August 4, 2008
Diamonds are the subject of one of the great battles between the forces of Marketing and the forces of Matter. In one corner is DeBeers, with the best advertising slogan of the 20th Century, “Diamonds are Forever.” In the other corner are the chemists, with the knowledge, since 1796, that Diamonds are Carbon.
H. Tracy Hall was the first guy to turn carbon into diamonds. He died last week at age 88.
The L.A. Times has the best obituary of Hall that I’ve seen. I got a kick out of all the tinkering he had to do before he hit on the right contraption for cooking up diamonds:
“Hall had built a pressure chamber that he called the “half-belt” that had been used to create high pressures in a 35-year-old Watson-Stillman press that leaked so much water from its hydraulics that he had to wear rubber boots while working with it.”
On December 16, 1954, he succeeded:
“My hands began to tremble; my heart beat rapidly; my knees weakened and no longer gave support. My eyes had caught the flashing light from dozens of tiny . . . crystals.”
Fifty years later, it’s still a thrill to create a diamond, a thrill we tried to capture in a story in the June issue of Smithsonian magazine.
One of the barriers to publishing a story about diamond growers is that almost everyone involved is touchy about secrecy. Private companies want to protect their supersecret recipes–some combination of temperature, pressure and vaporized carbon–from competitors, and nobody knows how far the natural diamond powers will go to protect their market.
Hall had his share of secrecy worries as well. He had been working for General Electric, but they didn’t support his early diamond experiments and gave him a measly $10 savings bond when he succeeded:
“Disheartened by the lack of credit, he began looking for another job, landing at Brigham Young University in Provo, where he planned to do high-pressure research. But the federal government had slapped a secret label on the apparatus, which effectively prevented Hall from using it.
“His solution was to invent another apparatus, called the tetrahedral press, that was even better and that circumvented all the patents held by GE. He published his research in a widely read journal, but shortly thereafter, the government slapped a secret label on that device as well.”
The official “shush” didn’t last long, though, and Hall started his own company and kept making diamonds.
His successors have started selling gem-quality diamonds in the past few years, and the natural diamond industry has responded by claiming that their diamonds are different.* As a DeBeers spokesperson told our author: “When people want to celebrate a unique relationship they want a unique diamond, not a three-day-old factory-made stone.”
But H. Tracy Hall knew, with the clarity of a chemist, that diamonds are diamonds, and diamonds are carbon.
*For more on diamond marketing, see this fun critique of the cult of the diamond engagement ring