Symbols of Love, Grown in a Lab

Host intro: Engagement rings are one of the most expensive purchases many people make, and that cost is driven by one thing – the diamond. Until recently, all jewelry grade diamonds came from mines in places like Russia and South Africa. But those mines have a new competitor: science.

 

Lab-grown diamonds are better and cheaper than ever. But if a diamond is an expression of love, is that expression the same if you buy the budget option? As reporter Kasiana McLenaghan found out, buying a diamond can be more emotional than rational.

 


 

Dean Christakos knew the moment he wanted to marry his girlfriend. Sitting in Bryant Park, he remembers the time she had to head out of town for a conference. Before she left she cooked him a whole week’s worth of meals.

 

CHRISTAKOS: Every day I would come home and open up these things she had made and warm it up. I’m like, wow, it’s just like been made with love and I just… I want to keep that feeling. (0:12)

 

To be clear, Christakos can cook. But he was touched. And he knew what the next step was, the way we all know the next step. Because he watched commercials.

 

CHRISTAKOS: Uh, I used to see ads on TV when I was growing up (0:07)

 

DE BEERS: The diamond engagement ring. How else could two month’s salary last forever? (0:05)

 

What you just heard is from a 1997 de Beers commercial. Back then, any diamond Christakos might buy would have come from a mine. But today, scientists have figured out how to make diamonds in the lab that are structurally identical to mined diamonds. Or, as Swarovski put it:

 

SWAROVSKI: in the same way as a Wild Orchid is no different to its Greenhouse nurtured equivalent lab created diamonds are identical to diamonds that have been mined. (0:12)

 

Swarovski is one of the best known brands to dive into lab grown diamonds. It’s pushing consumers to see them as a cooler, more science-y version of natural diamonds. It’s selling a pair of lab grown diamond earrings for under $1,000. The equivalent at Tiffany’s goes for twice that.

 

And technology tends to improve, so the price of lab grown diamonds will probably fall further in the future. While diamonds mining requires huge boring machines and thousands of workers to move tons of earth and rock, diamond labs are smaller operations.

 

LOWRY: a very clean beautiful little quiet place, and you see gases all being pumped into these little uh ovens basically. And they are recreating all those same processes that mother nature did. (0:12)

 

Curtis Lowry is a gemologist, and the owner of Independent Gem Labs. He’s visited diamond labs in Asia to see how the stones can be grown rather mined. Today these lab grown gems represent just 1-2% of global diamond jewelry sales. But that market is worth $80 billion, and those companies are looking to expand. Morgan Stanley projects that by 2020, that number could be as high as 10%.

 

Already, some diamond dealers have begun cutting their natural diamond supply with cheaper, lab grown gems. To combat that, jewelers send their finished pieces to Lowry to make sure the lab stones haven’t snuck in. Lowry’s lab specializes in a two step test to distinguish diamonds that come from the ground from the ones born in a room full of tiny ovens.

 

LOWRY: It’s really simple, I just call it blinky lights. (0:07)

 

A lab technician lines up four sparkly tennis bracelets on a tray, and slides it into a small black box. Inside a UV light clicks [ambi] on and a moment later a picture of the bracelets pops up on a computer screen.

 

LOWRY: We’re seeing a few diamonds glow, so we know they need advanced testing. (0:08)

 

Lab grown diamonds absorb UV light and glow once the light goes off. That’s a flag that they might be fake. But 3% of natural diamonds also glow. Figuring out whether they’re natural or lab grown takes a second step. The tech moves to another station and lines up the suspect diamonds in front of a laser,

 

LOWRY: the laser is basically then testing and figuring out the DNA of a diamond (0:06)

 

And that’s the way to tell the difference.

 

So, if lab grown diamonds are this difficult to tell apart from natural diamonds, is this what Christakos should buy?

 

BATES: Regular diamonds don’t have an asterisk. They’re diamonds right? These have something of an asterix. (0:11)

 

Robert Bates is the News Director at JCK, a jewelry industry trade publication. He and other industry watchers think that it’s hard to know how the value of lab grown diamonds will change over time. And their main selling points center around their different origins from natural stones.

 

BATES: Eco and conflict and you know, some of those messages are not necessarily well received in the traditional diamond industry because people feel like your disparaging you know the rest of the inventory. (0:11)

 

Which has made it difficult for them to gain sales traction in traditional jewelry channels.

 

So the big question that consumers face is, are these gems really an investment? Or just a sparkly token of love? Companies that manufacture them are trying to convince consumers that lab diamonds are legit, while natural diamond purveyors are trying to convince labs that diamonds from a lab are fakes.

 

Rachelle Bergstein is the author of Brilliance and Fire, which traces the cultural history of diamonds. Standing in the diamond district in Midtown, she says Americans have been sold on diamond engagement rings as a historic tradition.

 

BERGSTEIN: “oh, this is what the knights did, they got down on one knee in their armor and surprised the woman that they wanted to get married to.” Um, that’s not the case. (0:08)

 

Diamonds’ place in proposals is pretty new. In the 1890s Americans started, occasionally, giving their beloved a diamond ring to “seal the deal”. But then World War I hit, and the Depression, and by the 1930s,

 

BERGSTEIN: Diamonds seemed like something that your grandmother might have worn but they weren’t something that a young woman really wanted to wear anymore. (0:08)

 

By then de Beers controlled more than 90% of the world’s diamonds, and they wanted more people to buy them. So they hired an ad agency, and tasked it with inserting diamonds into America’s romantic traditions. The strategy hit its stride when it partnered with Hollywood.

 

GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES: A kiss on the hand may be quite continental, but diamonds are a girl’s best friend….

 

Diamonds began appearing in movies, and on movie stars. And the company coined the tagline they still use: A diamond is forever.

 

The campaign succeeded in convincing Americans that diamonds are synonymous with love, something today’s engagement ring shoppers still believe.

 

BERGSTEIN: They want a different stone or they want to customize the ring themselves, you know, they want something that reflects their personality or the relationship or whatever. But what fascinates me is that they’re not forgoing the ring entirely. (0:11)

 

For all the talk of disruption, today’s prospective newlyweds are still attached to ideas of tradition.

 

Back in the Diamond District, Christakos too is looking for something unique, but he’s never considered buying anything other than a traditional diamond ring.

 

CHRISTAKOS: she didn’t make a specific like request or sort of make it known that she absolutely didn’t want a diamond. I think you know, I’m going to stick with tradition just to make it just to make that clear. (0:10)

 

Even so, he’s not thinking about his purchase in terms of financial return.

 

CHRISTAKOS: So it’s not something I would like invest my life savings in that. It’s a you know, it’s more symbolic and sentimental. (0:08)

 

So far he’s not considering a lab grown stone…mostly because he doesn’t really know where to buy them. But Morgan Stanley projects that by 2020, almost one in ten diamonds sold will have come from a lab. And diamond rings? Those aren’t going anywhere.

 

Kasiana McLenaghan, Columbia Radio News.

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