De Beers decided to call time on offering lab-grown diamonds for engagement rings even as the man-made alternatives continue to cannibalize demand in one of the company’s most important markets.
After vowing for years that it wouldn’t sell stones created in laboratories, in 2018 De Beers reversed that position and only this year started testing sales of the diamonds in the crucial engagement-ring sector.
The diamond industry leader said Wednesday that the trial showed that it wasn’t a sustainable market.
De Beers’ move comes as the kinds of stones that go into the cheaper one- or two-carat solitaire bridal rings popular in the US have experienced far sharper price drops than the rest of the market, with the lower-cost lab-grown competition seen behind the collapse.
De Beers has said the current weakness is a natural downswing in demand after the pandemic, with engagement rings particularly vulnerable. The company concedes that there has been some penetration into the category from synthetic stones, but doesn’t see it as a structural shift.
Lab-grown diamonds — physically identical stones that can be made in matter of weeks in a microwave chamber — have long been seen as an existential threat to the natural mining industry. Proponents say they can offer a cheaper alternative without many of the environmental or social downsides sometimes attached to mined diamonds.
While the price of some natural stones used in lower-quality engagement rings have plummeted in the past year, the fall in lab-grown prices has been even steeper. De Beers has said it expects lab-grown prices to continue to decline as more supply comes into the market
Retailers would need to double the number of lab-grown carats they sell every two years, just to maintain profits, De Beers said.
A US advertising watchdog has called on e-tailer Agape Diamonds to make the origins of its synthetic and simulated stones clearer.
The recommendation came from the National Advertising Division (NAD) of BBB National Programs — a nonprofit that helps businesses self-regulate — after the National Diamond Council (NDC) challenged Agape’s claims, the NAD reported last week.
Agape’s promotional material, including how it was presenting products for sale on its website, did not clearly and conspicuously disclose the origins of its stones, the NDC had argued, according to the NAD. As such, the council claimed, the online retailer and lab-grown manufacturer was violating the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidelines on jewelry marketing.
Agape changed its advertising across its website and social media in response to the NDC’s complaint, and the NAD declared the company’s modified disclosures effective and consistent with the FTC rules. However, other online advertising lacked “clear and conspicuous” origin disclosure, the watchdog said.
Race to the Bottom? Retailers’ Lab-Grown Doubts
The NAD urged Agape to rectify this by including words such as “simulated” or “lab-grown” immediately before the words “diamond” or “stone,” with “equal conspicuousness so as to clearly disclose the nature and origin of the product and the fact that it is not a mined gemstone.”
Agape and the NDC were unavailable for comment on Sunday. In its advertiser statement to the NAD, Agape said it was “committed to accurate and truthful advertising, as recommended by NAD and as codified in the federal regulations and enforced by the FTC.”
India-based Ethereal Green Diamond has created and sold the largest polished lab-grown diamond in history, according to the International Gemological Institute (IGI), which graded it.
Named Shiphra, the emerald-cut, 50.25-carat, type IIa stone has G color, VS2 clarity, and an “excellent” score for cut, polish and symmetry, IGI said Thursday. It measures 22.95 x 18.45 x 11.57 millimeters. It’s the world’s first polished lab-grown diamond above 50 carats, IGI claimed.
Ethereal grew the 150-carat rough using the chemical vapor deposition (CVD) method over a period of eight months. It cut the stone in Surat, India, and will display the polished at its JCK Las Vegas booth. Swiss brand Shiphra Jewelry has bought it and lent its name to the piece.
“This gemstone is a paradigm-shifting breakthrough, surpassing 50 carats while exemplifying preeminent standards of sophistication and quality,” said Tehmasp Printer, president and managing director of IGI India.
The record comes shortly after IGI graded its largest lab-grown diamond to date: A 35-carat CVD stone that Maitri Lab Grown Diamonds produced. Last month, the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) said it had examined a 34.59-carat diamond that Ethereal synthesized using the same method.
As of 2021 the laboratory-grown diamond trade market was estimated to be worth around $1.9 billion, according to a report by Frost & Sullivan.
This market is expected to grow significantly in the coming years, with some estimates suggesting that it could reach a value of over $15 billion by 2035.
laboratory-grown diamond trade has been growing steadily in recent years. There are several factors driving this growth.
Price: Laboratory-grown diamonds are typically less expensive than natural diamonds, which makes them an attractive option for consumers who are looking for high-quality jewelry at a more affordable price.
Ethical concerns: Some consumers are hesitant to purchase natural diamonds due to concerns about ethical issues such as conflict diamonds. Laboratory-grown diamonds are considered to be a more ethical alternative, as they are produced in a controlled environment and do not have the same potential ethical issues as natural diamonds.
Environmental concerns: The process of mining natural diamonds can have a significant environmental impact. Laboratory-grown diamonds are generally considered to be more environmentally friendly, as they do not require mining.
Advancements in technology: The technology used to produce laboratory-grown diamonds has improved significantly in recent years, making it easier and more cost-effective to produce high-quality diamonds. All of these factors have contributed to the growth of the laboratory-grown diamond trade, and it is expected to continue to grow in the coming years.
The answer is not yet: It is worth noting that natural diamonds still hold a significant share of the diamond market, and it remains to be seen how much of an impact laboratory-grown diamonds will have on the industry as a whole over the next decade.
The main difference between a natural mined diamond and a laboratory grown diamond is their origin. Natural diamonds are formed deep within the Earth’s mantle under extreme heat and pressure over millions of years, while laboratory grown diamonds are created in a controlled environment in a laboratory setting. Some other differences between natural mined diamonds and laboratory grown diamonds include:
Cost: Laboratory grown diamonds are generally less expensive than natural mined diamonds, as they don’t require expensive mining and extraction processes.
Clarity: Laboratory grown diamonds are generally more consistent in terms of their clarity, as they are grown under controlled conditions. Natural mined diamonds can have inclusions or blemishes, which can affect their clarity and value.
Size and Colour: Laboratory grown diamonds can be grown to larger sizes and in a wider range of colours, which may not be as easily available in natural mined diamonds.
Environmental impact: The environmental impact of laboratory grown diamonds is generally considered to be lower than that of natural mined diamonds, as mining can have a significant impact on the environment.
Rarity and Value: Natural mined diamonds are still considered more rare and valuable than laboratory grown diamonds, due to their long history and cultural significance. Ultimately, whether someone chooses a natural mined diamond or a laboratory grown diamond may depend on their personal preferences and priorities, such as environmental concerns, budget, or the desire for a natural, unique stone.
It is worth noting that both natural mined diamonds and laboratory grown diamonds are chemically and physically identical, and both can be certified and graded by independent gemmological laboratories based on the same criteria.
Pandora, the world’s biggest jeweller, is launching a collection using exclusively lab-made diamonds in the US and Canada as part of the company’s strategy to eliminate mined gems and create more affordable products with less associated emissions.
The Danish company, which plans to make its operations carbon neutral within three years, said the collection is the first one crafted with 100% recycled silver and gold.
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“This brings greenhouse gas emissions of the collection’s entry product – a silver ring with a 0.15 carat lab-created diamond ($300) – down to 2.7 kg CO2e, which is equal to the average emissions of a t-shirt,” Pandora said.
The flagship product, a one carat lab-created diamond set in a 14 carat solid gold ring and sold for about $1,950, has a footprint of 10.4kg CO2e, which is less than the average emissions of a pair of jeans.
The jeweller, best known for its charm bracelets, has committed to craft all its pieces from recycled silver and gold by 2025.
Pandora launched its first Pandora Brilliance collection using only man-made diamonds in the UK last year.
“Lab-created diamonds are just as beautiful as mined diamonds, but available to more people and with lower carbon emissions,” chief executive officer Alexander Lacik said in the statement.
World’s top jewellery maker Pandora ditches mined diamonds The Danish company, best known for its charm bracelets, already doesn’t include mined diamonds in most of its pieces. (Image courtesy of Pandora.) While producing diamonds is energy-intensive, Pandora said its gems would be made using only renewable energy.
Since 2011, when prices peaked thanks to China’s younger shoppers, diamonds have faltered. Lab-grown stones, initially priced confusingly close to the real thing, posed a challenge.
Top diamond makers reacted to the new kind of diamonds, widely embraced by young consumers as they look identical to mined stones, by launching a joint marketing campaign.
Under the motto “Real is Rare”, the Natural Diamond Council (formerly the Diamond Producers Association), which groups the world’s leading diamond companies, launched a series of film-like spots targeting millennials — those born between 1981 and 1996.
Failing that, they begun selling man-made diamonds themselves. Anglo American’s De Beers created the Lightbox brand to sell alternative diamonds for a fraction of the price of the mined ones.
Ethical concerns Despite the establishment of the Kimberley Process in 2003, aimed at removing conflict diamonds from the supply chain, experts say trafficking of precious rocks is still ongoing.
Miners and world famous jewellers including Tiffany & Co, have come up with innovative ways of certifying their stones as ethically mined, mostly based in blockchain technology.
In 2020, the New York-based company began providing customers with details of newly sourced, individually registered diamonds that trace a stone’s path all the way back to the mine.
When De Beers first introduced its Lightbox lab-grown jewelry brand in 2018, the diamond world sat up and took notice. The mining giant had long been outspoken about its belief that synthetic stones were neither special nor unique. And despite having entered the field itself, the company still holds by that sentiment. Since first making waves throughout the trade, it has done its utmost to create a clear distinction between the two types of stones, touting natural diamonds as a higher-value, engagement-worthy offering, and positioning Lightbox’s products in what brand CEO Steve Coe delineates as “the accessibly priced fashion-jewelry space.”
But a look at the market four years on suggests that this message may have been lost in translation.
The opening gambit
After the initial shock of the Lightbox announcement wore off, the general theory in the natural-diamond industry was that the brand was De Beers’ strategy for negating the perceived threat of lab-grown. Understood but unspoken in its marketing was that Lightbox aimed to create an alternative stream for synthetics — one that wasn’t bridal and wasn’t in that price range.
“I think there was a great opportunity for lab-grown diamonds that De Beers didn’t want to pass up,” says Dick Garard, president of the International Grown Diamond Association (IGDA). “They thought they had a marketing strategy there…. They came out with a pricing structure, and the intent was to drive the pricing down to that point. I think their overall intent was to help augment their mined-diamond business.”
Jewelry consultant Pam Danziger also took Lightbox’s debut as a warning shot to synthetics — a way of reframing them as a lesser alternative to natural stones, not as a luxury product.
“De Beers tried to tell the consumer what lab-grown diamonds were for,” she says. “They said it’s for fashion, not for anything serious. It was like they were trying to exert market control and keep lab-grown in a separate lane.”
Of course, a company as big and well-known as De Beers can’t rock the boat without creating some far-reaching ripples, and it did — just not necessarily the ones it may have been expecting.
Stamp of approval?
If De Beers’ subliminal strategy was to create an invisible barrier around the space where lab-grown was supposed to reside, the plan did not unfold as it was meant to. Rather than decreasing interest in synthetic diamonds as a viable alternative to natural, the company’s move into the space solidified lab-grown’s legitimacy among trade members and consumers alike.
“[De Beers] kind of heightened the awareness and desire for lab-grown diamonds,” explains Adrienne Fay, vice president of Warren Buffett-owned jeweler Borsheims. “Maybe it was an unintended consequence, rather than a misstep, that by trying to point out that this is a product inferior to mined diamonds, it sort of highlighted the fact that it’s actually a product very similar to mined diamonds, and that there is a demand for it.”
The De Beers name on lab-grown jewelry became the ultimate stamp of approval for customers, agrees Eileen Hopman, owner of Hopman Jewelers in Elkhart, Indiana. Whenever she saw doubt from shoppers about the validity of synthetics, she says, she would whisper the magic words: “Even De Beers is selling lab-grown.” From there, the purchase was usually a fait accompli.
Traders, too, have taken the De Beers move as an endorsement, reports Mark Clodius, owner of Clodius & Co. Jewelers in Rockford, Illinois.
“It certainly prompted overall approval throughout the industry, and quite dramatically,” he says. “It achieved so much publicity that it was hard for jewelers to ignore it.”
“What De Beers has…been successful at is having price consistency among diamond growers.”
Adrienne Fay Vice President, Borsheims
The bridal boom
Fay, Hopman and Clodius are among the jewelers that were already carrying lab-grown diamonds before the launch of Lightbox. From the brand’s debut in 2018 until a year later, the retailers saw a big jump in growth, with sales doubling or better every year after that.
Consumer surveys appear to support this trend. The number of bridal shoppers who feel a natural diamond is important has gone down, according to a 2021 survey from wedding website The Knot. Nearly one quarter of all engagement ring purchases last year featured a man-made center stone, it found — an increase of 11% over two years. Another study, this one by jewelry insurance business Brite & Co., confirms that lab-grown is gaining on natural when it comes to bridal appeal: The market share of synthetic-diamond engagement rings grew to more than 28% in 2021 from 19% the year before, while average spending rose 9%, not far behind the 12% increase that mined stones enjoyed.
Despite the data, however, De Beers insists it will not hop on the lab-grown engagement train and says it still sees synthetics functioning most promisingly in fashion. The lower price point of that segment “opens up a very exciting opportunity for a much higher level of repeat purchases,” says Coe. “There are some retailers out there that are pushing the [engagement] avenue very strongly…but we see the big opportunity for lab-grown elsewhere.”
Still, by setting a bar and sticking to it, Lightbox might be missing out. The bulk of lab-grown sales at Borsheims are for bridal, and synthetics make up approximately 60% of engagement ring purchases at Clodius. Hopman, who first began carrying them as an alternative to natural stones, says they’ve become her bread and butter, making up 90% of all engagement center stones she sells. The lab-created gems have become so popular with her buyers that she has stopped carrying natural diamonds unless they’re preset in a piece she really likes.
“Like De Beers, we were initially promoting them more for fashion jewelry versus engagement rings,” she explains. “But more people came in and wanted bigger diamonds, and as the prices for mined diamonds began to increase, they were stuck settling for either a smaller diamond or a lesser-quality stone. And we began showing them the lab-grown. Once we let them know the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had sanctioned them as real diamonds, they took off.”
“There are some retailers out there that are pushing the [engagement] avenue very strongly…but we see the big opportunity elsewhere.”
Steve Coe CEO, Lightbox
The price is right
One thing De Beers has managed to do, Fay believes, is contain the price of lab-grown, though not at the $800-per-carat level that Lightbox charges. Not even at the $1,500-per-carat price tag of its Finest line, which includes synthetic stones with a higher color range of D to F.
“De Beers, because they’re such a behemoth, they’re going to have an impact,” asserts Fay. “I think what De Beers has managed to disrupt, and been successful at, is having price consistency among lab-grown diamond growers.”
The figures seem to prove her right. Within six months of Lightbox’s arrival on the scene, the average discount for a 1-carat lab-grown diamond grew to 42% of the equivalent natural stone — up from 29% in January 2018, just before the De Beers brand launched, according to data that Reuters cited from industry analyst Paul Zimnisky. Meanwhile, wholesale prices for synthetics fell 13.3% from 2019 to 2020, according to online marketplace Virtual Diamond Boutique.
Clodius and Hopman are currently selling lab-grown engagement rings at approximately 50% to 70% of their natural counterparts’ prices, depending on the cut and carat weight of the stone, and the price they pay their lab-grown suppliers has dropped since 2018. However, they’re a bit more hesitant to attribute the latter development to Lightbox. So is Zimnisky.
“I believe it’s the overall fundamentals of the market that are pressuring lab-grown diamond prices — particularly the supply side of the equation — not Lightbox per se,” Zimnisky says. “Perhaps the Lightbox launch a few years back has accelerated this trend, but when you really look at the supply fundamentals of the space, how many new producers have entered the space in the recent past, I think it’s more production growth and production improvements that have accelerated supply [and] most heavily weighed on prices.”
“It was like [De Beers was] trying to exert market control and keep lab-grown in a separate lane.”
Pam Danziger Jewelry consultant
Down the line
What does the future hold for lab-grown, and will De Beers play a role in how it gets there? The answer depends on whom you ask.
“Will lab-grown diamonds fall into fashion? Yes,” says the IGDA’s Garard. “But will they also still fall into bridal and high-end? Absolutely. And supply is too tight to meet demand currently, so to have a carat sell for $800? I think that’s a bit low.”
Zimnisky disagrees: “Ultimately, I think the Lightbox price point is the right level for the lab-grown diamond product in general. Sometimes I think it’s too low, and sometimes I feel that it’s too high, so that’s probably a sign that it’s just about right — for now, at least. However…in five years’ time, this price point will probably seem too high. I think we’ll see $500 per carat or less in 10 years’ time. Longer-term, I think the price point is what will ultimately relegate the product to more ‘fashion’-oriented — more so than marketing efforts.”
In 2018, the FTC permitted “a mineral consisting essentially of pure carbon crystallized in the isometric system” to be described as a “diamond,” whether naturally occurring or man-made. Ever since then, the jewelry establishment has been erecting barriers of entry for lab-grown diamonds into their lucrative $84 billion global market.
The Natural Diamond Council established the official party line, declaring “Crafted by nature over millions of years, natural diamonds are inherently valuable, rare and precious.” Lab-grown diamonds, by contrast, are cheap manufactured substitutes whose value is “tied strictly to the cost of production” and therefore have no lasting value.
With the most to lose, luxury brands, including Bulgari, Cartier and Tiffany (now an LVMH brand), stood firmly behind that barrier and held only natural diamonds were luxury.
But now the walls have been breached with LVMH Luxury Ventures, along with other investors, having completed a $90 million investment round in Israel-based Lusix, a pioneer in the lab-grown diamond (LGD) industry.
Lusix joins MadHappy, Gabriella Hearst, Versed and Stadium Goods in LVMH Luxury Venture’s portfolio. Its investment priorities are clear: seek out brands at the forefront of emerging trends and innovation in the luxury market.
Specifically, it invests in “Iconic luxury brands, recognized for their distinctiveness and the quality of their products and services, with significant growth potential.”
Lusix fits the bill. It is the LGD industry’s first 100% solar-powered diamond producer with its stones sold under the “Sun Grown Diamond” brand. It can grow both clear and custom-colored rough stones in its large-scale reactors and it is one of the industry’s leading producers of premium-quality diamonds.
“LVMH’s investment in the lab space is a statement that lab-growns are going into luxury in a big way,” shared Marty Hurwitz, founder of The MVEye, a research firm specializing in the jewelry market.
“Right now demand for lab-grown diamonds is through the roof and the only thing holding it back is supply. LVMH investment in Lusix will give them secure access to premium-quality supply,” he continued.
Lusix’s technology edge made it particularly attractive to LVMH. The company was founded by Benny Landa, who made his name advancing digital printing technology with his Indigo Printing Company which was eventually sold to Hewlett-Packard in 2002.
He then formed Landa Group, and under that Landa Labs, to explore nanotechnology research and applications. Lusix was spun-off in 2016 as a separate business headed by Landa and co-founder Dr. Yossi Yayon with a Ph.D. in physics and post-graduate work at the University of California, Berkley.
The $90 million investment will be used to bring a second 100% solar-powered facility online this summer.
Landa said in a statement, “We are thrilled and proud to welcome such high-profile investors, most notably LVMH Luxury Ventures, bringing their financial support and valuable industry insights. Their help will contribute greatly to our company’s success while the implications of this investment, both for LUSIX and for the lab-grown diamond segment, are profound – and so exciting!”
Without a doubt, this is exciting news for the entire lab-grown diamond industry which today is estimated to total just under $6 billion and before this announcement was predicted to double in size by 2025.
With LVMH now giving its official luxury imprimatur to lab-grown diamonds, it is safe to bet it will grow even faster than that.
“Lusix is going to double its production by 2023 which will accelerate the market even faster,” Hurwitz shared.
In a final note, Frédéric Arnault, LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault’s 27-year-old son and head of its Tag Heuer brand, was likely instrumental in getting his father to take a closer look at LGDs. Earlier this year, Tag Heuer introduced its first watch featuring lab-grown diamonds at the super-luxury price of $360,000.
“It’s not about replacing traditional diamonds with lab-grown diamonds,” he shared with Vogue Business. “We use what’s different and inherent to this technology, allowing us new shapes and textures.”
Frédéric understands what the next-generation luxury consumers want and that is being given the choice between natural diamonds with their attendant environmental challenges and lab-grown diamonds that are renewable and can be produced without the high environmental price tag.
Plus, consumers can get a bigger and often better quality stone at a lower price. That’s the kind of choice everyone wants.