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4Cs of Diamonds:
Diamond Color

Round yellow gemstone on a black background

When evaluating the quality of diamonds, jewelers often refer to the 4Cs: cut, clarity, carat, and color. This criterion serves as the standard for assessing and comparing diamonds, with each aspect contributing to a diamond’s overall appeal and value. Among these, color plays a pivotal role in determining the beauty and desirability of a diamond. It’s also a factor that can tell you a little bit about the diamond’s composition and history within the earth.

As a standard in the jewelry industry, diamond color refers to the absence of color. Expensive diamonds are completely colorless, giving them an icy white appearance, while inexpensive diamonds have subtle tones of yellow or brown. Fancy-colored diamonds are a notable exception to this, however, as they are extremely rare and come in shades ranging from red to purple.

Understanding the GIA Color Scale

Gemologists use the color-grading scale developed by the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) to describe the color of diamonds. The scale has six categories.

Diamond color chart on a white background

Colorless (D, E, F): These diamonds are completely colorless. The only way to distinguish one colorless diamond from another is to use a colorimeter, a specialized tool designed to detect the amount of light that passes through a gemstone. Diamonds with “D” grades are an icy white, making them extremely valuable.

Near Colorless (G-J): Diamonds classified as near colorless have grades ranging from G to J. Stones in this category have trace amounts of color, so they’re less expensive than colorless diamonds.

Faint Yellow (K,L,M): These diamonds have a yellow tint that’s easy to see with the naked eye. The color is slight, however, making them an excellent value based purchase.

Very Light Yellow (N-R): The very light category includes grades N through R. As you move from one grade to the next, it gets easier to see the yellow or brown color in the stone.

Light Yellow (S-Z): Stones in this category have visible tones of light brown or light yellow.

Special grade: Some diamonds, known as fancy-colored diamonds, have colors that go beyond the Z range. Deep yellow and deep brown are the most common, but there are also pink, blue, red, orange, and green diamonds. Fancy-colored diamonds are special because they’re so rare. An interesting fact: only one out of every 10,000 carats of cut diamonds qualifies as fancy. Like with all things – the rarer the diamond, the higher the price.

Why do Diamonds come in Different Colors?

The two primary factors that affect the color of diamonds are the conditions present during their formation and the trace elements found within their crystal lattice structure. Diamond Formation – Crystal Lattice

Diamonds are made of pure carbon, the same element found in coal, limestone, and graphite. The reason diamonds look so different from these other carbon-based substances is because they have a different chemical structure. In graphite, one carbon atom bonds with three other carbon atoms, creating a structure that doesn’t bend or refract light. This is why graphite is a dark gray color.

When exposed to high temperatures and high levels of pressure, carbon atoms move extremely close together, forming diamonds. Under these extreme conditions, one carbon atom binds with four other atoms, creating a tight structure that is transparent and allows light to refract and reflect light inside it. 

As we know from the GIA scale, not all diamonds share the characteristic colorless quality. In some cases, extreme levels of heat and pressure push carbon atoms out of their normal positions, changing the way a diamond reflects light. This is what gives pink diamonds their color.

Trace Elements
The presence of trace elements also plays a role in diamond color. If trace elements are present during diamond formation, they can interact with the carbon atoms to create stones of a different color. Diamonds that are formed with traces of boron, sulfur, or nitrogen, have hues of green, blue, or yellow hues, respectively. Note that nitrogen is the most common foreign element found within natural diamonds.

What Affects the Perception of Diamond Color?

Gold diamond ring on a black fabric
Gold diamond ring on a black fabric

Temperature, pressure, and trace elements affect the actual color of a diamond, but there are other factors that can alter the perception of diamond color. These factors include the shape of the diamond, the color of the jewelry metal, the quality of the cut, and the presence of blue fluorescence.

Shape refers to how the diamond looks when you view it from the top down. For example, a round diamond looks like a circle when viewed from above. Different shapes reflect light in different ways, influencing a stone’s color appearance. Round diamonds tend to have a higher level of white light reflected back to the viewer (brilliance) than emerald-cut or Asscher-cut diamonds, making it more difficult to see the color deep in the stones.

Jewelry Metal Color
The metal that the diamond is set on can have an effect on the appearance of its color, since these metals reflect light into the stone. Platinum and white gold are ideal for making diamonds look colorless.

If you choose a piece that’s made of rose or yellow gold, your diamond may look slightly yellow due to the reflection of the underlying colored material. To minimize this effect, consider a setting made with white gold prongs. Having white gold prongs would help minimize any reflection of the rose or yellow from the base metal.

Diamond Cut & Light Leakage
When a diamond is cut well, it has a high level of brilliance, making it appear very bright. In contrast, poor cuts don’t reflect light well, and have a problem known as light leakage. This causes light to leak from the bottom of the diamond, reducing the amount of white light it reflects. This reduction in white light reflection makes the presence of any yellow or brown tones more pronounced.

Blue Fluorescence
Another characteristic to consider that affects color perception of diamonds is blue fluorescence – that is, how much blue light is reflected from a diamond when put under a UV light. As blue is the complimentary color to yellow, diamonds with a high degree of blue fluorescence have been shown to help mitigate the appearance of yellow in lower color graded diamonds. While this sounds like a great property to have, it’s important to note that some diamonds with a high degree of blue fluorescence have been seen to be milky or hazy. This said, know that every diamond is unique, and it’s best to consult with your jeweler on all properties of a given diamond prior to making a purchase.

Conclusion: Choosing the Right Diamond Color

Color is an important consideration, but it’s not the only thing to consider when buying a piece of diamond jewelry. You also need to think about the cut, clarity, and carat weight. All four factors affect the appearance and cost of a diamond, so think carefully before you make any big decisions. In a lot of cases, finding the perfect stone at a set budget requires some sort of compromise – for instance, getting a stone with a lower color grade for a bigger cut or carat and vice versa. In any case, it’s these situations where the guidance of a jeweler or a gemologist comes to be invaluable.

This is where our team shines.

At our San Diego showroom, we have been helping our clients navigate the world of diamonds for over 40 years. Whether you’re looking for the classical look of colorless diamonds or the unique charm of stones with subtle hues, our expert team, including a GIA-certified gemologist, is here to help you make an informed decision. We warmly invite you for a complimentary consultation, so we can help you find the perfect stone.