It's rare that an imitation, Frankensteined into existence, is anything more than a watered-down, flimsy version of the original. Real Rolexes and Folexes. Charcuterie and "ham"-and-"cheese" Lunchables. Coke and Diet Coke. (Fight me, Diet Coke fans.) But when it comes to diamonds—items we've historically been conditioned to think of as exceptionally precious—that might not be the case.
Lab-grown diamonds are exactly what they sound like: diamonds that were manufactured in a lab, rather than mined from the earth. These aren't knockoffs; they're not cubic zirconia; they're not Swarovski crystals. They're bona fide diamonds—chemically identical to their earthen counterparts, so declared by the FTC this summer, except they cost about 30% less than mined diamonds. Excellent news if you're shopping for a diamond…and less excellent if you're selling them.
While companies have been using this process since the mid-1900s, the original created diamonds were a pumpkinish color. Only in the last few years have scientists figured out how to produce the white diamonds with which we're most familiar. There are two approaches to creating them: One utilizes extreme pressure and temperature, mimicking the organic process, to dissolve carbon into a diamond "seed," and another that resembles 3D-printing, where carbon is layered on top of the seed. Then, the seeds are placed in a fancy diamond-cooking microwave, where carbon gas is injected and sticks to the seed, slowing growing it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, lab-grown diamonds are a matter of contention in the gem world.
That's thanks to the fact that proposing with a diamond ring isn't a question of if so much as a question of how. But that wasn't the case even 100 years ago. Exchanging a diamond ring as part of a marriage proposal didn't become popular for people who were not literal royalty until the mid-1900s. Following the Great Depression, the price of diamonds was declining. So De Beers, the company that controlled the majority of the world's diamonds, enlisted ad agency N.W. Ayer in 1938 to sell Americans on the idea that courtship should culminate with the presentation of a diamond ring. Not quite ten years later, Frances Gerety (real life Peggy Olson) famously suggested the phrase "A Diamond Is Forever," which has been used in nearly all of De Beers engagement advertisements since, and went on to become the slogan of the century.
So De Beers took the industry by surprise when it announcedearlier this year that it was getting into the lab-grown diamond business with a new sub-brand called Lightbox—a move that came after the company's revenue dropped 4% in 2017, to $5.8 billion. But, unlike its lab-growing competitors, Lightbox isn't focusing on bridal diamonds. Instead, it's selling colorful, relatively low-priced diamonds that are conceptualized as fun, playful accessories.
"Synthetics are fun and fashionable, but they are not real diamonds in my book," said De Beers CEO Bruce Cleaver. "They aren't rare or given at life's great moments. Nor should they be." The diamond industry loves to throw around that "R" word. To his credit, Cleaver's right: created diamonds aren't rare. They're infinitely replicable, grown in a lab over the course of anywhere from 4-12 weeks, whereas natural diamonds are formed deep within the earth, and most are millions of years-old. This fact has led to the consensus that natural diamonds are uncommon, special gemstones, but that's not wholly true. While all gem-grade stones are technically rare, diamonds are actually more common than most gems. But because De Beers controlled the majority of the world's diamonds up until 1998, they were able to restrict supply, falsely creating the "rare" perception—and cresting diamond prices—that persists today.
The growing number of companies in the lab-grown camp, however, disagree that created diamonds can't be as special as mined stones. Amish Shah, president of ALTR Created Diamonds, sees a lot of potential in the bridal business. "85% of our current growth is coming from engagement rings," he said, also noting that ALTR's revenue will surpass the revenue of its parent company's natural diamond business later this year. But it's still a long haul: the natural diamond industry commanded $82 billion in 2017, while the created jewelry business is projected to become a $1 billion industry as soon as 2020.
"How many people even have a one-carat [diamond] in America?" said Shah. "For them, the aspiration to walk into a Helzberg Diamonds and get a one-carat, for less than $4,000, that's a dream."
One of ALTR's lab-grown 1.5-carat diamonds (left, $6,499), and a one-carat mined diamond (right, $6,999).
Before that happens, though, Shah will have to sell consumers on the authenticity of lab-grown diamonds. In a study conducted by the Diamond Producers Association prior to the FTC ruling, only 16% of respondents identified created diamonds as real. That's a hurdle, but Shah isn't concerned. "What they can get in their price [range] for a mined compared to what they can get for an ALTR created, is so far apart, that once she knows they're both real diamonds, the decision is so easy," said Shah. "That's what's pulling this whole business."
Up close, there are relatively few differences between natural and created diamonds. To the naked eye, created diamonds are virtually indistinguishable from mined diamonds, but with special equipment, naturally-occurring imperfections called inclusions are visible in most organic diamonds. Like snowflakes, no two diamonds are exactly alike; the degree to which these inclusions are present determine a diamond's clarity. Lab-grown diamonds lack inclusions, however, making them appear more brilliant (read: sparkly)—ideal for shoppers looking for the biggest, blingiest diamond they can afford, but less great if you're concerned about other people questioning its authenticity.
For both retailers and consumers, there's also an ethical concern when it comes to the origins of natural diamonds. About 65% of the world's diamonds are mined in Africa, sometimes in war zones by forced labor, the proceeds of which are often used to fund those wars. In 2003, the diamond industry established the Kimberley Process, a certification system designed to assure consumers that the stones they bought were conflict-free. While the effort significantly reduced the number of blood diamonds on the market, some sources estimate that as much as 10% of the world's supply today were harvested in unethical circumstances. (The CEO of DPA estimates that figure closer to 1%.) And even in mines outside of war zones, laborers, who are sometimes children, are often poorly compensated for the grueling conditions they endure.
For Tim Castelein, a 26-year-old mechanical engineer, that concern alone was enough to steer him toward lab-grown stones ahead of his engagement. "I'm a pretty environmentally conscious person, and as I learned more about the processes that go into harvesting diamonds, and especially some gemstones... It's hard to get behind that as something I want to fund."
Lab-grown stones might not be a perfect solution to ethical concerns, though. "The claims by some lab-grown diamond producers that their products are transparent, ethical, and eco-friendly have never been proven," according to a DPA spokesperson. "Many are actually produced in Asia using large quantities of fossil fuels with a higher carbon footprint per carat than a natural diamond."Like any industry, though, sustainability practices vary between companies: all the power for ALTR's plants comes from wind turbines.
Shah says that shoppers can generally increase the size of their diamond by 50% when they consider a lab-grown stone: for the same price, one carat becomes one and a half. Of course, not all women want the biggest possible rock on their finger. "At the larger size, I felt like I wouldn't have been able to take compliments well," said Morgan Taylor, a real estate agent in Atlanta. "That seemed excessive."
"I really tried to be convince myself to be into lab-grown, but because there's not a lot of knowledge on it, I knew I would still feel weird about it," said Taylor. "I'd rather have [a diamond with] flaws and know that my diamond was grown in the earth."
Aside from stigma, the other main deterrent is the longterm value of a lab-grown diamond—it's a new product and lacks that "rare" qualifier. But most natural diamonds actually don't fare so well by that measure. "Diamonds are forever"—at least until you leave the jeweler, at which point your shiny new diamond loses over 50% of its value.
"I always tell people, if you really want to invest in luxury, buy a Chanel bag, or Patek watch, or a Birkin bag," not a diamond, said Shah.
Castelein was concerned about potential stigma as well, until he was inspired by a fateful conversation with his grandfather. "Somehow, the ring he got for my grandmother came up," explained Castelein. "He was like, 'I couldn't afford hardly anything, so I just got her this cubic zirconia ring.' He was always planning on replacing the stone, but she was like 'No, this is what our relationship was at that point.' She never questioned it, and now it's a family heirloom."
"In the long run, it's not going to matter, where it ended up coming from. It's going to take on its own significance and importance," said Castelein.
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