Did you know that every single diamond has its own unique identifying characteristics much like we human beings all have different, individual DNA and fingerprints?
Every diamond’s origin or source and much about its own process of formation can be ascertained by a fairly new scientific process which uses laser technology and is performed by specialists such as forensic and analytical chemists. Perth scientist Professor John Watling is a leader in this field, having pioneered the procedures used today back in the 1970’s, at the University of Western Australia and Curtin University. He says a diamond’s ‘fingerprint’ when analysed, can pinpoint exactly how old it is and where it is from, all the way down to the kimberlite pipe in which it was created. Professor Watling says, “Think of it as inorganic DNA, if you like.” Inspired by a recent ABC News story, in this post, we take a closer look at this fascinating practice.
All natural diamonds are very, very old. They began to form billions of years ago. The process started deep down in the Earth’s interior. Slowly the diamonds evolved and morphed and rose to the surface, assisted by volcanic eruptions and subsequent cooling.
These slow lanes on the diamond highway along which they travelled across millennia are called kimberlite pipes. Evidence of this remarkable journey undertaken by each and every diamond resides in these most special of stones – and they can each be identified – like our fingerprints single out all of us.
Identifying mysterious materials
Professor Watling developed the technique in the mid 1970s when he used to work with police solving forensic mysteries. The method he uses was initially known as ‘gold fingerprinting’. He was asked by police to check out some suspicious ‘lead’ that was being transported from South Africa to the USA. They cut into the lead ingots and discovered gold inside.
Professor Watling was able to ascertain exactly which mine in South Africa the gold had been stolen from, before it had been disguised and attempted to be smuggled into America. It was returned to its rightful owners. The technique has been used to verify the provenance of artworks, coffee, seafood and all sorts of things.
Lab grown and fake pink diamonds
Sparkling diamonds feature on millions of engagement rings and other fine jewellery. They are also used in some industrial situations as a component in specialised cutting equipment. But diamonds are also used as a medium of exchange in shady dealings. “Where there’s anything that’s worth a lot of money, and that’s easily transportable, it becomes a ghost currency,” says Professor Watling.
Diamonds have regularly been at the centre of large scale organised crime transactions for hundreds of years. Gold and diamonds are often currencies of choice for drugs and arms trading. These highly valuable commodities are also regularly stolen. Professor Watling worked with the W.A. police through the 1980s and 1990s to help crack criminal activity which included the ongoing theft of pink diamonds from the Western Australian Argyle mine, the world’s most famous pink diamond operation. Pink diamonds were going missing, and turning up in Europe. Stolen stones were ‘fingerprinted’, which led to criminals being apprehended. The Professor also helped W.A. police nab robbers who had stolen large quantities of gold, by fingerprinting the recovered precious metal. No doubt those crooks had their own fingerprints checked out too.
Professor Watling and other scientists like him are often called upon to determine the authenticity of diamonds. This service is increasingly in demand, with the rise of fakes and lab grown diamonds in recent years. Scientist John Chapman was formerly a physicist working at the Argyle mine. He now runs a laboratory in Perth. He is sent diamonds from all over the world which he analyses in order to specify their source and authenticity. Lab grown or synthetic diamonds are not actually considered to be fakes as such, but people want to know whether their stone is natural or man-made, as there is a huge difference in terms of value – both monetary and emotional.
A lab diamond might be difficult to pick from a natural diamond at a glance, but most jewellers can spot it and of course a scientist can quite quickly confirm whether a gemstone is natural or factory produced. Lab diamonds cost much less and they do not hold their value at all, whereas a natural diamond increases in value annually and is considered to be a very good investment. Particularly an Argyle pink diamond. That is why Mr Chapman specialises in certifying Argyle pink diamonds. Their value has skyrocketed in recent years. Many people may have a pink diamond which is unmarked, and not be aware that it is in fact a genuine Argyle.
The mine did not mark all their pink diamonds for many years. They only certified and marked stones which were larger than 0.5 carats. So there are lots of smaller pink diamonds around which are not readily identifiable as Argyles, yet they may well be. Mr Chapman can tell you one way or another, with certainty, after running his tests. He relates a story about a man who bought a pink diamond at a pawnbroker for a modest amount. The man suspected it might be an Argyle, and took it to Chapman to be analysed. Sure enough, it was an Argyle alright, and worth $50,000. Big win!
Certified, authentic pink diamonds
When the value of Argyle pink diamonds began to soar around ten years ago, the mine started to certify and mark nearly all its diamonds, except for the really tiny ones. But there must be many out there which were previously purchased without certification or marking. Mr Chapman can clear that up for anyone who has one. Argyle diamonds are incredibly valuable now and the certificates themselves are even considered to be collectors’ items.