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Posted on Mon, Feb. 07, 2005
 R E L A T E D   L I N K S 
 •  Shopping, buying diamonds

Gem company sells synthetic perfection

Scientists and gemologists square off over man-made jewels

Special to The Herald

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 $4,500.

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 coming months.

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 ring finger.

''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 up roadblocks.

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 damaged.''

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 industry.

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 equipment.

''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.''

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