Would the boss of the world’s best-known diamond company consider buying his wife a lab-grown sparkler?
“Not if I wanted to stay married,” laughs Al Cook, CEO of De Beers, a company that can claim to have endowed gemstones with much of their expensive mystique.
However, lab-grown diamonds are becoming increasingly popular. Experts say 2023 was a pivotal year, as sales of lab-grown gems accounted for 17 percent of the overall diamond market, compared to just 2 percent five years earlier.
Sales are expected to continue increasing. Lab-grown diamonds are up to 90 percent cheaper and are praised by retailers like Pandora, promoted by Pamela Anderson, as the future of jewelry.
But for traditionalists like Cook, there is a limit to how far diamonds can be democratized without losing their prestige. De Beers sold £300m worth of diamonds last month despite a tough economic backdrop that has left many leading luxury brands struggling.
Cachet: Lab-grown diamonds are up to 90 percent cheaper and are hailed by retailers like Pandora as the future of jewelry, heralded by Pamela Anderson (pictured).
The company’s “A Diamond is Forever” slogan, devised in the 1940s, is credited with inventing the modern concept of the engagement ring. The point of diamonds is not that anyone can have them, but that they are aspirational, attractive and seen as one of life’s greatest luxuries.
An iconic movie moment shows Marilyn Monroe in a pink dress singing Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friends in the 1953 classic film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Richard Duffy, boss of London-listed miner Petra Diamonds, is skeptical about the significance of artificial stones. “I have three daughters,” he says. “I’m not sure if any of them were getting married and she showed me a five-carat lab-grown diamond. I would think highly of her new husband.”
However, more and more young men are buying their fiancees lab-made engagement rings, and the trend is upsetting traditional mining giants. According to expert and price tracker Paul Zimnisky, affordability is the deciding factor for most people considering purchasing an engagement ring.
One-carat stones, found in many engagement rings, now cost $5,035 (£4,000) for a mined stone, while the man-made equivalent costs just $1,325.
Fan: Leonardo DiCaprio has invested in a new lab-created jewelry company based in San Francisco
Some couples prefer to save on the ring. Younger buyers are also attracted by the eco-credentials of lab-grown crops and the fact that there are no awkward questions about whether they have been dug by children or whether profits from sales fund warlords.
Celebrities like Taylor Swift and Emma Watson are fans. Actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who has invested in a new lab-created jewelry company based in San Francisco, ironically starred in the film Blood Diamond.
One analyst said: ‘With lab-grown diamonds you can get something of exceptionally high quality at a dramatically lower price. The younger generation just doesn’t care if they are grown in a lab.’
But it is not always the case that what is grown in the laboratory is more ecological, since its production requires enormous amounts of energy that does not always come from green sources.
The diamond industry is fighting the binary perception that mining is bad and lab production is good. Petra Diamonds and De Beers, which even has its own lab-grown division called Lightbox, are working on their own technologies that will allow customers to trace the origin of stones from their mines. “We live in a world where people want to know where their cheese and their coffee is from,” Cook adds. “They want to know where their diamonds come from.”
The industry is clearly going through a crisis but, at least for now, real diamonds are still a girl’s best friend.