Lab-grown diamonds: are they forever?

The past 12 months have seen seismic shifts in the diamond industry challenging traditional mores about the monetary and emotional value of the “forever” gem. Vivienne Becker reports

Atelier Swarovski by Penélope Cruz 18ct white-gold Lola Double Ring with three white topaz and Swarovski Created Diamonds surrounding the topaz and decorating the sides, £2,690
Atelier Swarovski by Penélope Cruz 18ct white-gold Lola Double Ring with three white topaz and Swarovski Created Diamonds surrounding the topaz and decorating the sides, £2,690

If you feel life is speeding up – madly – think for a moment about the diamond. A natural diamond has taken millions of years to crystallise its carbon atoms deep within the earth, somewhere between one and three billion years ago. Now, in our insta-age of mesmerising scientific progress, a diamond can be grown in a state-of-the-art laboratory in a matter of weeks. Counterintuitively perhaps, these fast-diamonds are becoming hot property in the wave of “conscious luxury”. They’re also at the centre of a radical shake-up of the deeply traditional diamond industry.

Synthetic diamonds were first developed in the 1950s for industrial use, but it was only in the 1990s that gem-quality stones were produced and only in the past five or six years that the process has progressed in leaps and bounds, with factories from California to China now manufacturing gem-quality specimens. There are two main methods of producing a lab-grown diamond (LGD): High Pressure High Temperature (HPHT), normally used for smaller stones, and Chemical Vapour Deposition (CVD), for larger and higher-quality ones. Both use a diamond “seed” to start the process and the end results are set to become very big business indeed. According to a report by diamond industry expert Paul Zimnisky, the LGD jewellery market (estimated at $1.9bn: two per cent of the $87bn diamond market) is forecast to grow by 22 per cent annually, to $5.2bn by 2023 and $14.9bn by 2035.

The appetite for LGDs is predicted to be strongest among millennials, for whom ethics and the environment are major considerations. They are also widely viewed to be less materialistic than previous generations, less attached to the traditional romantic notions of natural diamonds, and attracted to the modernity of the laboratory process.

Courbet sources some of its stones from a New Diamond Technology laboratory in Russia 
Courbet sources some of its stones from a New Diamond Technology laboratory in Russia 

California-based Diamond Foundry, launched in 2015 and famously backed by Leonardo DiCaprio, is one of the high-profile leaders in the production of LGDs. Its CEO, Martin Roscheisen, says this generation of jewellery buyers “wants the emotional and symbolic significance of their diamond to be that it reflects their personal values”. He notes that “production and sales have nearly doubled every quarter. We now produce some 100,000cts a year, and are building a new facility in Washington state, as we expect production to reach more than 1m cts annually.”

Last year, the De Beers Group, the biggest name in diamonds, threw its hat into the ring and, some might add, a sparkling spanner in the works by announcing the launch of Lightbox, its own jewellery brand devoted to LGDs. Through its UK laboratory Element Six, De Beers Group even produces pink and blue diamonds, the natural specimens of which are among the rarest of the rare.

Currently, De Beers Group is the only player to participate in both sectors. Stephen Lussier, executive VP of marketing, explains the rationale thus: “We see lab-grown and natural diamonds as two fundamentally different products, two separate market segments, two different value propositions.” The LGD, he suggests, is the perfect fit for the lower-priced “non-fine, high-volume” market segment aimed at younger audiences. LGDs can be manufactured at low cost, says Lussier, and still deliver a look that’s “fun, fashionable, sparkling and includes colour”. Lightbox launched last September via e-commerce in the US and is presently scaling up. With the prospect of fast growth, a new Element Six facility is being built in Oregon, and after the plant comes on line next year, Lightbox is predicting revenues rising to around $200m by 2021.

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The brand operates a very simple, no-nonsense pricing structure: customers have a choice of diamond sizes, from 0.25ct at $200 to 1ct at $800, and a choice of settings – $100 for a necklace or earrings in silver, $200 in 10ct gold. No certificates are issued and there are no rings on offer, again differentiating the product from the natural diamond and its bridal associations. The price is based purely on production costs, says Lussier, and not on a scale linked to natural diamond prices. This is because, he explains, “natural diamonds are a limited resource – the earth is not making more of them. By way of example, De Beers Group’s rough-diamond production in 2018, totalling 35.3m cts, yielded only some 7,000 top-quality stones of at least 1ct.

De Beers Group has been accused of undercutting the LGD market, where prices have dropped from 84 per cent of natural diamonds’ prices (in early 2016) to 50-60 per cent. But for Lussier, realistic pricing is not only key to driving the market, but an essential part of the difference between the two products. Irrespective of De Beers Group’s stance, LGD prices will likely continue to drop as the manufacturing process is refined and volumes increase. HRD Antwerp, the leading European authority in diamond certification, estimates the figure will move closer to 20-30 per cent within the next year. This is good news for the consumer and for growth of market share, but it also erodes the secondary market and investment potential.

With such price differentials, how can the jewellery trade and the consumer be sure of what they are buying? While it’s true that LGDs have chemical, physical and optical properties identical to those of natural diamonds, their growth patterns are entirely different and can easily be identified by modern instruments. In an LGD produced by HPHT the trained eye can see the pressure points left by presses, and in a CVD diamond, which is grown in layers, those layers are visible. A spokesperson at HRD Antwerp explains: “A natural diamond has a unique and complex growth history, while LGDs show simple, repetitive growth patterns.” HRD is investing considerable amounts in developing specialist equipment to be used by jewellers, retailers, cutters and traders that makes identification fast and accurate.

Clockwise from top: Atelier Swarovski by Stephen Webster 14ct recycled gold Double Diamond bracelet with diamonds and rose quartz, £6,490. Courbet recycled rose-gold ring with white and pink diamonds, €6,400. Lark & Berry 14ct rose-gold Dark Halo Sapphire ring with diamonds and sapphire, £575
Clockwise from top: Atelier Swarovski by Stephen Webster 14ct recycled gold Double Diamond bracelet with diamonds and rose quartz, £6,490. Courbet recycled rose-gold ring with white and pink diamonds, €6,400. Lark & Berry 14ct rose-gold Dark Halo Sapphire ring with diamonds and sapphire, £575 | Image: Fine Jewellery Images FJI Jet Le

Renowned diamantaire André Messika sees the LGD as a mass-market alternative, rather than a threat, to the natural diamond market. He uses the analogy of a Picasso print and a Picasso original: “Both have beauty, both can be enjoyed. The original has increased tremendously in value; the print has a similar value to 30 years ago.” He predicts that the influx of good-quality LGDs will take the place of low-quality natural diamonds, which could lose their value entirely and be relegated to industrial use. He also believes that the remaining 65 per cent of the market, the good-quality natural diamonds, will rise in price and value considerably.

Courbet is the first Place Vendôme jeweller to use only LGDs. It was founded last May by Manuel Mallen – a Richemont veteran who has also worked at Piaget and Baume & Mercier, among others – and Marie-Ann Wachtmeister, a Swedish designer-entrepreneur. Taking the opposite stance to Lightbox, Courbet aims to elevate the LGD through design, marketing and the fact that it sources some of its stones from laboratories in France (as well as others abroad, such as New Diamond Technology’s facility in Russia). As part of this mission, Wachtmeister argues against the image of the “standardised” production-line diamond: “All have their patterns, their secrets. You plant a seed, but you don’t know exactly how it’s going to grow.” Courbet’s stones are certified and the designs are modern, minimalist and sleek, with the diamonds set in recycled gold and prices ranging from €700 to €30,000. Again, counter to Lightbox, Courbet offers engagement rings, actively promoting the romance of LGDs. Its Toi et Moi 2 Courbet ring (€6,400), for example, is a wide ribbon of rose gold set with a pink and a white diamond.

When Lark & Berry founder Laura Chavez became aware of the technology to synthesise diamonds, she was, she says, “blown away”. The company launched in May 2018, followed shortly by a boutique in London’s Marylebone and an appointment-only salon in Hong Kong, with further stores planned in New York, Madrid and Mexico by the end of this year. While beating the sustainability drum, Chavez focuses on a design style that she describes as “conversational, modern and offbeat”, from the organic-looking Halo Sapphire collection, encircling lab-grown sapphire slices in LGDs, to the lyrical LGD-encrusted Bow pieces. “When we launched, we thought our typical client would be a 30-35-year-old female,” she says, “but our customers range from mid‑20s to 60s – a mix of women self-gifting and men buying gifts for women.”

Meghan Markle wearing Kimai’s gold Felicity earring with diamonds, £425
Meghan Markle wearing Kimai’s gold Felicity earring with diamonds, £425 | Image: Rex/Shutterstock

Kimai, the newest kid on the block, was launched in late 2018 by Jessica Warch and Sidney Neuhaus, both of whom come from long-established Antwerp diamond-trading family businesses. They were intrigued when they heard about LGDs around two years ago and felt it was an opportunity to bring about change in their deeply traditional industry. “Our generation is looking for different jewellery,” says Warch, “and good design doesn’t have to mean top prices.” Kimai’s designs are young, cool and high-fashion; when the Duchess of Sussex was pictured wearing its gold Felicity earring (£425), it sold out within a week. Warch and Neuhaus also trumpet the sustainability element, and believe that education is key to the future of the LGD market.

Although sustainability claims give LGDs an air of moral superiority, they are nonetheless difficult to substantiate, especially in such a young industry that is not yet subject to stringent scrutiny. It’s difficult to know what checks have been conducted on working conditions and environmental standards at factories in China or India, for example. Comparisons of energy and water usage, equally, are clouded in confusion, with contradictory facts and figures quoted, some of which are more than a decade old. Considerable energy is needed for the LGD production process, and facilities may not have access to renewable energy. Diamond Foundry claims it is carbon neutral – but it achieves this by purchasing solar credits.

Meanwhile, natural diamond producers highlight the strict regulations governing their industry today, and the socio-economic benefits of diamond mining to communities and countries, including environmental initiatives such as the preservation of wildlife and restoration of mined land. Lussier tells of the “extraordinary development story of Botswana”, a diamond-rich country where 30 per cent of GDP comes from diamonds and the industry provides 34,000 jobs. “Before our investment and infrastructure, there were three secondary schools in Botswana; now there are 300. And every child enjoys free schooling until the age of 13 thanks to diamond-generated revenue.”

Lark & Berry platinum Bow earrings with diamonds, price on request
Lark & Berry platinum Bow earrings with diamonds, price on request

The Diamond Producers Association (DPA), which was formed by seven of the world’s leading diamond companies and promotes integrity and sustainability, commissioned an independent report from Trucost, which was published on May 2. Findings include the fact that the carbon emissions associated with producing a polished 1ct natural diamond are less than a third of those produced by one passenger flying one way from London to New York; and that any negative impact associated with land usage, water depletion, pollution and waste is fully compensated by the biodiversity programmes of DPA members, who together protect 260,000 hectares of land through reserves – three times as much as the mined land they rehabilitate. For example, on the “Diamond Route”, which covers a range of De Beers Group properties within South Africa and Botswana, the company rehabilitates and conserves six hectares of land for every hectare it mines, thus redressing the balance between the use of natural resources and maintaining and nurturing the ecosystem. More remarkably, a pioneering initiative, spearheaded by De Beers Group, is exploring ways of using the natural properties of kimberlite rock to absorb CO2, to the point of becoming not only carbon neutral but possibly carbon positive, which would be a significant step forward in the fight against climate change.

The other major player in the field is Swarovski, the Austrian family-owned and -run crystal company, which has a heritage of innovation in precision-cutting technology and using novel materials. Chairman Markus Langes-Swarovski explains that the investment in Swarovski Created Diamonds, and in specialised cutting technology, is one of several initiatives aimed at exploring growth opportunities in the jewellery market as a whole. “We see a trend in material convergence across fashion, bridge and fine jewellery.” Yet, in a measured approach, he adds: “We believe that natural and manmade diamonds can co-exist and thrive.”

As part of her Atelier Swarovski collection of designer collaborations, last year Nadja Swarovski, executive board member and creative director, launched Swarovski Created Diamonds in a fine-jewellery collection designed with Penélope Cruz. And more recently she collaborated with designer-jeweller Stephen Webster on a Swarovski Created Diamond collection called Double Diamond, which is based on the octahedral form of the rough diamond. Webster was very happy to take this on, having watched LGDs and new opportunities unfold. “I knew lab-grown diamonds were going to be interesting a few years ago,” he says. “I am excited by the amazing alchemy of it all. It also happens to play well to the sustainability trend. But we should be looking at the technology, not at price comparisons with natural diamonds. LGDs should be used to create something extraordinary. I want to push them to where natural diamonds can’t go.”

Clockwise from left: Kimai 18ct gold Leaf necklace with diamonds, £1,055. De Beers Lightbox 10ct white-gold Halo earrings with pink and white diamonds, $1,000, and sterling-silver Blue Moon pendant with blue and white diamonds, $700. Courbet recycled white-gold earrings with diamonds, €2,800
Clockwise from left: Kimai 18ct gold Leaf necklace with diamonds, £1,055. De Beers Lightbox 10ct white-gold Halo earrings with pink and white diamonds, $1,000, and sterling-silver Blue Moon pendant with blue and white diamonds, $700. Courbet recycled white-gold earrings with diamonds, €2,800

As for natural diamonds, Webster sees growing interest in the inclusions and imperfections that make each stone unique: “I’m enjoying a Japanese-style moment celebrating imperfections.” While there may be flaws in LGDs today, due to imperfect production methods, inclusions are not inherent to the process, and it seems very likely that all such flaws will be ironed out in time, to produce identical, perfect diamonds. Whereas, explains Jean-Marc Lieberherr, CEO of the DPA, “imperfections or inclusions in natural diamonds often contain billion‑year-old elements”.

New York-based gemologist Tito Pedrini echoes the sentiment: “LGDs offer an opportunity to use amazing stones in avant-garde designs, but, for me, the most fascinating part of being a gemologist is using my loupe to explore the minute inclusions in a natural diamond.” There’s an inner life, an individuality that tells of the origins of the planet, that becomes part of the diamond legend – or as Lieberherr puts it: “A diamond cannot be reduced to an atomic structure.” That’s one side of the argument. And on the other, as Webster says, “The lab-grown diamond will be the voice of progress.” 

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