Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

How the World's Oldest Diamond Monopoly is Trying to Become an IT Juggernaut

In what could be one of the biggest pivots in corporate history, De Beers accepted that the 21st century is literally the (synthetic) Diamond Age

  • October 25, 2011

The narrative arc of the transformation of De Beers is like something out of a William Gibson novel. The firm has long held a worldwide monopoly on the supply of natural diamonds, and now it’s angling to become the leading supplier of synthetic diamond for use in the computer chips that could make microprocessors 10 to 20 times faster than their current speeds.

The Large Hadron Collider, where one of De Beers’ investments has already paid off in the form of new sensors

To understand just how improbable that transition is, you have to realize that as recently as 2003, De Beers was so terrified of gem-size synthetic diamonds that it was providing to diamond graders, at its own expense, advanced systems for distinguishing natural from synthetic diamonds. That was the year that Joshua Davis, on assignment for Wired, took lab-grown yellow diamonds – a color incredibly rare in nature – to a gem dealer who could not distinguish it from a natural diamond.

Weingarten shifts uncomfortably in his chair and stares at the glittering gems on his dining room table. “Unless they can be detected,” he says, “these stones will bankrupt the industry.”

Had they been natural, the gems Davis had in his pocket that day would have been worth tens of thousands of dollars. Yet they were created by a machine in Florida for less than $100.

This explosion in the availability of synthetic diamonds of practically any size led, in 2007, to the Gemological Institute of America’s acceptance and grading of lab-grown diamonds. And now these large synthetic diamonds are everywhere, selling at a fraction of the cost of natural diamonds in countless retail jewelers.

And so De Beers appears to have finally accepted that some day soon, the world will be flooded with more synthetic diamonds than “real” ones, by many orders of magnitude. (The two are chemically indistinguishable.)

This means that the amount of diamond in the world of the 21st century will not be limited by how much was created by crushing pressure deep within the earth’s crust – instead, it will be determined by the size of the market for synthetic diamond, which can be churned out ad infinitum by a process originally invented in Soviet Russia.

De Beers, ever enterprising, aims not merely to dominate the market for synthetic diamond, but to create it. To do that, it needs IT innovators to start thinking about what they would do if they had unlimited quantities of diamond at their disposal.

To that end, De Beers recently opened a Silicon Valley VC shop that has already dropped “tens of millions” of dollars on a portfolio of seven companies.

Where’s all this going? Diamond microchips. Diamond is the best thermal conductor on the planet, which means diamond microchips could run ultra-hot without requiring a conventional cooling system. This would lead to considerable energy savings. It would also mean chips running at 81 GHz.

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