Can Lab-Grown Diamonds Become A Girl’s Best Friend?

A diamond is just a lump of coal that did well under pressure. But exactly what kind of pressure, and in what conditions, lie at the centre of a debate that has divided and disrupted the sparkling world of fine jewellery.

Technology has evolved so rapidly over the past five years, the industry has witnessed a boom in lab-grown diamonds – gemstones that are chemically and aesthetically identical to those found at the bottom of the Earth, yet can be produced in a matter of months. And with a younger, more ethically conscious generation coming of diamond-buying age, many argue that this environmentally-friendly, sustainable method is the best way of providing the world with its favourite gemstone.

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Synthetic gemstones have been manufactured as far back as the 19th century – but the challenge of creating a decent-sized diamond, however, has long eluded scientists. While lab-made rubies, sapphires and emeralds have gone mainstream, diamonds have retained their cachet as a symbol of rarity, luxury and uniqueness. “Grown diamonds” (a term the Diamond Producers Association initially disputed as misleading, only to be overturned by the US Federal Trade Commission in July, allowing synthetic manufacturers to market their products as “real”) costs, on average, 30 to 40 per cent less than natural diamonds. As the practice becomes more widespread, that gap will likely widen – with mined diamonds dropping in value to remain competitive.

So how do you “grow” diamonds? There are two ways to do it. The first simulates the crushing force of Mother Nature by applying high temperature and high pressure in a microwave chamber to transform carbon into a diamond. The second is akin to 3D-printing, where pieces of carbon are layered on a diamond seed in a vacuum chamber. Both processes, it should be noted, are hardly eco-friendly – they require an enormous amount of energy to operate. But the technology is so advanced now that experts require a machine to distinguish between synthetic and mined gems.

And whereas once consumers perceived synthetic diamonds to be less authentic and valuable than natural ones, today they are being viewed as an enticing gateway to bigger diamonds at lower prices and, crucially, a guilt-free investment.

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“A lot of young people are interested in this category of diamonds – they saw the film Blood Diamond and they know about the dark side of mining,” says Jean Pigozzi, one of many multi-millionaires with a stake in Silicon Valley-based Diamond Foundry. One of the biggest producers of synthetic diamonds, its investors include Leonardo DiCaprio, the founders of Facebook and Twitter, and the founding CEO of eBay. “When you go to a jewellery store, 32 people on average have touched the diamond before it reaches you, and those people are not traceable. In the case of lab-grown diamonds, they go straight from the factory to the jeweller,” says Pigozzi.

Consumers are equally aware of the environmental impact of diamond mining, and Diamond Foundry is keen to convey its “world positive” ethos. “Currently, we are the only diamond producer that is certified carbon neutral,” says CEO Martin Roscheisen, who points out that his diamonds are manufactured in a hydro-powered plasma reactor. “Mining has a larger environmental footprint than any other human activity. For a single carat of diamond, approximately 250 tonnes of earth have to be dug up, 2,011 ounces of air pollution is released and 143 pounds of carbon dioxide is emitted.”

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Of course, the most environmentally-friendly way of buying diamonds is not to buy new diamonds, synthetic or natural, at all. Many pre-owned stones are available at both retail and auction level, and most jewellers offer bespoke services to reset and redesign second-hand pieces of jewellery. Many jewellers have made it their USP to rework antique jewellery for a contemporary audience.

For the big jewellery houses, however, the shift towards synthetic has proved more problematic. Take historic brand De Beers, which monopolised the diamond market for well over a century and is still the world’s largest miner, with exclusive access to Botswana’s entire supply chain. Having coined the phrase “a diamond is forever”, for years, De Beers expressed its reluctance to embrace synthetic diamonds, preferring to focus on the image of mined diamonds as rare, eternal and the only option for engagement rings. But this May, the house performed a U-turn with Lightbox, a new range of lab-grown diamonds produced under the De Beers Group umbrella. With a $94 million facility in Oregon, Lightbox aims to produce 500,000 synthetic carats per year by 2020.

Lightbox’s approach is telling. Targeted at a younger clientele, its campaigns will be lighter in tone and geared towards fashion trends, rather than playing on the emotional gravitas of engagement rings. Prices are $800 per carat; by comparison, a one-carat mined diamond will usually sell for about $8,000.

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“It’s light and fun and decorative,” says chief marketing officer Sally Morrison. “We tell it like it is and we are pursuing completely linear pricing. With natural diamonds, pricing follows a curve based on rarity, which just doesn’t make sense for lab-grown products.”

Morrison says Lightbox’s biggest competitors are costume-jewellery behemoths, such as Swarovski. De Beers is effectively betting on splitting the market – with luxury, complex, mined-gem engagement rings at the top, and lab-made fashion jewellery, mainly solitaires, aimed at millennials, at the bottom. “We hope to become a lighthouse brand for this category,” adds Morrison. “Right now, it’s a tiny little team. Notwithstanding the power of our parent company, it’s very start-up-y.”

For jewellers old and new, lab-grown diamonds remain uncharted territory. On the one hand, it presents a new medium that is chemically the same as mined diamonds, available ethically and at a much more accessible price point. On the other, it could dilute the aura of luxury and rarity that so many jewellers trade on.

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For Stephen Webster, one of London’s leading independent jewellers, it is a point of interest – but only to a certain degree. “The one thing that everyone would agree on is that you don’t want to see confusion,” he says. Whereas he uses mined stones for his namesake label, the jeweller has partnered with Atelier Swarovski on a line of fair-trade pieces featuring 14-carat recycled gold, rose quartz and lab-grown pavé diamonds – or “created” diamonds, as Swarovski prefers to call them.

“When I was asked by Swarovski to work on this project, I knew I was working on something completely separate to what I do,” says Webster. “The stones that we’re using in this collection are intentionally small stones, to add a bit of glitz to a piece. A lot of fashion-forward jewellery is about design, and not so much about high-value individual stones.”

For Webster, working with synthetic diamonds provides an opportunity to speak to a younger audience at a more accessible level. Prices start at £1,290 and go up to £7,490. He agrees that synthetic stones could act as a more democratic platform for fine jewellery, just as diffusion lines or high-street collaborations can for high-end fashion designers. “There’s a call for more democracy in fashion and jewellery,” says Webster. “I’m not bursting any illusion about the rarity of what comes out of the ground, which is to do with colour and size and uniqueness. As beautiful as they are, a lab-grown diamond is coming in as an alternative for people to make up their own mind about.”

“It will be totally disruptive,” asserts Nadja Swarovski, matriarch of the legendary crystal manufacturer, which began cutting gemstones in 1965. “There’s that belief that diamonds are rare and precious, and I think it’s also going to be a generational thing. My mother would never buy a created diamond, but my daughters would only buy a created diamond.” For Swarovski, which for years has been associated with crystals, this marks an unprecedented dive into the world of diamonds – and Nadja is keen to add that the Austrian company will also be looking into using natural diamonds, as long as they are ethically sourced. “It’s exciting for us to go into the fine jewellery market,” she adds. “I’m not sure how fine jewellers are not embracing created diamonds.”

Within the jewellery community – and indeed among luxury consumers – synthetic diamonds just don’t have the same ring (for want of a better word) as mined stones. Currently, engagement rings account for almost a third of global diamond jewellery sales, which makes them a substantial contributor to the revenues of jewellery houses. It remains divisive whether consumers could be drawn to synthetic diamonds for such a highly sentimental piece of jewellery. De Beers is adamant that they won’t be – yet, in a survey by market research company MVI, the percentage of consumers willing to buy an engagement ring with a lab-grown diamond is steadily increasing, rising from 55 per cent in 2016 to almost 70 per cent in 2018.

“With how quickly this industry is growing, it could eclipse mined diamonds by 2030,” says Diamond Foundry’s Roscheisen, who adds that the company’s production and sales have almost doubled each quarter and it is currently producing more than 100,000 carats per year. If those figures are anything to go by, it may not be long before the esteemed names on Place Vendôme take note.

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