“Synthetic diamonds will never replace a natural diamond,” says Leonard Zell, Jewellery Focus’ own columnist and a specialist in jewellery sales training, with a chuckle. “I can’t see how a woman would ever want to mention that she has a lab created diamond as an engagement ring.”
Zell’s remarks are in response to the news of De Beers announcing a new synthetic diamond jewellery range, to be launched by a subsidiary called Lightbox this September. The brand will initially launch in the US and will be available to customers online, with stones retailing from $200 (£150) for a quarter-carat stone to $800 (£603) for a one-carat stone. Lightbox will be the only jewellery brand to source the lab-grown diamonds from De Beers’ Element Six business, a supplier of synthetic diamonds.
But why is De Beers, a company synonymous with natural diamonds, now launching a product ‘on the other side’ of the diamond trade, and ostensibly in competition with its usual and historic offering? David Prager, executive vice president of corporate affairs at De Beers, offers reassurance, saying the group “will always be a natural diamond company”. The reason behind this announcement, he explains, is that the company sees “increasing consumer confusion” about what synthetic diamonds actually are. Prager has worked with De Beers for 12 years and is also a board member for the Diamond Empowerment Fund, an organisation in the US which focuses on giving opportunities to children in diamond producing countries.
He believes consumers were being “underserved” by laboratory grown diamonds currently available in the market, which he says are “priced near the cost of natural diamonds”. De Beers’ lab-grown diamonds are not priced against natural diamonds. “They are a different product entirely,” he says, “as natural diamonds are priced based on their rarity and therefore their inherent value, while our synthetic diamonds are priced against the cost of production.”
“It’s bit like having a Picasso painting,” he explains, “The original Picasso is worth millions, it’s invaluable. You can create a print that is pretty close and you can reproduce that print over and over again. The original is clearly finite and rare, its precious and therefore carries inherent value, much like a diamond created a billion years ago. We think that it’s not fair to the consumer to price the synthetic copy, which can be replicated and is infinite, in the same way as a natural gem.”
Prager says his firm’s market research found consumers would consider lab-grown diamonds for more casual occasions, but there was no affordable offerings in the marketplace.Research also found that, for women, lab-grown diamonds would be “the kind of product that they would be comfortable bringing on holiday”. “If they lose one,” he says, “it’s not a big deal – De Beers allows you to order just one to replace it – so it’s a very different value proposition to natural diamonds.”
WHAT ARE SYNTHETIC DIAMONDS?
Element Six defines lab-grown diamonds as man-made products of crystallised carbon – first first produced in the 1950s. Their physical properties – extreme durability and hardness – mean they have long had a range of industrial applications, mainly as abrasives and for cutting tools. However, they also have potential in a range of high-tech applications, including quantum computing and the semiconductor industry, and only relatively recently have been used in jewellery.
The diamonds are mass produced in large batches to uniform specifications in industrial reactors or high pressure presses. There are two methods to synthesis used for producing lab-grown diamonds, CVD (chemical vapour deposition) and HPHT (high pressure high temperature). CVD synthesis is the process used by Element Six to create the synthetic diamonds for Lightbox Jewelry.
The Gemological Institute of America (GIA), on its website, says they are “not fakes, but not natural”. It adds: “Synthetic diamonds are grown in a laboratory and have essentially the same chemical composition, crystal structure and physical properties as natural diamonds.” But Zell, who has 30 years’ experience behind the diamond counter and training fine jewellers throughout the world, says they are mere “imitation diamonds”, and insists customers will see them as such no matter how they are packaged up and sold. “$800 for a carat that is not even a proper diamond is too much”, he says.
“By manufacturing diamonds they are making it a commodity, with which the prices can range all over the place. How do we know that price will hold up? Like anything else that is a commodity, people can make as many as they want and split the market.”
THE BENEFITS OF BEING LAB-GROWN
So what can synthetic diamonds actually offer the industry? A Human Rights Watch report in February this year found a significant majority of those working in the jewellery industry simply cannot trace where their diamond and gold materials are coming from – not all the way to source. The main appeal of lab-grown diamonds in light of traceability weakness, is that they are, by definition, conflict-free. Alan Frampton, managing director of Cred Jewellery, is keen on lab-grown diamonds because of this, and says they have “better environmental credentials” as a result.
Frampton goes further, saying real-mined diamonds have “problems environmentally and socially” and the big companies “have not managed provenance very well”. He says: “Add to that the Kimberley process, which is weak at best, and the diamond industry has been slack in understanding how consumers want to know how the stone they are buying was produced and from where. My customers like the fact that they are free from child labour and are really conflict free.”
Prager is more optimistic. He asserts: “99.8% of the world’s diamonds are conflict free” and adds that there is “a mythology” that has built up around the idea that “some large proportion of diamonds in the world that are funding conflict”.
“Conflict diamonds was a great scourge on the world in the 1990s,” he says, “but it is also true that the diamond industry, together with the government and civil society, have worked together to address to the issue of conflict diamonds. The lab-grown producer’s case is that we do no harm, but we just don’t accept the idea that there are ethical alternatives, because diamonds in and of themselves are tremendously ethical.”
AN ALTERNATIVE OR A REPLACEMENT?
Prager says the new diamond range shouldn’t be seen as a replacement for natural diamonds. “It’s playing in the space of semi-precious stones, coloured gems, crystal and moissanite,” he says. “[Customers] know if they are going to buy a diamond for a really important occasion that it needs to be natural.”
What of the fears that a younger generation of consumers are less interested in diamonds and fine jewellery? “It’s not true”, he says emphatically. His view is echoed by Cred’s Frampton, who thinks the price of lab-grown diamonds will actually help to attract a younger audience. “Young people have many demands on their finances,” he says, “so giving them a bigger diamond for their money is going to work”. In his own firm, Frampton offers Canadian diamonds alongside with lab-grown alternatives, and finds people are “perfectly capable of making up their mind”. Since July 2017 Frampton has seen a 35% increase in sales of lab-grown diamonds, and says young Londoners in particular have “no problem” with the product.
“There is this myth that millennials are turning off diamonds,” concludes Prager, “but what we are finding is that [they] are not aliens, they are still falling in love and they do still get married, just sometimes later in life. Whether or not they get married, symbols are still important to them.”