Gübelin Gem Lab is studying how it can place microscopic labels on diamonds to track them through the supply chain.
The Swiss institute launched its Emerald Paternity Test in 2017, applying invisible nanoparticles to rough stones to enable industry members and consumers to trace the goods back to an exact mine. It’s currently only practical for emeralds, as their numerous fissures make it easier to attach the billions of tiny tags and keep them stuck, Gübelin managing director Daniel Nyfeler told Rapaport News Tuesday.
The current feasibility study, which is at an early stage, looks at whether Gübelin can overcome some of the challenges involved in rolling it out to diamonds, using stones supplied by an unnamed company.
“With diamonds, you simply don’t have that [number] of structural openings and possibilities to insert something like a physical particle,” Nyfeler explained.
Gübelin initially considered applying the same particles to diamonds that it already places on emeralds — namely, synthetic DNA containing encrypted data about the mine of origin, as well as which company unearthed the rough, and when. With emeralds, anyone who wants to obtain that information can submit the stone to an authorized lab that retrieves, analyses and decodes the identifiers.
However, the common practice of boiling rough diamonds in hydrofluoric acid to clean them is a further hindrance, as it would kill the material that protects the DNA, making the approach impossible.
“The cleaning processes that diamonds are subjected to are even one level nastier than what they do with emeralds,” Nyfeler added.
Even if the lab can solve that difficulty, the labels generally don’t survive the diamond-cutting phase, as polishers usually try to remove the imperfections that would store them, he noted. Emeralds don’t have that problem, as the stones have so many cracks — sometimes miniscule — that enough of them remain after cutting.
Within two or three years
Instead, Gübelin is looking at alternative nano-tags that could at least stay intact from the mine to the manufacturing stage, or other technologies entirely that would have a better chance of working further downstream, Nyfeler said. He declined to say what those options were, but predicted that either Gübelin or a competitor would probably find a successful solution within the next few years.
“I don’t think it’s going to take more than two or three years until we are going to have something that allows tracking from the source to the cutting wheel — maybe even beyond the cutting wheel,” he said. “Seeing the intensity of research being done in the area, I would assume it won’t take [more than that] till either us or someone else comes up with the technology.”
The Gemological Institute of America (GIA) already records rough stones’ dimensions, spectroscopic readings and imaging for its Diamond Origin Report, an evolution of its M2M provenance program, a GIA spokesperson confirmed. Through that, it can trace a diamond from rough to polished, determining its country of origin. However, Gübelin’s Nyfeler is not aware of any existing diamond-tracking programs that use nanoparticles.
Gübelin, which mainly focuses on colored gemstones, has been seeking ways of improving transparency in the jewelry industry. Last week, it launched its Provenance Proof Blockchain, which records gemstone transactions from mine to consumer. It’s not actively marketing it to the diamond trade, but users can upload diamonds, and Nyfeler hopes diamond-focused blockchains such as De Beers’ Tracr and Richline Group’s TrustChain platform will exchange data with it in the future.
Image: A rough diamond in kimberlite. (Shutterstock)