LONDON - Scientists at De Beers can make near-flawless diamonds in a lab, but they will never sell you one.
The 127-year-old mining company's Element Six unit, named for the carbon atom's rank on the periodic table, makes gems that are as perfect as any found at Tiffany & Co. stores, yet their destination is a 1980s office complex on the edge of London. There, a team of 62 studies their creations and develops machines for diamond buyers trying to spot synthetic stones being peddled as the real thing.
While still a small part of the market, man-made diamonds are now being mass produced, and retailers like Wal-Mart Stores sell them to customers seeking cheaper alternatives. But because the gems are almost indistinguishable from those naturally formed, some sellers have tried to pass off synthetic types as ones that have been mined. Parcels in Indian cutting centers were found to contain a mixture of man-made and mined gems. For De Beers, formerly a near-monopoly distributor that both ruled and nurtured the market, cheaters pose a risk to consumer confidence in an $80 billion global industry.