Diamond DilemmaFeb 01, 2022 ● By Glenda Vosburgh
Valentine’s Day is widely considered to be the most romantic day of the year and – depending on which of the countless surveys conducted in its honor that you read – it is among the top days of the year for marriage proposals and engagements.
That also makes February a popular month for diamond sales. An article in the industry publication National Jeweler reported that fine jewelry sales for the period of Feb. 1-14, 2021, increased 15 percent over the previous year, with diamond categories experiencing a 17 percent increase during the same period.
A growing number of those purchasing engagement and wedding rings (as well as other jewelry pieces) are opting for gemstones of the lab-grown variety as opposed to those mined from the earth through traditional methods.
Controversies have swirled around the diamond trade in recent years, including the mining of what have been referred to as “conflict” or “blood diamonds,” so named because of the blood spilled to obtain them. Widespread reports of the theft or illegal mining of diamonds that were then sold to fund wars or terrorist groups sparked outrage. Also, the industry was reportedly fraught with human rights violations, including forced labor and abuse, and local communities were marginalized.
Steps have been taken to try to stop the practices and the trade of blood diamonds, but according to the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch, which investigates and reports on abuses that occur around the world, such practices continue and some of the resulting diamonds still make it to market.
Climate-change challenges have also prompted some consumers to insist on knowing where and how a diamond was mined before they purchase the gem. Diamond mines reportedly have used large amounts of fossil fuels as part of their operations. Air pollution and fresh water contamination are among other concerns.
According to consumer and market data firm Statista, in 2019 the global diamond jewelry market value was approximately $79 billion in U.S. dollars. Meanwhile, Allied Market Research puts the 2020 market size of lab-grown diamonds at a value of $19.3 million. That number is projected to reach $49.9 million by 2030.
Jeweler Clean Origin, which opened a store in 2021 at Frisco’s Stonebriar Centre, specializes in “100 percent ethical” lab-grown diamonds, according to its website. It is the only type of diamond it sells.
The Stamford, Connecticut-based company was founded in 2017 by a team of jewelry industry veterans with a mission of changing the way consumers experience diamonds by focusing on an environmental approach and including only lab-grown diamonds in their inventory. “Our CEO is a fourth-generation diamond jeweler whose philosophy is to be on the right side of history,” says Melissa Scott, Clean Origin’s chief customer officer.
The company, which is planning to open as many as 10 additional stores in the next year, does not manufacture diamonds but contracts with multiple vendors that supply them.
Also called manmade, cultured or synthetic diamonds, the gems are created in labs using cutting-edge technology that replicates the natural processes that create diamonds found in and mined from the earth. Lab-grown diamonds and mined diamonds are the same chemically, physically and optically, Scott says.
She says it is a myth that mined diamonds increase in value over time, unless it is something along the lines of the famed Hope Diamond, the 45.52-carat diamond owned by the Smithsonian Institute that was extracted during the 17th century from a mine in India.
Sales have been good at the Frisco Clean Origin store since it opened, according to store manager Kristine Dhamini, especially during the recent holiday season. “Demand for lab-grown diamonds is increasing,” she says, “but some people are still reluctant to buy them. Part of our job is to educate people.”
Based on customer queries and observation, she explains that shoppers at Frisco’s Clean Origin store typically opt for lab-grown diamonds for one of three reasons: the price, environmental or humanitarian concerns. “Lab-grown diamonds cost 30-40 percent less than mined diamonds,” Dhamini says. “The larger the stone, the larger the savings.” Company-wide, the majority of the rings sold have been 1.5 carat diamonds. The cost varies depending on the diamond and the setting, but on average it is between $3,000-$4,000.
“We do customizing, and we have about 300 loose diamonds in the store for customers to choose from, including pink, yellow and blue diamonds, as well as the only lab-grown red diamond that we know of in the world,” she says.
Frisco resident Lucy Dalton recently purchased a 3.5-carat, radiant-cut diamond in an art deco-style ring setting at the Frisco store. “Three people worked with me to get exactly the design I wanted. I was very pleased with the service and with my ring. It’s a diamond, it was a better price and it has the quality.”
Buying a lab-grown diamond made sense to Dalton and her husband because they value sustainability. She and her husband plan to take his heirloom ring to Clean Origin in the future to have it reset with a new lab-grown diamond.
Irina Breslav, a sales associate with Classique Jewelers in Frisco, says the store’s staff frequently introduces customers to lab-grown diamonds, which it sells alongside mined diamonds.
“Many peple don’t know about them, but usually because diamonds that have been mined are much more expensive … when they hear lab-grown diamonds (and) we explain a little bit about them, they are happily buying them because they are less expensive.”
Having been in the jewelry business for more than two decades, Breslav recalls that even she was initially skeptical about the quality and authenticity of lab-grown diamonds. “But I’m not skeptical anymore,” she says. “When my kids want to get married, I will recommend them. Why not? It sparkles, it’s a diamond and you don’t have to pay as much” for the stones.
While not all jewelers sell lab-grown diamonds, Markham Fine Jewelers in Frisco does. The company, which also owns Benchmark Jewelers, is a De Beers authorized dealer and a direct diamond importer. “De Beers is the Rolex of diamonds,” Raja Muzaffar, Markham’s chief operating officer, says. “They have the strictest quality standards for diamonds and they are very exclusive.”
Markham’s collection of jewelry featuring lab-grown diamonds is called Bold and Beautiful. The gemstones are acquired from multiple labs around the U.S. and internationally.
Markham Fine Jewelers offers engagement rings that sell for under $1,000 up to $1 million. “The kind of diamond chosen is subjective to the person who is buying,” Muzaffar says. “As long as our customers want the lab-grown diamonds, we will continue to offer them. We have noticed that often it is younger people who are interested in them. They are lower in price and they are also sustainable.”
Protecting the environment is a strong benefit to the synthetic diamonds, but many in the traditional-diamond industry are also taking steps to change the way they operate. For example, De Beers’ Forevermark diamond source must comply with the Kimberley Process, an international monitoring system co-founded by the De Beers Group with the aim of eradicating the trade in conflict diamonds. The company examines the human rights standards, political climate and socio-economic profile of every community that may be a source for its diamonds.
“The mined-diamond industry is trying to change the way they do things in order to be more environmentally responsible,” Muzaffar says. “For example, De Beers buys from only four mines. They do not buy from mines in countries that are in conflict and they make sure that the community where the mines are located benefits from it.”
In 2020, he says, “The production volume worldwide of mined diamonds was approximately 140 million, and lab-grown diamonds was approximately 6 million. The mined-diamond industry is still dominant, but we have seen healthy year-over-year production increases around the world in lab-grown diamond production. Keep in mind that not all mined diamonds are the same, and neither are all lab-grown diamonds. We, as a company, pay keen attention to the journey of the diamond and ensure that we are providing the best value to all of our guests.”
Whether choosing a lab-grown or mined diamond, Muzaffar recommends that engagement ring buyers have a good sense of their partner’s style. If a couple is buying the piece together, they should discuss their budget beforehand and take the style of the ring into consideration. “The ring itself should never be a surprise,” he says.
Glenda Vosburgh is a freelance writer, animal lover and American history devotee who also is writing her first historical thriller.
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