Block of the Week: Diamond

Is it really the most precious block about?

Diamonds are a miner’s best friend, a blue gleam in the darkness that you can use to craft the best stuff. The best stuff. Pickaxes that can hack through obsidian, swords that can hack through wither skeletons, armour that can withstand the force of 1000 spiders. Diamond is the best!

Or is it? The thing with diamond is that it’s not really that special. Oh SURE, it sparkles with clarity that seems to capture the infinite complexity of the universe, but it’s just boring old carbon. A good deal of you and I is carbon, one fifth to be more precise, so that stuff is not only all around us but also actually us.

But, you ask, if we’re pretty carbony, why doesn’t light dance through our facets with mesmerising beauty??? Well, that’s because we haven’t been crushed for over a billion years by the intense pressure and heat found 150 kilometres beneath the earth. And the thing about those pressures is that they make diamonds as hard as heck. The hardest as heck, in fact, of any known material.

This hardness isn’t down to boring old carbon. It’s because of the bonds between its boring carbon atoms, which arrange themselves into what’s called a diamond cubic structure, which fits together with such perfect neatness that it just makes you cry at the sheer tidiness of it all, and also gives it incredible strength.

An engagement ring, cheapened by the presence of an entirely common, but transcendentally spellbinding, chunk of carbon. Photo by the talented camera-wielder Derek Ramsey.

Ferdinand Frédéric Henri Moissan was one of the pioneers of artificial diamonds. Here he is, making diamonds using an electric arc furnace around 1893. He also discovered flourine! Clever fellow.

The Cullinan Diamond is the largest found, weighing 621 grams. Various gems have been cut from this South African stone, including one set in the British Queen’s "Sovereign's Sceptre with Cross".

So that’s great, and just as in Minecraft, it means IRL diamond can be used for all sorts of tasks that require super-hard things: you can grind and cut with it and it’s in the stylus of your record player, all because it takes ages to wear down.

OK, so you’re thinking, “Jeepers, what’s the carry on? All I’ve heard so far is a list of reasons why diamond is great.” But here’s the thing. It’s meant to be one of the most precious materials in the world, right? And yet we can make this stuff with such quality that it’s super tricky to tell the difference between real and artificial diamonds. In fact, we’re so good at it that there’s actually a huge glut of diamonds in the world. We’ve more diamonds than we know what to do with!

Despite this, over the past 100 years or so the diamond industry has managed to get us to believe diamonds are super valuable, a fantastic investment, and a perfect symbol for marriage because they last forever. It’s one of the most successful promotional campaigns in history! Because in reality, second-hand diamonds sell for half the price of a new one, despite being in perfect condition (they do last forever, after all), and before WWII only 10% of engagement rings were diamond, so it’s not quite the tradition you thought it was.

Unless you’re into tunnelling miles through igneous rocks or grinding and polishing stone tablets, what we’re saying here is: let’s not get too hung up on twinkling, beautiful diamonds, because all they are is nicely arranged but boring carbon.