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Will lab made diamonds become a girl’s new best friend?

If you are planning to gift – or hoping to get – a diamond this season, you have a ’40s copywriter called Frances Gerety to thank. Or blame. It’s hard to imagine a time when diamond engagement rings were not the norm, but before the ’30s, the unveiling of a diamond would not generally seal a marriage proposal unless the love-struck suitor was literally royalty or uber wealthy.

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In the Great Depression, diamonds were seen as an extravagant expense that detracted from functional luxuries like buying a car or a house. It was then that De Beers, the company which monopolised the diamond market, hired advertising agency N.W. Ayer to “use propaganda in various forms” to transform the stone into the ultimate gesture of love. Some 10 years later, in 1947, Gerety coined the signature line, ‘A Diamond is Forever’, and De Beers sold a novel idea to the world that a stone which can be chiselled, discoloured and incinerated to ash is a symbol of eternal love and emotional value.

This ‘slogan of the century’ has been used in nearly all of De Beers advertisements. The beauty of Gerety’s one-liner was that it didn’t try to make a direct sale; instead, it sold the concept of permanence and eternity and based it on the foundation of sentiment. For a mass of coal that did incredibly well under pressure, diamonds owe their remarkable success to the genius of a creative writer.

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In the post-World War II era, diamond solitaire rings became de rigueur for lovers virtually everywhere in the world. But recently, the pressure and conditions in which a diamond thrives have spurred a debate that threatens to derail Gerety’s legacy. Decades of environmental and humanitarian abuses in diamond mining; a boom of lab-made, guilt-free counterparts; and an ethically-conscious generation coming of diamond-purchasing age – the industry is once again at the crossroads. So, what are lab-made diamonds, and why are young people falling out of love with the naturally mined gemstones?

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Made in a Lab
Frankensteined into existence, lab-created diamonds are not new; they were first manufactured for General Electric in 1954. Replicating the properties of the world’s hardest substance, industrial diamonds were made to cut other materials that would be otherwise impossible to crack. Larger, more sophisticated and stunning gem-quality synthetic stones followed, created within weeks in laboratories using high-pressure, high-temperature growth chambers that mimic what, in nature, takes millions of years. Advances in technology in the last four or five years have allowed companies to produce higher quality diamonds more quickly and cheaply.

A report by management consultancy Bain & Company states that the worldwide growth of lab diamond production increased to six to seven million carats in 2020, while the production of mined diamonds fell to 111 million carats, from a peak of 152 million in 2017. The synthetic variety cost “a third of what it is for something that we’ve dug up from the ground,” says Alexander Lacik, CEO of Pandora, the world’s largest jeweller.

“Created within weeks in laboratories using high-pressure, high-temperature growth chambers [synthetic diamonds] mimic what, in nature, takes millions of years”

Synthetic stones, however, retain a certain stigma in the luxury industry, a psychological barrier to break through given our historic conditioning that diamonds are exceptionally rare, prized possessions. But laboratory-manufactured diamonds are not imitations or knock-offs – physically, chemically and optically they are bona-fide gems, corresponding very closely to natural stones. And they are more affordable, ‘conflict-free’ and apparently created at half the carbon footprint of the mined variety.

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Cleaner Choice
The diamond mining industry has long been tainted by images of international or civil conflict and humanitarian transgressions, as spurred into the public consciousness by the 2006 film Blood Diamond. Cultured diamonds, on the other hand, are increasingly marketed as the cleaner, sustainable choice to price- and planet-conscious young buyers who are steadily making their mark; this market segment is growing by 15 to 20 percent per year, according to the Antwerp World Diamond Centre.

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The lab-grown sector has welcomed countless new players embracing the trend, most notably Pandora, which this spring announced an exclusive switch to lab-made diamonds as a part of its long-term sustainability drive. After long resistance to change, for the first time in its century-old history, De Beers has rolled out a line of lab-created diamond jewellery under the brand Lightbox, with an annual production of some 500,000 synthetic carats.

‘C’ for Cost
Just like a natural diamond, the price of its synthetically-made cousins can vary tremendously. At bridal jeweller James Allen, a one-carat lab-created diamond starts at about US$1,550, and bestows up to 30 percent more size for the price than a natural diamond. A 6.36-carat synthetic diamond, meanwhile, can be snapped up for US$61,888 at Clean Origin. Lightbox sells one-carat loose cultured diamonds for US$800; a mined diamond of the same size and clarity would cost at least 10 times that price. The resale value of a lab-grown stone is questionable, though, and with a capacity surge assured as Chinese producers begin to enter the market, it’s clear that prices will keep falling in contrast to the naturals, especially as the mined supply dries up.

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Since the synthetic diamond has an identical chemical structure to the mined stone, and goes through the same grading and certification processes, they ‘appear’ the same in terms of the 4 (or 5) Cs – cut, colour, clarity, carat (and certification). The essential difference hinges on their enduring worth. Real diamonds are true miracles of nature that have withstood the test of time, so their inherent value is incomparable.

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Not Flawless
Lab-made diamonds are being talked up amid the climate crisis, but are they so squeaky clean and green? Given the increasing number of players in the synthetic diamond industry, it is difficult to compare accurate data about the carbon footprint of mined and lab diamonds. The synthetic manufacturers like Gemesis and Deluxe Diamonds, have repeatedly pointed out that their lab-made creations produce less than half the carbon emissions, and are without the taint of child labour. But the US Federal Trade Commission has gone on record to warn against unsubstantiated sustainability claims, pointing to the significant amount of electricity required to create gemstones in artificial conditions.

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A report by the Diamond Producers Association (DPA) found that the greenhouse gas emissions of diamond mining are three times less than growing a gemstone in the lab. It’s worth noting, however, that members of the DPA – now rebranded as the Natural Diamond Council – are seven of the world’s largest diamond miners, including De Beers, Alrosa and Rio Tinto.

Regardless, some experts speculate that 20 years from now the debate will be moot. The vast reserves of diamond mines will follow the fate of Rio Tinto’s Argyle Mine in Western Australia. Once famed for unearthing 90 percent of the world’s pink diamonds, it closed last year after supplying 865 million carats of rough diamonds since 1983. Other mines will surely shutdown the same way. There will be a world with a continuing desire for the sparkling stones – but the demand will be fulfilled by man-made gems. After all, diamonds are forever – but the mines are not.

2021-12-29T10:23:21+00:00 December 27, 2021|Feature, Jewellery|