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What Are Diamonds Made Of?

Growing up in the fifties and sixties equipped me to handle the challenges of life. We used maxims such as, 'whining is for losers' and 'only the strong survive'. Sometimes when I found myself in a challenging situation my father would say, “Let’s find out what you are made of!” He wasn’t referring to my physical composition. He was referring to my character and mental fortitude. It was understood back then that our reaction to life’s challenges hinged on who we were on the inside. You could look good on the outside, but if your morals were questionable and you could not follow through, it would be difficult to succeed in life.


It is no coincidence that diamonds are the most popular gems used in jewelry. Their journey begins as a carbon dioxide (CO2) crystal buried about 100 miles deep in the earths crust. These crystals form a cubic structure which makes diamonds the hardest substance on earth. The carbon crystals are exposed to extreme temperatures (2200 degrees Fahrenheit) and pressure (750 thousand pounds per square inch). The diamond matrix must then be quickly transported to the earth’s surface to cool. Only a small percentage of these amazing carbon crystals form into diamond rough that is suitable for faceting.

We sometimes describe the pressure in life as, 'being under fire', 'having the heat turned up' or the 'pressure is on.' Not all diamond rough survives the extreme heat and pressure because of weakness in the crystal structure or an imbalance of the chemical composition. Humans can also crack and melt emotionally under the pressures of life. Like diamonds, they can also survive and thrive.

Carbon, The Building Block of Everything


CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) atoms are the basis for almost all molecules that support living things. CO2 combined with H20 produces glucose (sugar) which is the fertilizer of all living things.


Diamonds are pure carbon. But sometimes other trace elements can be found.


N (Nitrogen) has the ability to replace a carbon atom. When present in the diamond lattice N can make the diamond to appear yellow.


B (Boron) in trace amounts cause a blue-gray appearance and are known as Type IIA.


H (Hydrogen) is found in abundance in Type 1-A diamonds. They also have a blue-gray coloration but are electrical insulators instead of conductors like Type IIA diamonds.

Imperfections Which Cause Color

Just as trace elements can give diamonds color, so can imperfections in the diamond lattice.

Vacancy Defect

Radiation found in the earth’s crust can knock out a carbon atom from the lattice. This allows the diamond to absorb red light. When the light is seen with the human eye it appears green.

Deformation of the Crystal Lattice

Diamonds are subject to the shifting of tectonic plates. Sometimes these shifting plates glide across the surface of a diamond disrupting the alignment of the lattice. This produces glide planes across the surface of the diamond which allows certain colored light to enter. Brown is the most common color found in glide planes. Rarer colors like pink and red can also be seen.

Dense Amounts of Inclusions

Sometimes minerals like graphite, pyrite and hematite can block light absorption and cause the diamond to appear black.

What Are the Odds

Rough diamond

Although diamonds are made from a single element (carbon) the process of that carbon forming a crystal structure capable of becoming a gem quality diamond is complicated and unpredictable. Some Geologists believe that it takes billions of years for diamonds to form. Shifting tectonic plates, temperature and pressure fluctuations and transporting the formed diamond rough to the surface, increase the odds that the potential diamond will never survive the journey.


I remember watching the USA Hockey team beat the Soviets in the 1980 winter Olympics. That event was dubbed “The Miracle On Ice.” The mature Soviet team was supposedly invincible. But the wily group of young American players were not intimidated. In the Gold medal game, the Americans were aggressive and determined. When the final buzzer sounded and the Americans defeated the Soviets, Legendary sports announcer Al Michaels excitingly declared, “Do you believe in miracles?”

The transformation of a simple carbon atom into a beautifully faceted diamond could be viewed as a miracle. As a former jewelry appraiser, I have seen and handled thousands of diamonds. Each time I come in contact with these miraculous gems, I am reminded of their arduous perilous journey. In the same sense, the process of becoming a person of character and substance takes time and a certain amount of pressure. Like a diamond, we can emerge victorious despite the challenges and odds stacked against us!

Michael Shanlian G.G., Ph.D.
Michael Shanlian (aka Doc Mike) career includes jewelry appraiser, pastor, adjunct professor, entrepreneur, motivational speaker and leadership consultant. Doc Mike earned his G.G. (Graduate Gemologist) diploma through The Gemological Institute of America and his C.G.A (Certified Gemologist Appraiser) with the American Gem Society. He holds a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership from Tennessee Temple University. He and his wife Susie live in St. Augustine, Florida.