Oct 8, 2003 1:46 PM
By Martin Rapaport
Bryant Linares, president of Apollo Diamonds, a super-high-tech company based in Boston, is interviewed by Martin Rapaport. Apollo produces perfect industrial diamonds using cutting-edge Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD) technology and plans to enter the gem diamond business in the very near future.
Martin Rapaport:How did your company get involved with making diamonds?
Bryant Linares:The company was started in the early 1990s by my father, Dr. Robert Linares. He’s been a crystal grower since he was a kid and has a background that goes back to PerkinElmer and Bell Laboratories. In the 1980s, he was involved in advanced semiconductor materials and had a company called Spectrum Technologies that was one of the world’s leading producers of gallium arsenide. After he sold that business, he began working on the ultimate semiconductor material, which is diamond, and how to create the pure large-size diamonds that we are all going to need for the diamond-based semiconductors and optics of the future.
MR:Are the gem jewelry-grade diamonds you produce simply a byproduct of your quest to create perfect computers and extreme high-tech optical devices?
BL:Yes, absolutely. Gem diamonds were not the original intent of our research because material for semiconductors and optics is very thin, about a quarter of a millimeter, and you need wide areas in order to enable high-tech applications. However, along the way, we were able to grow diamonds thicker in near colorless ranges, which indicated to us that there might be a market in the gem area.
MR:How does the process work?
BL:It’s a technology called Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD) that has been used in the semiconductor business with other materials for quite some time. You create a vacuum and then create a carbon cloud in the vacuum chamber. You then heat the chamber and the carbon
atoms precipitate out of the carbon cloud. The carbon atoms will actually attach themselves, carbon atom by carbon atom, on top of a diamond seed at the bottom of the vacuum chamber.
MR:So the system is the exact opposite of the High Pressure-High Temperature (HPHT) system? Instead of creating pressure, you are creating a vacuum. And then you are creating a rain of diamond atoms on top of a small diamond seed.
BL:That is correct and, until recently, no one thought it was possible to do this.
BL:1999 and quite possibly 2000, when the literature said you could not grow single crystal diamonds under the vacuum system.
MR:So how were you able to do it?
BL:We are able to do it because it is physically possible. We needed to address the problem differently, requiring a unique and novel way of looking at the problem. I think that our crystal-growing experience in a wide variety of other materials, including emeralds and rubies, really led us to a unique approach.
MR:So it was really mind over matter?
BL:In some ways. It’s like finding a key that unlocks an area of physics that was previously unknown. So it’s using our minds to find a way to create something that previously we couldn’t conceive of doing.
MR:So your quest to create advanced-technology diamond material has placed you in the synthetic gem diamond business?
BL:Yes that is correct. We’re on a quest. We have a dual path. One is to work with the gem diamond business and educationally to develop an understanding of our new product. The technology is out there now, so we must make sure there is a legitimate market for our diamonds. Two is to work with semiconductor and optical manufacturers to begin building prototype devices.
MR:Will the revenue from the jewelry side of your business drive technological growth and development?
BL:An important part of the growth of our company is to establish a business in the gem sector. We want to do so in a way that’s supportive and additive to the industry.
MR:Is there anything unique about the physical characteristics of these diamonds that help in their detection?
BL:Yes. This is a path that is still under investigation. I think it’s going to take some time in order to be definitive about it for two reasons. One, we have found through our work in semiconductor space that there are things about our diamond that make it quite perfect. The Naval Research Lab has called our diamond the most perfect diamond they’ve ever seen, natural or otherwise. Because of that, we are able to do extraordinary things with this diamond that you cannot do with other diamonds. That uniqueness, in and of itself, may lead us to methodologies for consistent detection. Two, if we look at the trajectory of this technology, we’re sitting at a point analogous to where the high-pressure processes were in the late 1950s. There is a tremendous amount of change happening quickly in terms of what goes into the process of the actual diamonds. There will be significant change over the next five years.
MR:Can natural diamonds achieve the technological capabilities of the man-made diamonds?
BL:We project that, in a fairly short period of time, the amount of diamonds that are going to be used for industrial semiconductor and optical applications will vastly exceed what is currently being dug out of the ground. Because of this, you don’t want natural diamonds going into advanced applications. Diamonds coming from the earth should be in people’s hands because they are wonders of nature. Beyond that, you want industrial diamonds to have a consistency that you simply can’t get from a mine because of the idiosyncrasies of a mined diamond’s geological growth. The future of industrial diamonds is going to be focused on CVD-grown diamonds, not natural diamonds.
MR:So technically speaking, natural diamonds are inferior to CVD diamonds?
BL:It sounds somewhat crass, but yes, the Chemical Vapor Deposition diamond is a more perfect diamond.
MR:Could the perfection of these diamonds help us detect them?
BL:Yes, absolutely. This has been shown in some of the other precious stones that have been made by man. Ultimately, they become very perfect, and simply by their degree of perfection, you can pick them out.
MR:Could you make less perfect synthetics?
BL:The answer is yes, although that’s not on our radar screen, but I would say ultimately the material could be engineered.
MR:What color and clarity and size are these diamonds?
BL:We can do a variety of colors and sizes. Right now, we’re producing brown and light brown rough that are between two and a half to three carats. We can grow near-colorless diamonds that cut down to approximately a quarter carat. And we can do interesting things with the diamonds like press (HPHT treat) them when they turn out brown since they are type 2 As. This will whiten them to near colorless and, in the future, colorless. We can also grow them with boron to make them blue and, of course, we can do black. Depending on how the diamond is grown, sometimes they come out light pink browns. When we grow them thick, the types of inclusions are in the VS ranges.
MR:These diamonds can be treated by HPHT to enhance their colors?
BL:Yes, they can.
MR:Are they all 2 A types?
BL:They’re all 2 As except for the borons, which are 2 Bs. I’m sure we could tweak the process.
MR:So you’re focusing your company on providing diamonds to the jewelry industry?
BL:Yes, we’re in the very early stages of doing that right now. We have not marketed any aspect of the company or its products at this particular point in time but we’re in the early stages in talking to people and we are interested in setting up relationships with distributors in the gem and jewelry market space.
MR:Will you be able to produce large quantities of diamonds?
BL:In the short term, the first quarter of next year, we’re going to target 50 carats a week. In the second quarter, probably 100, maybe 200 carats a week. Within two years, we anticipate having tens of thousands of carats annually.
MR:Would you be able to grow large 1-carat finished polished diamonds?
BL:Yes, absolutely. I don’t think there’s a question that we will be able to do it. Our timeline to do it is next year in terms of a consistent production basis, and I believe that we’ll have some samples sometime in the first quarter or early second quarter.
MR:What will these diamonds cost to create? What will you charge for them?
BL:We’re still not exactly sure what the ultimate manufacturing cost is going to be because it’s very difficult to grow a thick single crystal diamond. Of course, we’re going to discount from natural diamonds, but we’re still working out what that discount is going to be. Some of the high-pressure stones are discounted between 10 and 50 percent, depending on how perfect the stone is.
MR:Will people be able to detect these synthetic diamonds as they come onto the market?
BL:We are certainly going to have 100 percent disclosure of everything that we sell and we’re talking to the gem labs right now to make sure that there is a structure in terms of identification. I think it’s going to be very difficult to detect them with a visual inspection. But there’s a lot of work being done right now to pick up features that will signal a gem lab to take a closer look. I think the simple answer is that they’re highly undetectable relative to anything else anyone has seen, but there is a lot of work being done right now to identify features that would make them more identifiable.
MR:Do you plan to produce smaller melee diamonds?
BL:Our goal would be to produce quarter-carat and larger sizes and to create markets in that space. I do envision getting into melee sizes in the future. We would prefer to work directly with jewelry manufacturers in order to ensure that the diamonds are set into jewelry pieces. Right now, we are exploring what the market looks like and how to address it.
MR:Do you think that consumers will react positively to these diamonds? Or do you think that they’re going to say, “Well, it’s not the real thing” and shy away?
BL:There really are a number of different types of consumers who purchase diamonds and jewelry. At the retail level, it’s certainly a very large market. There is going to be a group of consumers that will only buy mined diamonds, just as there is a group of consumers that will only buy French wines. This is an analogy that I think matches fairly closely. When the U.S. wine market opened up, it threatened some people with the potential of swamping the entire wine business with inventory, but it also opened up new markets for people who are interested in quality wines who couldn’t obtain good French wines. We expect something similar to happen here with high-quality grown diamonds.There will be new markets for people who want to buy very high-quality diamonds. And we see this as being added to the existing market.
MR:Do you think there will be competition from other producers of man-made diamonds?
BL:There’s no doubt in my mind that, over time, others will figure out how to grow high-quality diamonds with the Chemical Vapor Deposition process. We have patents issued in a number of markets, with the first patent just issued in June of this year for the U.S. market. We intend to enforce our patents and work with the industry to make sure that the CVD diamonds coming onto the market are from Apollo and not from people who take this technology and slam the market with a lot of diamonds.
MR:How about competition from HPHT diamonds being grown in Florida?
BL:I see them as complementary, as opposed to competitive. I think that the HPHT process has its own set of technical issues necessary to grow near-colorless and colorless diamonds because taking the nitrogen out of that process does crazy things to the growth process of the high-pressure system.
MR:What is your view of the future for the diamond jewelry business?
BL:I see a $1 billion retail market niche for grown diamonds and I think that is just a base from which it can go higher. We are entering a new phase in the jewelry and gem business when there is going to be broader usage of diamond. I see huge markets opening up in China and India that will consume large amounts of diamonds. I think that people are going to adorn themselves with diamonds much more readily. I think people see diamonds as a way of showing someone love and affection, but also, more importantly, as a way of obtaining fashion and status. People want diamonds. It makes them feel good.
MR:Will you brand your diamonds?
BL:Yes, it’s in the early stages but we will certainly brand our diamond to the retail level. I also see a possibility for third-party branding.
MR:What can you say to people who are concerned that your diamonds will ruin our industry?
BL:We feel a tremendous amount of responsibility being the first company with CVD diamonds. We have endeavored, and will continue to endeavor, to do everything we can to work with the industry to make our diamonds a large, legitimate market niche that we hope everybody can participate in.