The romance, the ring, the risk of rejection… getting engaged is enough of a minefield without having to think about, well, minefields. These days couples seeking out a traditional diamond engagement ring have more to consider than how many pay cheques they should sacrifice to prove their devotion (or whether
Now they can choose from natural diamonds made deep in the earth, brought to the surface by volcanic eruptions and extracted by mining, or synthetically produced diamonds grown in a lab. Though they’ve been around since the 1950s, these virtually indistinguishable impostors have become easier to produce and exponentially more popular in the past two to three years.
Scientists replicate the intense carbon compression and high temperatures that millions of years of geological forces naturally perform. Then suppliers offer jewels identical to the real thing, at 30 to 50 per cent of the price, with what they claim are far fewer of the ethical or environmental price tags associated with wearing Mother Nature’s gems.
Driven largely by eco-conscious millennial consumers — the demographic also most likely to get engaged — the lab-grown diamonds market has become the fastest-growing segment of the jewellery industry. According to a 2018 survey by MVI Marketing, 70 per cent of millennial-aged consumers would consider buying a lab-grown diamond. Emma Watson and Meghan Markle have both been photographed wearing man-made diamonds by jewellery brand Kimai, and several high-profile jewellery brands from Pandora to Swarovski have introduced them into their collections overseas.
But are these sparkly new diamond disruptors a flash on the hand? A passing infatuation rather than “the one”?
“We’ve always worked with natural diamonds and we feel privileged to do so. It’s about the meaningfulness of them,” says Georgina Jolly, GM of New Zealand jewellers Naveya and Sloane, a bespoke design business based in Auckland that offers both natural and lab-grown diamonds depending on customer preference, yet generally encourages customers to opt for the natural variety.
“They’re incredibly rare and we feel that rare is really precious,” says Georgina. “These are small treasures of the earth that complement the special nature of jewellery and the meaning behind significant pieces, especially engagement rings.”
Headed by creative director Rachel Sloane and partner Alex Bunnett, Naveya and Sloane used natural diamonds exclusively for 12 years before lab-grown varieties popped up on their radar about two years ago. They thought long and hard about whether to offer them in their own jewellery, but in the end, it was a customer-led decision, says Georgina.
“What’s really interesting to me is that clients are not so interested in the ethics of lab-grown diamonds, which is what we had assumed. It’s actually the cost. It’s what enables them to get a bigger diamond.”
It was for this reason — and the fact he didn’t want to compromise on his design — that Vineet “Vinny” Chauhan sought out a lab-grown diamond when proposing two years ago.
(She said yes to both Vinny and the ring.)
“It’s exactly the same thing, but better for the planet and cheaper. It’s a no-brainer,” says Vinny, who has since gone on to found Auckland-based lab-grown diamond and gems business Four Words.
“[When looking for an engagement ring] I had a budget and I went into a few places and they were like, ‘You can get a smaller stone or we can’t incorporate this or that,’ but then with the lab I could get exactly what I wanted. I didn’t go for a traditional design with a single stone. I wanted a bunch of features and the lab stones allowed me to do that.”
Later, when some of his friends got engaged, he sourced lab-grown diamonds for them too, and before long, his business was born. Vinny says Four Words has become one of the biggest operators in the New Zealand market, creating about 350 diamond engagement rings in the past 12 months, the diamonds purchased through a wholesaler in New York, which sources the gems from a lab in India (as it would cost at least $5 million to set up his own lab here, he says).
Four Words was one of about three New Zealand-based lab-grown diamond suppliers when it started; there are now several others in the market, including suppliers from Australia and the US, and many of the high street jewellers are offering them too. (Not so much the high-end jewellery brands, however. Bulgari, for instance, will only work with the finest natural diamonds, as will Tiffany.) When customers are tossing up whether to go for lab-grown or not, Vinny asks them, “Do you want ice from a lake or ice from a freezer?”
The diamond industry historically hasn’t been very transparent, he adds, referring to the De Beers cartel that held a monopoly over the industry until the 21st century. Though that’s since been dismantled, and the introduction of the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme in 2003 has helped to eradicate the prospect of “conflict diamonds” (rough diamonds used to finance wars against governments), modern-day diamond mining has been blamed for everything from soil erosion to coastal pollution.
Vinny says diamond suppliers still control the supply of diamonds to major wholesalers in order to retain their high price.
“Diamonds aren’t actually super rare, they’re one of the most common gemstones,” he says. “Sapphires are actually more rare than diamonds. But because it’s a premium product, people are prepared to spend 10K on a diamond ring.”
As for lab-grown diamonds’ much-touted ethical and environmental superiority, well that’s not exactly set in stone either. Unlike the earth, which gets scorching hot enough to crystallise the carbon into diamonds all by itself, lab machinery requires constant energy to generate the high temperatures required to do the same, and not all factories use renewable sources. However, a study comparing lab-grown and mined diamonds by consultancy Frost and Sullivan found that mining diamonds produces 4383 times more waste than manufactured gems, uses 6.8 times more water and consumes 2.14 times the energy per carat produced.
Gemologist Michael Emerson of the Jewellery Valuation Centre says rarely a day goes by when he doesn’t see a lab-grown diamond come across his desk, usually in the form of an engagement ring. The Jewellery Valuation Centre appraises jewellery for members of the public, mostly for insurance and resale purposes. Because lab-growns don’t possess the rarity that natural diamonds do, the wholesale price of a lab-grown diamond is between 5 and 10 per cent of the price of an equivalent natural diamond (and customers can generally buy lab-grown for about 30 to 50 per cent of the cost of natural diamonds).
“We first saw lab-grown diamonds submitted for valuation in 2016, but the numbers have grown since 2020,” says Michael.
Although the diamonds are compositionally the same and identical to the naked eye, a simple screening test followed by more advanced tests such as spectroscopy and fluorescence can distinguish between them.
“Because there’s such a big difference in value, lab-grown diamonds can be sold dishonestly as natural diamonds,” warns Michael, who continues to invest in equipment and training to keep up to date.
It also pays to bear in mind that less reputable producers have been known to take shortcuts, leading to stones with unnatural hues, with a grey or blueish tinge.
“A lot of these poor quality stones are hitting the market for way cheaper,” says Vinny, “and people are just buying them because they’re cheap.” Naveya and Sloane’s Georgina Jolly agrees. “I feel like [lab-grown diamonds] are at a risk of becoming quite commercialised,” she says. For jewellery designer Charlotte Penman, it’s the ineffable qualities of natural diamonds that have swayed her preference towards them.
“They’ve developed over time in the earth and they have that sense of magic — to me it feels more authentic,” she says.
“I think it’s more romantic, and I’m more attracted to things that are natural; my instinct is to go for something that occurred naturally. But, obviously, we need to change our habits as humans. I’m very open to new ideas.”
She recently worked with her first lab-grown diamond, transforming it into an engagement ring for a client.
“He was very conscious of taking an ethical approach, so my first choice was to suggest a recycled diamond,” she explains.
However, the proposal was to take place in Belgium and given the short time frame given to find a suitable diamond, they decided to go with lab-grown, a 0.8 carat stone sourced from her usual diamond supplier.
For a while Charlotte says she seriously considered the environmental benefits of lab-grown diamonds but says it’s a bit like buying an electric car — while it’s ultimately a greener choice in that it eliminates the need for mining, it’s not without its own negative impacts, such as the energy it takes to produce them.
These environmental considerations are part of the reason why Charlotte often opts for coloured stones in her work, such as sapphires she sources from Sri Lanka that grow quickly in the tropical climate, and other gems sold by family-run dealers throughout Asia.
Elsewhere, Charlotte’s diamond pieces use a combination of natural diamonds, heirloom diamonds (reworked from pieces clients bring in), and recycled diamonds (sourced from vintage pieces).
“Obviously you want to make sure that you are sourcing from ethical sources and that wherever that piece was taken from, there are benefits to that community and that the land is being regenerated afterwards. It’s a balancing act.”
While it’s early days for lab-grown diamonds, the prevailing thought is that as they become more commonplace, they won’t hold their value to the same extent as natural diamonds. As supply has increased, the synthetic variety have become more affordable, so more people are choosing to wear them, says Michael of the Jewellery Valuation Centre.
“Lab-grown diamond jewellery is now competing for market share against lower-quality natural diamonds at a similar price,” he says.
Despite that having a significant impact on the natural diamond industry, prices for higher-quality diamonds have remained strong.
“With a unique history and rarity, natural diamonds have retained their value better,” he says. “So far!”
Would you feel your betrothed didn’t care as much about you by opting for bargain bling? Didn’t care enough about the planet for buying natural? Balked at the prospect of resale during these heady days of romance? Who knows. But popping the question with a diamond ring has never been more complicated.