Jewellers offering lab-made diamonds are enjoying a boom, as consumers prioritise ethics over tradition.
As synthetic diamonds become more widespread and a growing number of consumers are choosing ethically sourced products, many believe man-made diamonds are the future.
Thirteen years ago, New Zealand-born Anna-Mieke Anderson was an avid jewellery wearer with a penchant for sparkly rocks. But a realisation in 2005 changed her life.
“I learned that I had most likely purchased a conflict diamond,” recalls Anderson. “The first thing I did was take my ring off and sponsor a seven-year-old boy in a diamond-mining community in Liberia, and it was from our letters that I got a first-hand look into the industry. I will never forget the day he wrote to me and said: ‘I had a great summer because only one of my classmates was killed.’ That, right there, changed my life forever, so I did something about it.”
Anderson set up a business in Oregan called MiaDonna (named after her daughter Mia and her mother, Donna) creating jewellery using lab-grown diamonds and recycled gold. It’s come a long way, from when she first started out and diamonds could only be grown yellow-coloured and tiny, to thirteen years later, marketing a ring inset with the world’s largest lab grown diamond, which weighs in at nearly 7 carats.
Five percent of the profits from every sale goes towards repairing and rebuilding communities negatively impacted by diamond mining, through her charity: A Greener Diamond. They have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars so far.
“We don’t just write cheques to foundations hoping they do a good job,” she says. “Instead, we create our own projects that restore diamond-mining communities and visit those communities to ensure we’re making a serious impact. It’s a good feeling.”
It is only in recent years that the market for lab-made diamonds has grown. While blood diamond mining is less prevalent than 20 years ago, conflict diamonds still leak out. Nevertheless, man-made diamonds have not been a straightforward sell, challenging the age-old cachet associated with a ‘real’ gem. But those in the industry point out that man-made diamonds are produced the same way as in nature, it’s just a case of getting the message out.
Scientists start the process of growing a lab-grown diamond by cutting a small piece of carbon known as a seed. The seed is placed in a low-pressure chemical vapour-deposition chamber. Hydrogen and methane gases combine with electrical energy, igniting a plasma ball. A cloud forms in the chamber and carbon molecules rain on the seed. Within six to 12 weeks, a sizeable rough diamond is formed that is then cut, polished and graded in the same way as an earth-mined diamond.
However, the communication — and education — will take some time, admits Marie-Ann Wachtmeister, co-founder of Courbet, a Paris-based luxury jewellery designer.
“When some people hear the word synthetic, they still believe it’s made from cubic zirconia or plastic,” she says. Like MiaDonna, Courbet uses solely lab-made diamonds and recycled gold made from parts of thrown-away circuit boards and mobile phones.
Courbet opened its doors this year with a store on the Place Vendôme in Paris — arguably the world’s most prestigious address for a jeweller — counting luxury stalwarts Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels as its neighbours. Founders Manuel Mallen and Wachtmeister believe their timing perfectly coincides with consumer demand for greater sustainability, along with greater respect for the technology that goes into producing a replica diamond. Courbet is targeting turnover of €50 million within five to six years, and to balance the books by 2020.
“Five years ago, there were no true alternatives to the mined diamond. Today, on the other hand, we have no longer any reason to rummage through the Earth for diamonds when science and technology make it possible to produce the exact same diamond. As for gold, there is more gold above the surface of Earth than below it,” Mallen explains.
The tide is turning. The global synthetic diamond market, from jewellery to medical equipment, is forecast at US$28.6 billion by 2023, up from around US$15 billion in 2014, according to Crystal Market Research.
The shift coincides with challenges for diamond mining. On top of the bad press resulting from ecological and social impact, diamonds are dwindling. According to consultants Bain and Company, the volume of rough diamonds will peak in 2019, before declining between 1.5 and 2 percent a year. Prices for natural rough diamonds are also about 20 percent below record 2011 highs, while synthetic production costs are dropping.
These megatrends have prompted large investors to sink millions into synthetics. In May, De Beers abandoned its policy of selling strictly natural diamonds to launch Element Six, its synthetic diamond arm. It is in the process of building a US$94 million factory in a U-turn that it said reflected consumer demand. Diamond Foundry is a six-year-old California-based synthetic diamond manufacturer with an impressive roster of Silicon Valley investors: Zynga co-founders Mark and Alison Pincus; former Twitter CEO Evan Williams; tech entrepreneur Jeff Skoll; and actor Leonardo DiCaprio. In Singapore, IIa Technologies (Two A, named after the purest form of diamond) opened a 200,000 square-foot diamond-growing plant three years ago. It is reportedly the world’s largest facility of its kind and can produce up to 300,000 carats a year.
Clearly, this is an industry on the up. Stéphane Wulwik, a 15-year jewellery veteran, set up Innocent Stone in 2016 when he realised there was a growing demand for ethical jewellery. Based between Paris and Brussels, the company uses stones from all four of the major diamond labs in China, Russia, the US and Singapore in order to create the most diverse jewellery. Like many of his peers, around 70 percent of his business is in engagement and wedding rings.
He says: “The first year, the market was very slow and almost insignificant but today the demand is booming. Our turnover has grown by 30 percent in one year.”
Wulwick adds: “Demand has suddenly exploded because of the way consumption is changing. A new generation of consumers prefers a product with a real social and ethical commitment. And they know a diamond is a diamond wherever it comes from.”
He says the industry is counting on “socially concerned” Millennial customers who don’t necessarily share the same stigma against synthetic diamonds as their parents. Millennials also tend to be more price conscious; a home-grown diamond costs around 30-40 percent less than a mined one.
Anderson agrees a shift in attitude is well under way. “Millennials appreciate the technology that it takes create these diamonds and they are proud to wear a diamond that did not cost a fortune and, more importantly, someone’s life."