SARASOTA - Red diamonds are so freakishly rare in nature that fewer
than 15 are thought to exist on the planet. Kept under guard in places
like the Tower of London and the Smithsonian Institution, the last time
one sold on the open market was 1987. It weighed less than a carat, and
the Sultan of Brunei reportedly paid almost $1 million for it.
In a small office on the outskirts of this southwest Florida city,
Robert Chodelka casually places three of them on a table. ''We've made
about 25 to 30 of them,'' he said of the large, deep-red stones.
``These are just experimental.''
Chodelka is chief scientist for Gemesis, one of a handful of
companies in the world that have cracked the diamond barrier. They can
make gem-quality diamonds that can only be distinguished from natural
stones using sophisticated lab equipment. They do not make cubic
zirconium or silicon carbide -- but atomically, chemically and
structurally pure diamonds.
The company started selling its stones in earnest in 2003 and last
year it produced between 500 and 600 carats (100 to 120 grams) of
yellow and orange diamonds. Rare in nature, a canary-yellow diamond can
cost between $40,000 and $50,000 a carat. The Gemesis equivalent costs
Gemesis' work is only available at a few dozen stores in the United
States and abroad, and currently there are no outlets in South Florida.
But the company is hoping 2005 will be its breakout year.
In the last few weeks alone, Gemesis has opened a showroom in New
York, signed on top designers and exhibited its diamonds at two of the
country's most important gem conventions. By the end of the year,
Gemesis ads should be popping up in newspapers and on TV, said David
Hellier, the company's president.
Gemesis plans to triple production of yellow and orange diamonds
this year, and hopes to bring pink and blue ones to the market in
The company has yet to turn a profit.
''We're on a path to profitability and we will certainly be
profitable in 2005,'' Hellier said. ``As with any tech start-up, it's
hard to make accurate projections -- but what I can tell you is we have
been encouraged by the positive consumer feedback.''
Gemesis has largely been financed by individuals. Late last year,
however, Orlando's Grace Venture Partners invested $700,000 in Gemesis,
according to a MoneyTree Survey. Now the company is trying to attract
more institutional investors to finance its national marketing
campaign, said Hellier.
While Gemesis has already overcome some huge technological hurdles
to get to this point, its biggest struggles may still lie ahead --
winning over the powerful and suspicious diamond industry and
convincing consumers that synthetic rocks are worthy of sliding on a
''We're trying to do with diamonds what [Kokichi] Mikimoto did for
pearls,'' said Hellier, referring to the father of the cultured pearl
industry. ``If it weren't for Mikimoto pearls, they would still be out
of reach for most people today.''
While some jewelers and designers have lunged at the chance to work
with Gemesis' gems, the traditional diamond industry has been throwing
In October the World Federation of Diamond Bourses, the industry's
global regulating body, passed a resolution calling on laboratories not
to grade synthetic diamonds.
'It is a combination of the [natural] diamonds' rarity and inherent
uniqueness that [make] it worthy of its association with the message of
eternal love,'' Federation President Shmuel Schnitzer told Bourse
members in a newsletter. ``If treated and synthetic stones are allowed
to attack that image, then the image of the brand could be irrevocably
The Gemological Institute of America, a powerful nonprofit that
trains U.S. jewelers, also refuses to grade the gems. And while some
labs have broken with the GIA, the conflict reflects the industry's
struggle over exactly what to make of these stones.
''There's no [industry] price list for Gemesis diamonds; you
basically pay what Gemesis asks for them,'' said Karl Shrode, a
high-end jeweler in Sarasota who carries some of the company's stones.
``What I tell people is that this is a new frontier. I don't have any
idea if these stones will hold their value in the future, or if they
will even become more valuable. Nobody can tell you that.''
But Shrode has done brisk business with Gemesis' yellow diamonds. A
pair of the company's pendant earrings run $5,500. The same pair made
with natural diamonds would cost closer to $10,000, he said.
''We have some customers that want Gemesis diamonds because of the
novelty and others because they are conflict-free,'' he said. ``These
diamonds don't come from a country that mistreats its people; they are
not contraband and they have no ties to the drug trafficking industry.''
Conflict diamonds, or stones tied to illegal activities and violence
or mined under adverse labor conditions, have been a hot topic in the
Gemesis is not trying to blur the lines between natural and man-made
diamonds and it has gone to great lengths to differentiate its stones,
said Hellier. Each rock has a microscopic laser inscription on its
base. For identification purposes, the stones are also laced with
traces of nickel -- invisible to the eye but easily spotted using lab
''I don't believe that people buy diamonds because they sat in the
ground for a million years,'' said Hellier. ``I believe they buy them
because only a diamond has the brilliance, the fire and the sparkle.
Ours have that. [For some in the industry] to suggest that it's not the
real thing is a defensive position.''
Man-made diamonds are not new. In the 1950s, General Electric
started making small, crude stones for industrial drill bits and other
instruments. Throughout the 1980s the United States and the former
Soviet Union explored ways to incorporate diamonds' conductivity and
ability to withstand radiation into military designs.
The leap that Gemesis and a few others have made is the ability to create larger, gem-quality diamonds at reasonable prices.
The company's few competitors in the United States include Chatham
Created Gems, based in San Francisco, Lucent Diamonds in Denver, and
Boston-based Apollo Diamond, which has received much media attention
for pioneering a radical new process called chemical vapor deposition
to produce high-quality white diamonds.
The secret to Gemesis' success is a contraption called a crystal
growth chamber. Originally developed by the Soviet space agency, the
prototype was refined by Gemesis. That's why Hellier likes to say
diamond growing ``really is rocket science.''
Inside Gemesis' warehouse some two dozen chambers popped and wheezed
recently as they strained to contain a molten core heated to 2,700 F.
and put under 850,000 pounds of pressure per square inch.
In about four days, a rough three-carat diamond emerges from each chamber.
Adding nitrogen gives the stones a yellow to orange color; boron
gives them a blue hue. Once cut and polished, they weigh about 0.5 to
1.5 carats each. Just like mined diamonds, each one is unique.
''We're essentially recreating the same pressure and temperature
conditions that exist when a diamond is created in the Earth,''
Chodelka said. ``The only difference here is the location.''