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Using technology to track diamonds

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Three-dimensional marking

'Bar codes not the answer'

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Scientists have tried many methods of giving a diamond an individual "footprint" or characteristic which could be logged on a database and therefore traced from mine to finger.

They include laser technology to mark a diamond with a bar code which could be checked when verification was required.


Back in the 1970s it was discovered that laser beams could "burn" out imperfections and improve otherwise unwanted diamonds. In 1983 a laser engraving system was patented.

Lazare Kaplan International, a U.S. company, was able to mark diamonds with a serial number and logo. More recently another U.S. firm, 3-Beams Technologies, has worked on a cheaper, faster, and more accurate system.

3-Beams Technologies expects to be able to barcode rough diamonds at the rate of one per 15 seconds at a cost of U.S.$6 each.

The microscopes available to read such inscriptions are expensive, and larger barcodes could be read by the cheaper digital video method. 3-Beams is currently working on a video-based scanning system.

Human rights campaigning group Global Witness says that at the end of the process, once the diamond is cut, it should in theory be possible to obtain the entire history of the diamond, which would include its country of origin, its original weight and where it was cut.

Three-dimensional marking

Other technology includes actually embedding a bar code into a diamond, inserting a hologram or implanting magnetic material.

In 1998 De Beers, the world's leading diamond producer, introduced a new method of branding diamonds called the "Marque" which is three-dimensional.

This method uses what Global Witness describes as "electron beam lithography" which is expensive and time-consuming.

Another method to achieve the same result is known as "focused ion beam" which is faster and more precise. Some U.S. companies use this method for the inscription of logos and serial numbers on diamonds.

Ion beams are very precise and make inscriptions which measuring less than 0.0001 millimetres. Beams of ions can now spray a collection of letters the width of a human hair across a diamond, but this method is very expensive. Focused ion workstations cost around $800,000.

Diamonds are graded on the four Cs: Carat weight, colour, clarity and cut. The International Gemmological Institute compiles grading reports so diamond buyers can rest assured they are purchasing the real thing.

'Bar codes not the answer'

But bar coding diamonds to prevent the illicit trade is impractical say De Beers.

De Beers spokesman Andrew Lamont said: "We have spent 25 years looking into the technology for this and so far it does not exist. There would be no point spending millions of pounds on technology that in five years time might be useless."

Lamont says up to 50 percent of the diamond is lost in the cutting and polishing, making it unlikely that a barcode put on at the rough stage would last into the finished product. It would mean bar coding both at the rough and finished stages, which could prove prohibitively expensive.

"The key to this issue is that it is not going to happen tomorrow. The illicit diamond trade needs to be stopped now and that is why the chain of warranties is the best way forward."

He said 860 million stones "the size of a grain of sugar" were exported from India in 1999 and that the idea of "chemically fingerprinting" them -- taking out a section to form a kind of diamond DNA bank -- was impractical.

De Beers' own work on technological marking was concerned with locating similar geological characteristics in diamonds for prospecting purposes and not for marking them permanently.

De Beers also points out that were it possible to bar code diamonds, those now in private hands -- and so not categorised -- could become worthless overnight with "disastrous consequences for the industry and millions of consumers around the world."

Amnesty International campaigner, Salil Tripathi, says a warranty remains the best way of tracking diamonds to date. "The technology for footprinting is not there yet," he said.

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Lazare Kaplan International
3Beams Technologies
Global Witness
International Gemmological Institute
De Beers
Amnesty International

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