"I like the idea of a process – of nature – creating this crystal; how it's survived this journey from deep within the Earth under geological circumstances; how it makes it to the surface and have man realise the beauty of it. This whole process has a certain amount of romance to it," says Jim Vernon, founder and CEO of US jewellers RockHer. Indeed, the very business of romance is diamond-encrusted, and one prone to gushing: a beaming bride-to-be on the wall of every high street jewellers, rock-heavy hand dainty and willowy upon the shoulder of a strapping groom. Happiness, like a diamond, is forever!
And yet, for all the usual Splenda, Vernon isn't at all saccharine. He speaks steadily and calmly over the phone, a hard-to-place deep American timbre hinting at real appreciation as opposed to pre-made talking points. Because diamonds are impressive. Largely formed way down in the Earth's mantle and sent to the surface by deep-source volcanic eruptions, it requires temperatures that soar in the thousands and intense pressure to cause carbon atoms to crystallise, thus, creating diamonds. According to a 2006 interview with the Smithsonian's diamond expert, that process can take up to millions of years. Or at least it did. For man has learnt to mine diamonds without natural mechanics: diamonds can now be grown in labs specially built to recreate the conditions deep under our feet.
This technology isn't exactly new, but lab-grown diamonds have made a slow march to commercial prevalence. "The fact is they've been around as industrial diamonds for years, but as far as gem quality, there were some suspicions when the Russians were manufacturing them years ago," says Vernon, who, as an engineer by trade, is keen to speak of his respect for these machines. But since RockHer opened shop in 2017, the jeweller has eschewed lab-grown diamonds entirely. They're not alone. What's more, Vernon's motivation is both emotional, given nature's deference to technology, and economical. "The fact is, this is something that will be done more and more – or less and less expensively – and without limit. There is no limit on the number of lab-grown diamonds that can be created, and we have no way of predicting their value in a year, or five years from now. One of the worst things that can happen is that people spend a significant amount of money only to find out what they've purchased is 10 or 25 cents on the dollar. With natural diamonds, it's the exact opposite."
It's basic economics: swarming a market with a once-rare commodity will drive the asking price down. Given the hefty price tags on engagement rings, jewellers and consumers are then both projected to make a loss. Not good for business. That said, Queensmith, a Hatton Garden institute that is happy to supply lab-grown diamonds, believes the risk to be overstated – for now. Of the market worries, the jeweller's in-house expert Jack Cherry says: "[Lab-grown diamonds] are still pretty hard to grow and get; it's not like a factory in China is pumping these out like toys. We really struggle to get them, more so than naturals, which is quite unbelievable but we're getting a lot of people coming in asking for them specifically."
Cherry, a graduate of the Gemological Institute of America, goes to great pains to highlight the complex manufacturing of lab-grown diamonds. Just because it's machine-made doesn't mean it's easy. "So there are two processes. One is called HPHT – high pressure, high temp – that's essentially a little reaction cube, fit with diamond dust, and a carbon source is pumped in and pushes it to a really high pressure and temperature for about four to five weeks. That way is usually quite slow, and it doesn't always get the best quality, so we don't tend to deal with those." The alternative, a newer process, is seen to be more effective. "CVD [chemical vapour deposition] produces bigger, better quality stones. You have a diamond plate that's either synthetic or a natural slice of diamond, and it's placed in a reactor where the vacuum is filled with gas and methane, and then methane is pumped into the carbon source. This almost makes a plasma ball in the reactor – it's quite cool – that creates a convection current that's hot at the top and cold at the bottom. When the atomised carbon falls down lower, it touches that diamond, crystallises and it grows in layers."
While lab-grown diamonds are taking hold of the market, they're not quite there yet. So what happens in 30 years time, when the practice is much more commonplace? "There's always a bit of controversy that they devalue natural stones. No diamond mines have been found recently, and even then, it takes years to start producing, whereas with lab-grown diamonds, the real question is 'will they hold their value?' The supply will be higher so the value may be less" – which lends credence to the fears of all-natural jewellers. Cherry, though, is baffled as to why this is even part of the debate. "The argument here is that most are for engagement rings anyway, and you're not going to sell it hopefully. If someone is asking me for the resale value, I'm thinking 'well why are you even proposing?'"
It's a fair point. If this business is truly built upon the concept of romance, then pre-empting a big fat cheque on your engagement ring (and with it, a big fat divorce) is something of a mood killer. But on the flip side, diamonds have become so intertwined with proposals that they're an essential to many: a necessary ticket to board the good ship wedded bliss. Diamond rings evoke "oohs" and "ahhs" like no other piece of jewellery. And so what of the cost? You can't put a price on love – but you can show it with 42 25-karat baguettes.
The pros of a lab-grown diamond don't just extend to the protection of peoples' pockets, though. They extend to the protection of actual people. The ethical implications of the modern diamond industry are well-known, and blood diamonds are now part of the modern vernacular. Known as conflict diamonds, or hot diamonds, they're mined in war zones, often sold to finance insurgencies or invasions, and they even drove the plot of a fairly middling 2006 Leonardo DiCaprio film. In one of the trade's darkest examples, Sierra Leone's 11-year-long civil war saw the Revolutionary United Front use diamond mines to fund its brutal power grab, harvesting between $25 to $125 millions' worth each year according to The Washington Post. The rebel army are thought to have recruited around 11,000 child soldiers, and carried out rapes and murders that spiralled into the tens of thousands. Even in conflict-free areas, a 2006 NBC report was one of many that found working conditions to be deeply unsafe and exploitative.
Transparency, then, is key. Lab-grown diamonds are much more risk-free. But naturally-mined stones, once tainted by widespread malpractice, are subject to a regulated industry. "The reality is that the customer, and the public, is demanding more traceability on the origin of a diamond," says Vernon. "We're working with our suppliers and other diamond cutters from around the world to institute processes that can in fact trace where each and every rough diamond comes from. You can basically have a life history of the diamond you buy, know what mine it came from, what cutter or company handled it, where it was cut, and by whom in many cases. You can follow the trail right down to your finger, and I think that's pretty neat." Indeed, RockHer is a member of the Responsible Jewellery Council, an organisation that advocates for better industry practice.
Still, although supply chains are far better regulated these days, it can still be difficult to fully, exactly trace a natural diamond.
Both agree that lab-grown diamonds are proper diamonds: chemically, they are identical – and Queensmith, like many other jewellers, still largely deals in natural stones. Vernon however seems to be more of an old romantic in these such matters: "I'm enamoured with the idea that nature made these a couple of billion years ago. We found them, recognised that they were something special, and figured out a way to release their inner beauty and use them for what really are moments of celebration." It's a convincing story, though not without its drawbacks. And while it is in no way natural, there is still a level of wonder as to what man can create with machine: something that is the hardest, most precious material in the world. Both stories deserve an audience. It all just depends upon which you'd rather hear.
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