them. You can look for certain terms used to describe them;'irradiated diamonds' will always be used on official trade documentation and diamond grading reports. The terms'color enhanced' and'treated for color'are more widely used in the market.
With regard to irradiated stones, your jeweler should tell you whether the gemstone you’re looking at has been treated. This is really important, as treated gems may need special care. It may also significantly affect the value of the gemstone. All irradiated diamonds should have a full disclosure and must be presented as being color enhanced.
What else do you need to know about blue diamonds?
Blue, black, green and yellow are the most popular colors produced using the irradiation process. Orange, red, purple and pink colors are also possible, but more difficult to produce.
The overall clarity or imperfections of irradiated diamonds won't change with irradiation, but it can hide or disguise certain imperfections. Pretty much the same way a blue dress won’t look stained as easily as a virgin white dress. Irradiation may be followed by a high pressure, high temperature treatment to improve the stone’s clarity.
Advanced technology has enabled the jewelry industry to improve the visual appearance of lower grade diamonds by the process of laser drilling or fracture filling. This practice is referred to as 'clarity enhanced'.
Laser drilling, and fracture filling treatments in diamonds are considered to be huge alterations. So much so, they're no longer considered natural diamonds.
Will the value of the diamond change after enhancements? The value of a treated blue diamond is much lower (several 0’s less) when measured against a comparable untreated stone, just because it’s a lot faster and with higher certaintiy to get this blue color in a lab than it is to wait for nature to perform one of its rare tricks.
Of course diamonds wouldn’t be color enhanced if it didn’t make them more appealing and desirable, and thus sellable. However, they are priced lower than a naturally occuring colored diamond or a less included diamond.
Color enhanced blue diamonds are probably the only blue diamonds us common folks can afford. Yet, these diamonds shouldn't be considered an investment in the same way a natural blue diamond would. So buy the diamond because you love it, not because you think you can sell it for a profit later.
Buy the diamond because you love it, not as an investment
So to sum it up, irradiated diamonds are not lab created. They're natural and real diamonds. They've been treated using radioactivity, and are safer to wear than a porcelain crown.
We don't have a lot of blue diamonds in stock, so grab one before it goes!
Read on to learn more about diamonds! Or have a look-see at our easy to follow guide on how you can build your own custom ethical diamond ring ;)