Sales of cultured diamonds promising a sustainable, ethical alternative to mined stones are on the rise. Stylist investigates whether a synthetic gem can ever feel real.
When her partner Stuart proposed last September, Rita Arva was elated. They had been together for 10 years and her family was starting to ask joking questions. But in all Arva’s dreams of matrimony, there were no diamonds. She cringes at the big, generic stones a Google search for engagement rings brings up. And besides, Arva is vegan and totally repelled by the diamond industry’s environmental impact.
But today there are two diamond encrusted rings wrapped around her third finger.
The rings were purchased at Lark & Berry, one of the new jewellery brands that have marketed themselves as diamond industry disrupters over the past year. Arva found the company on Instagram and felt like it was fate. Their stones, sometimes called engineered or cultured, are conflict-free because they’re produced in a lab, not mined in war zones.
“We believe you can’t defend mined diamonds,” says founder Laura Chavez. “Even if stones are conflictfree, they still displace land and cause animals to lose their habitats.”
Blood diamonds, defined as diamonds that are illegally mined or used to finance wars, first entered public consciousness as a storyline in the 2002 James Bond film Die Another Day. The issue was further publicised when model Naomi Campbell was called to give evidence at a 2010 war crimes trial after allegedly receiving blood diamonds from the former Liberian president Charles Taylor.
Today, it’s an issue most people are familiar with. When you pair this with rising concern about the environment, cultured diamonds are primed to be a very big hit in 2019.
Inside Lark & Berry’s new Marylebone store, the collections sparkle just the same as in any traditional jewellers – but here, everything is bought using iPads and there’s an appointment-only piercing studio. The jewellery ranges from £98 for a dainty stud to £78,000 for a 13-carat string of diamonds.
“We had some opposition in the beginning,” Chavez says. “The jeweller we worked with on our most expensive necklace had never heard of cultured diamonds. We sent him stones to test and he called us to say, ‘OK, you were right, these are the same’,” she laughs.
The scepticism is understandable. So, what are lab-grown diamonds?
Chemically, they’re identical to real diamonds and nigh impossible to distinguish by eye. They are made by placing a small piece of a natural diamond inside a high-pressure, high-temperature capsule so it crystallises to form a synthetic diamond in a matter of months. In the natural world, this process takes billions of years. Lab diamonds retail at 30% to 40% cheaper than mined stones and use half the energy per carat.
Still, not everyone in the industry is happy with the development. “It’s important for consumers [to know] they are not the same thing,” says diamond expert and gemologist Grant Mobley. “While they look similar to the naked eye, differences are detectable with the right equipment. The quick growth process can leave marks and defects inside the stone.” There’s also fierce debate about whether or not lab-grown diamonds will hold their value. Experts point out that gems are valued for their rarity, so as cultured stones become easier to make, they will become cheaper all round.
For many, that’s a small compromise for a clear conscience. Jessica Warch, founder of the lab-grown diamond brand Kimai, launched last November, describes the friction between the old and new guard. “It’s tough for older generations,” she says. “We’re talking about diamond traders who have spent their entire careers becoming the best. But at this point, the industry has to take notice.”
And it certainly has. Last July, the US Federal Trade Commission revised its jewellery guide to remove “of natural origin” from its definition of a diamond, meaning lab-grown diamonds can be marketed as real there. Last year’s Victoria’s Secret show saw model Elsa Hosk wear £790,000 of lab-grown diamonds in a collaboration with Swarovski on the Fantasy Bra.
De Beers, which once monopolised the diamond industry and is still the biggest producer, fought the lab-grown movement for a long time. They were involved in a “real is rare” campaign, with photos of doe-eyed couples seeming to suggest that only a real diamond could ever signify real love.
Last May, De Beers capitulated, launching Lightbox, a “fashion jewellery” brand selling lab-grown diamonds. Seeing as they’ve since claimed that millennials and Gen Z – demographics known for trying to consume ethically – account for more than 60% of diamond demand, this turn is hardly surprising. Man-made diamonds are expected to rise from 1% of industry sales to 10% in the next decade.
What’s most striking about their rise is the apparent shift in values. “[Millennials] have different wants,” Warch says. “We’d rather spend money on experiences. We’re looking for brands that have a bigger mission than just selling us products.”
When I ask Arva what it feels like to wear her ring, she describes times she’s caught herself gazing at it. She’s only mildly irritated when someone asks, “So, it’s fake?” when she reveals it’s lab-grown. She tells them it’s like having a vegan diamond. Does she have any regrets? Zero. Her ring represents what she stands for.
Warch has a similar tale. “When people question the value of our diamonds, I just ask them, ‘Well, what is it that you value?’”
Images: Getty, Unsplash