When her boyfriend proposed to her in 1999, Anna-Mieke Anderson became the proud owner of a diamond engagement ring. All was bliss until her father asked her where the diamond itself came from. Little did he know his question would alter the course of her life.
In researching an answer to her dad’s question, Anderson learned that diamond mines have a reputation for fostering corruption and exploiting workers, their families and the communities in which they exist, reports the Financial Times. They’re also associated with “environmental devastation, severely damaging the land and water,” according to Brilliant Earth. Seven years later, Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2006 film Blood Diamond would help create mainstream awareness of these issues.
Hoping to make even a small difference, Anderson found an organization that advocates for mining communities and sponsored a 7-year-old boy named PonPon. As she exchanged letters with him, a stark picture of his life in Liberia developed. “It wasn’t until he wrote to me and said, ‘I had a great summer because only one of my classmates was killed,’ that I realized how severe this was,” says Anderson.
With PonPon in mind, Anderson decided to make a bold move and launch her own line of conflict-free fine jewelry. But she wanted to define “conflict-free diamond” on her own terms. Currently, the designation is under the purview of the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, created in 2003 to prevent the import of diamonds “used by rebel movements to finance military action opposed to legitimate and internationally recognized governments,” according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website.
Anderson also wanted to account for protecting against human-rights violations, preventing environmental damage and supporting the communities in which these mines exist. But she kept running into a significant roadblock: She couldn’t find diamonds that met her criteria for being conflict-free.
And she was not alone. Vanessa Stofenmacher, founder of lab-grown diamond brand Vrai & Oro, faced the same issue. “There’s no bar code on a rough diamond,” says Stofenmacher. “You cannot trace the diamond back to its origin. And all the diamonds are polished in the same location, so it’s all mixed together.”
The answer, they soon discovered, would not be found in the earth but rather created above ground—in the lab.
A clear business plan
Anderson founded her lab-grown diamond fine-jewelry company, MiaDonna, in the early aughts, at a time when lab-grown diamonds hadn’t yet made a significant splash in the market, largely because they still couldn’t be grown past a quarter carat—a fairly small size, particularly if someone wants to get into the engagement-ring business—and in any color but yellow. But still, Anderson saw an opportunity. “I thought, this is where the industry is going,” she recalls. “I can guarantee exactly where they’re made and how they’re made. I know everything about this diamond.”
Stofenmacher also sensed the possibilities, and felt that consumers would eventually embrace the fact that these gems had been made and not mined. “I saw my mindset shift completely,” she says. “I knew if I could tell that story to customers, they could also see that shift and they would stop looking at lab-grown diamonds as a simulation of a diamond, and start seeing it as a real diamond just created in a different way.”
Both women were right. Today, the lab-grown-diamond industry can produce up to 2 million carats every year, according to global management consultancy Bain & Company, and can produce stones in all colors and sizes, not just the aforementioned yellow and quarter carat. In fact, lab-grown diamonds are IIa quality—the covetable colorless standard that just 2% of mined diamonds meet—making them oftentimes “more perfect” than their earth-grown counterparts.
And while there are still environmental concerns—particularly, the enormous quantity of heat and energy required to grow them in a lab—lab-grown diamonds typically cost consumers 30% less than what a comparable mined stone would, according to Brilliant Earth.
Lab diamonds also have at least one high-profile convert: DiCaprio is an investor in Diamond Foundry, a large supplier of these diamonds. What they don’t have is the mythology (think Marilyn Monroe singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) and rarity of mined diamonds. There’s a limited number of mined diamonds in the world, and they take decades upon decades to form within the Earth’s crust.
“Diamonds have a history,” notes Milton Pedraza, CEO of Luxury Institute. “They have … a journey of natural pressure that creates beauty over many, sometimes hundreds, thousands of years. Diamonds have a story to tell that laboratory diamonds can’t replicate. [Lab diamonds] seem like a little bit of a commodity and a little contrived.”
Naturally, the jewelry industry at large is also skeptical.
“I think the industry is very much against them, although the demand is there,” says Nicole Wegman, founder of New York-based jewelry company Ring Concierge. She works largely with mined diamonds but says that a greater number of traditional jewelers are working with lab-made diamonds as they grow in popularity. Still, “There’s a lot of jewelers that are doing it just to fulfill the demand, not because they believe in the item itself.”
“The industry itself is super traditional and old school. Anything new is always going to be scary and something that people reject immediately,” notes New York jeweler Stephanie Gottlieb, adding, “The definition of a diamond is that it’s natural and from the earth. It absolutely is not the same thing. They are not real diamonds because diamonds are from the earth. It is a product of Mother Nature.”
The Federal Trade Commission is working to make sure consumers know the difference, too. Earlier this year, the FTC sent letters to eight undisclosed companies, warning them that their marketing materials haven’t been explicit enough in distinguishing lab-grown diamonds from natural ones and for touting the environmental benefits of its stones without disclosing the other side—that the energy required to produce them isn’t exactly eco-friendly.
“It is unfair or deceptive to use the word ‘ruby,’ ‘sapphire,’ ’emerald,’ ‘topaz,’ or the name of any other precious or semi-precious stone, or the word ‘stone,’ ‘birthstone,’ ‘gem,’ ‘gemstone’ or similar term to describe a laboratory-grown, synthetic, imitation or simulated stone, unless such word or name is immediately preceded with equal conspicuousness by the word ‘laboratory-grown,’ ‘laboratory-created,’ ‘[manufacturer name]-created,’ or some other word or phrase of like meaning, or by the word ‘imitation’ or ‘simulated,’ so as to disclose clearly the nature of the product and the fact it is not a mined gemstone,” an April 2019 statement from the FTC read.
Stofenmacher acknowledges that “not all lab-grown diamonds are created equal” and that it’s important to find a company that shares your environmental concerns. (Vrai & Oro, for example, partners with Diamond Foundry, which sells carbon-neutral diamonds created with clean energy.)
Meanwhile, the traditional diamond industry has been taking steps to address ethical concerns, says Gottlieb. “The truth is that the diamond industry has done a really good job at cleaning up after themselves and giving back to those communities that are affected by the mining industries there,” she says. It’s also responding to consumer demands for greater transparency: Tiffany & Co., for one, announced it would be providing information on the country where its stones are mined and later cut, polished and set.
As the debate over what makes a diamond a diamond continues, the lab-grown form is edging closer to widespread acceptance. Last year, De Beers, one of the world’s largest producers of mined diamonds, announced it would sell lab-grown diamonds in its Lightbox jewelry brand, a first for the company. And in August, the FTC revised its Jewelry Guides to account for lab-grown diamonds, giving lab-grown creators much-desired acknowledgement.
“The Commission no longer defines a ‘diamond’ by using the term ‘natural’ because it is no longer accurate to define diamonds as ‘natural’ when it is now possible to create products that have essentially the same optical, physical and chemical properties as mined diamonds,” the ruling read.
These two turning points come as no surprise to Danny Baruch, a third-generation jeweler and the CEO of lab-grown supplier American Grown Diamonds.
“In the beginning, people would say, ‘It’s not real,'” he says. “And my reaction to them would be, ‘Hey, take a look at it.’ When they would actually see this stone, it would put some substance to it. As the years went by, customers would request [lab-grown diamonds].”
‘A shift from decades of diamond marketing’
As demand for these stones in their own right has grown, many lab-grown diamond businesses have started to place them at the center of their advertising, rather than try to disguise the diamonds’ origins. On Vrai & Oro’s website, stones are touted as “grown through the power of the sun” and “nice to the earth,” with transparent origins and zero carbon footprint. MiaDonna calls itself the “world’s best lab-grown diamond” and frequently uses the phrase “lab-grown” in its social media marketing, too. On its website, users don’t have to scroll far to find a proclamation—”founded by a mother determined to free children from a lifetime of unethical diamond mining”—that showcases the brand’s commitment to these diamonds.
Truth telling is, in fact, at the center of Vrai & Oro’s marketing, says Stofenmacher, though she doesn’t “like to think of what we do as marketing.”
“It’s more education and storytelling,” she says. “It’s about how do we tell the story, pull back the curtain and show people how the diamonds are actually being made. Instead of trying to sell you one of our diamonds, we want to show you how it’s made so you fall in love with it, rather than feel like you have to buy this facade of products that we’re putting in front of you.”
It’s a shift from decades of diamond marketing that proclaimed that “diamonds are forever,” hyping them as something luxurious and even elusive—made in the Earth’s crust, a process consumers can’t see and aren’t a part of.
For their part, many traditional jewelers agree these stones have a place in the market but aren’t substitutes for the real thing. “Lab-grown diamonds and natural diamonds have very different meanings in the eyes of consumers, with natural diamonds being seen as suited to all occasions, including the most meaningful moments in life, while lab-grown diamonds are viewed as lower-priced fashion jewelry items,” says Bianca Ruakere, media relations manager at De Beers Group. “Both natural diamonds and lab-grown diamonds can be successful product categories, but they operate in different commercial spaces.”
Baruch says getting consumers to understand and accept lab-grown diamonds is a process. At first, people might only be comfortable with a bracelet or another “fashion jewelry item.” But he believes one of those purchases can be a gateway.
“You’re planting seeds for them to understand what a lab-grown diamond is,” he says. “It starts with a piece of fashion jewelry. When it comes time for an engagement ring, since their boyfriend may have bought them a lab-grown bracelet or a pair of earrings, I think they’d be open to a lab-grown engagement ring.”
In many ways, these diamonds’ growing popularity reflects current consumer trends: More than ever, people are demanding transparency from brands and want to know where all the products in their lives are coming from, from their soap to their vegetables. Anderson says these habits (particularly with millennials, the age group that’s likely doing most of the engagement-ring shopping at the moment) have been a boon for lab-grown businesses.
“I really just present the facts,” says Anderson of her approach. “This is what we have to offer, what we’re doing, the social change we’re creating. Then once consumers see side by side the benefits of lab-grown and the quality of the lab-grown versus the earth-mined diamond, there’s not a lot of education I need to do anymore because consumers really understand that they’re identical.”
Even if lab-grown diamonds can win over the public, it’s still too soon to know if they’ll hold their value. Because they’re man-made, the supply is essentially limitless—a contrast to diamonds, which are valuable precisely because they’re rare.
But are they forever?
According to a December 2014 report from consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, almost all the major diamond mines are past their peak production levels, with several anticipating closures in the next five years. Though production was up in 2017, a 2018 report from Bain & Company predicts that the best the industry can hope for is production numbers remaining flat in the future. Recent trends indicate a worse outcome: Annual production of mined diamonds decreased by 3.7% from 2005 to 2013. Taking a long view, only 15 new mines are predicted to be operational in the next 40 years, and the majority of the 50 that are running today are expected to close before then, according to Frost & Sullivan’s report.
Meanwhile, since De Beers’ entry into the lab-grown jewelry market in September 2018, wholesale prices for lab-grown diamonds dropped by a whopping 60%, says the conglomerate’s CEO Bruce Cleaver.
“As time goes on and the prices start to decrease, you’re going to start to lose clientele when they really understand, ‘OK, it’s not quite the same thing. I don’t feel comfortable spending $30,000 on something that’s not going to retain its value,'” Wegman says.
For now, that skepticism combined with the diamond establishment’s reluctance to fully embrace lab-grown diamonds remain a significant hurdle. “If this is the future of diamonds, everyone will have to get on board,” notes Gottlieb. “But I think that as an industry, it’s our duty to stick together on this.”