Scientists can now grow diamonds faster than you can watch “Oppenheimer.”

Scientists have discovered how to grow synthetic diamonds in just 150 minutes – and it could be bad news for natural jewellery.

This is evident from a study published in a scientific journal Nature Last week, researchers at the Institute for Basic Science in South Korea described a new method for growing diamonds using a mixture of liquid metals.

The researchers created a mixture of gallium, iron, nickel and silicon and then placed it in a graphite chamber that rapidly heated and then cooled the metal while exposing it to a mixture of methane and hydrogen gas. The carbon atoms from the methane gas seeped into the molten metal and became seeds for the diamonds.

Diamond fragments began to appear after just 15 minutes, and after 150 minutes, “a nearly continuous diamond film was formed,” the researchers wrote. The term for Oppenheimer is just over 180 minutes.

This new method is even faster than current laboratory cultivation methods, which can take several months. According to the researchers, it also uses significantly less pressure and heat. And it’s a far cry from the billions of years it takes to grow a natural diamond.

The research is still in a fundamental, early stage, says Rodney Ruoff, a professor at the Ulsan National Institute of Science & Technology who led the project, but the recently published study will enable other researchers around the world to innovate further.

“Time will tell in terms of scalability and cost,” Ruoff wrote in an email to Fortune.

Manufacturing diamonds in a laboratory is becoming faster and easier than ever, just as sales of natural diamonds are declining. Natural stone is losing its luster for some young consumers, who are increasingly prioritizing affordability and sustainability.

Is the future of diamonds synthetic?

According to diamond industry analyst Edahn Golan, in the first three months of 2024, 13.5% of diamond jewelry sold in the U.S. was made with lab-grown stones.

Golan points to three main reasons why lab-grown diamonds are attractive, especially to younger consumers: lower prices, larger jewelry and sustainability.

For two hypothetical diamonds with a similar appearance, a lab-grown version would be about 80% cheaper than a natural counterpart, according to Golan. Consumers get more bang for their buck because they can buy larger, more striking stones at lower prices when growing in the lab.

The share of lab-grown sales was significantly higher for engagement rings in the first quarter of 2024: 43%. According to Golan, the average American gets engaged around the age of 30, even though he or she is often not yet at the peak of their earning power. Proposing with a lab-grown engagement ring makes sense for those early in their financial journey, Golan said.

“You’re still paying student loans, you have a car loan and all those things are part of your decision-making process,” he added.

To reach these young consumers, major jewelers are decorating their ranges with laboratory-grown products. Pandora, the world’s largest jeweler, began offering lab-grown diamonds in 2021. In 2023, the Copenhagen-based company’s revenue from sales of lab-grown diamonds reached 265 million Danish crowns ($38.5 million), and its share price nearly doubled that same year. .

On the other hand, De Beers, the company that once controlled 85% of the world’s natural diamond supply, reported a 37% year-on-year sales decline in December 2023. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that De Beers’ parent company, Anglo American, is looking to put the controversial diamond miner and retailer up for sale.

Despite sales problems, Golan said lab-grown diamonds are unlikely to overtake real diamonds in popularity in the near future, as legacy companies like Tiffany & Co. and Cartier uphold the desirability of natural jewelry. But he predicts that lab-grown stones will continue to rise for the foreseeable future.

“Especially if the coming years are economically challenging,” Golan said.

More sustainable?

Lab-grown diamonds are generally considered more sustainable than their natural counterparts – especially given the well-documented history of human rights abuses in the diamond mining industry.

And while some independent, lab-grown jewelers choose to make their sustainability practices public, many major manufacturers are far less transparent about their supply chains.

The Associated Press reported in February that several major lab diamond producers in China and India did not respond to its questions about their sustainability practices. Most of the electricity in China and India comes from burning coal.

“A lot of energy goes into making a lab-grown diamond,” says Golan. “The question is: what is the source of that energy?”

Outsiders should not view the entire lab-grown diamond industry as “good” or “bad” for the environment, Golan said, as sustainability practices vary depending on the individual manufacturer.

Golan mentioned growers in India, Israel and Namibia who rely heavily on solar energy. Some lab-grown diamond manufacturers are also offsetting their energy consumption with solar panels, or using electric vehicles in their operations, Golan said.

“It’s not binary,” he said.