Here’s a flight of fancy which interests me… What if diamonds were new? By which I mean: what would we do with diamonds if we discovered or invented them today?

That distinction between discovered and invented is important.

If diamonds had lain undiscovered in the Earth’s crust for over a billion years but we only stumbled upon them now, then they would at least arrive on the scene with one vital attribute
in place: their extraordinary antiquity.

Jamie MordauntOn the other hand, if we conjured up diamonds in a laboratory today then we would have created something new: a marvel of science rather than a marvel of nature.

What makes diamonds so special anyway? I think there are five key attributes:

1. Diamonds are old. The ‘youngest’ diamonds are thought to be at least 990 million years old, and some are believed to be as much as 4.25 billion years old, which is almost as old as Earth itself (around 4.54 billion years). Diamonds pre-date the dinosaurs by hundreds of millions of years, and most diamonds actually pre-date all life on earth.  A diamond is almost certainly the oldest thing you will ever hold.

2. Diamonds are rare. Don’t listen to conspiracy theories about how wicked diamond corporations are hoarding tons of diamonds in vaults in order to starve the market and make them artificially scarce: it just isn’t true. Yes there might be even rarer natural minerals, but diamonds are still pretty hard to find — especially the best gem quality diamonds found in engagement rings.

3. Diamonds have history. Accounts vary, but diamonds are thought to have been first admired in India around 2,500 years ago, perhaps much earlier. Another account claims that diamonds were used as industrial cutting tools in China 4,500 years ago. Either way, the cultural significance of diamonds is clear: they have become associated with love, marriage, glamour, beauty, royalty, success, wealth… and yes, perhaps even some intrigue. Diamonds have collected that valuable baggage over thousands of years – clever marketing by De Beers in the 20th Century reflected and amplified those assets but didn’t invent them.

4. Diamonds have extraordinary physical properties. Diamond is the hardest known naturally occurring material (58 times harder than anything else, apparently), a property which depends upon its purity, crystalline perfection and orientation. Diamonds also have extremely high thermal conductivity, which is why they feel cold when touched: ‘ice’. Their hardness and chemical stability serve them well, allowing diamonds to survive intact & unchanged for billions of years and to retain their perfect beauty once cut and polished.

5. Diamonds look great. Diamonds got lucky: they were born pretty. Those physical properties contrive to allow diamonds to disperse white light into spectral colours, giving them that (literally) brilliant ‘dancing light’ effect as they sparkle and scintillate. In recent decades we’ve worked out how to cut & polish them to maximise their beauty, but they were always pretty little things.

So, returning to my flight of fancy, if we discovered diamonds today then they would score four out of five: they would still be very old and rare, they would still have exceptional properties, and they would still be very pretty.

But they would lack all that baggage: the cultural tradition, the engagement ritual, the legends of Koh-i-Noor and Golconda, the Crown Jewels, the curse of the Hope Diamond, Marilyn Monroe, Shirley Bassey, the Pink Panther movies…

Without all that emotional cargo would we even know what to do with diamonds if we unearthed them today for the very first time? Would they be anything more than a curiosity, a freak of nature?

And if they didn’t occur naturally but we learned to create them in a laboratory, then what?

They wouldn’t have that unsurpassed antiquity, they might not be very rare, they would have none of that cultural heritage… At best what we might have synthesised is a novel form of our universe’s fourth most common element: carbon.

It might be pretty and it might even be useful, and perhaps there’s a good pre-packaged case study here: another allotrope of carbon, also with a crystalline lattice structure, which is hailed as the new miracle material of our age: graphene.

So here’s my question: if we invented or even discovered diamond today, would we treat it as a new wonder-material, capable of extraordinary things in industry and electronics [which it is anyway], or would we be dazzled by its prettiness and cut it into shiny baubles for our own adornment?

Discuss.

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