Fancy colored diamonds have blown up in recent years. Natural (meaning completely untreated) fancy blue, pink, red, and green diamonds have been hitting record highs at auction. A 9.75 carat fancy blue pear-shaped diamond sold for US$32,645,000 (or US$3,348,205 per carat) this past November from the collection of Mrs. Paul Mellon at Sotheby’s; and in October, an 8.41-carat internally flawless pink diamond sold for nearly $17.8 million at the Sotheby’s Magnificent Jewels sale in Hong Kong. Now, for those of us civilians who don’t have ten or twenty million bucks sloshing around in our jewelry budget to throw down on fancy-colored natural diamonds, many jewelers and diamond companies are turning to irradiated diamonds and gems as an affordable alternative for consumers.
8.41 carat, internally flawless fancy pink natural diamond.
Irradiation is a process whereby radiation is used to alter a diamond or gem’s crystal lattice thereby creating color centers and changing the color of the gem. Diamonds are irradiated to product fancy blue, green, or black diamonds and the diamond can further be annealed to produce yellow, brown, orange, or pink colors. There are four ways diamonds are irradiated these days, all four involve bombarding a part of the atoms (protons, neutrons, electrons, or gamma rays) with radiation to change the diamond’s crystal lattice. The most common gemstones to undergo irradiation as a form of color treatment are topaz (irradiated to become blue), quartz (irradiated to become amethyst), colorless beryl (irradiated to become golden beryl or heliodore) and pearls (to become a grey-blue or black).
We’ve all heard about the terrible effects of radiation on living things. Long-term, low-level radiation has been shown to result in cancer and genetic mutations according to the EPA yet, humans undergo radiation therapy as a form of cancer treatment as well. So how does this relate to jewelry? Are irradiated diamonds and gems safe to wear?
Once a stone’s crystal lattice has been altered, the atoms are unstable and emit radiation. Over time, the unstable atom decays and eventually becomes stable, this is called radioactive decay. The decay of radioactive elements happens at a fixed rate and the amount of time it takes for a radioisotope to decay depends on the radioactive element. Radioactive half-life is the time it takes for half of the unstable material to degrade into a stable material. Cobalt 60 (Co-60), a common radioisotope that is used to produce fancy color irradiated diamonds. It has a half-life of 5 years–which means you have to set it aside for five years for half of the unstable material to become stable. But it sometimes takes several cycles in order for the radiation to reach low enough levels that are considered “safe” for humans–it all depends on how much radiation the gem is exposed to in the first place and what levels are considered “safe.”
4k White Gold Earrings, Treated Pink Diamond Stud Earrings (2 ct. t.w.); available here.
So who is checking to make sure these irradiated diamonds and gems are within acceptable levels? The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulates the distribution of irradiated diamonds and irradiated gems. The NRC requires the stones to be set aside for a couple of months to allow any radioactivity to decay and distributors must conduct radiological surveys before selling any of the treated stones on the market. While I am happy someone is attempting to regulate this, I am still a bit skeptical about how strictly the NRC enforces its requirements and it is unclear as to how stringent the NRC is about requiring diamond distributors to have a license.
Naturally, I am not a nuclear physicist so my opinion should not be taken as scientific fact. However, given what I know about the jewelry industry and the possible dangers of prolonged radiation exposure would I wear irradiated diamonds and gems? Irradiated gems, definitely not because they are a bit too accessible. However, when it comes to irradiated diamonds… I was trolling the AGTA booths yesterday during the Tucson Gem Show sourcing precious gems for private clients and sussing out new developments in gem cutting when I happened upon a swoon-worthy necklace made of irradiated blue diamond beads. I will admit that I was about to throw down some cold hard cash and walk out with that baby glistening around my throat; but knowing what I know about the treatment process I thought I would sleep on it before making a purchase. So my final verdict? Would I wear irradiated diamonds? Nope. Especially not every day around my neck where many important glands reside. However, the very instant I have ten or twenty million to throw down on a large natural fancy blue or pink diamond, you better believe I will be living, breathing and sleeping in that thing twenty-four-seven!
Big Kiss and Bigger Diamonds,