Diamond held between tweezers.
Diamond held between tweezers.
Image: Tahlia Doyle/Unsplash

Depending on whom you ask, the recent acquisition of lab-grown diamonds start-up Lusix by luxury conglomerate Louis Vuitton Möet Hennessy Luxury Ventures (LVMH) settles the years-long debate on whether lab-grown diamonds qualify as luxury.

What are lab-grown diamonds? As the name suggests, this is the man-made variety that, unlike its natural cousin, didn’t form in the earth’s mantle over billions of years, but was grown in a laboratory over a matter of weeks. But, according to a 2018 declaration by the US Federal Trade Commission, any “mineral consisting essentially of pure carbon crystallised in the isometric system”, whether man-made or natural, is a legitimate diamond.

Its review of jewellery guidelines stated that the term “synthetic” was no longer relevant in describing man-made diamonds, given that it can be interpreted to mean “artificial”, which man-made, lab-grown diamonds are not. Still, growers and sellers would be required to label their product as “man-made”, “aboveground” or “cultured”.

In SA, the market for these lab-grown gemstones is  “growing steadily, especially with the amount of information the consumer can now access and make informed choices from”, according to Ross Reid, co-founder of market leading Origins Diamonds. He adds that the social and economic benefits of lab-grown diamonds are playing a role in the changing perceptions and purchasing habits of consumers. The benefits include price and sustainability.

Typically, lab-grown diamonds can be between 50% and 70% cheaper than the natural variety and because they don’t come from a mine, the environmental benefits are, on the face of it, obvious. Here, the checkered history of diamond mining — labour, transparency and environmental issues, to start — can be avoided by a jewellery industry aiming for a sustainable future.

The market is reported to stand at $6bn, with projections that it would double by 2025

In 2020 alone, Vogue Business reports that 6-million to 7-million carats in lab-grown diamonds were produced, as big players, including Pandora and De Beers, began to incorporate them into their product offering, driven by younger consumers seeking more sustainable and affordable alternatives.

The market is reported to stand at $6bn, with projections that it would double by 2025. But as the market grows, skepticism has come from some quarters, arguing that because the value of man-made diamonds is tied to the cost of production, this means they don’t have a lasting value, thus bringing their qualification for “luxury” into question. Brands like Bulgari, Cartier and the LVMH-owned Tiffany, stood firm for a while, choosing to stick to natural diamonds as the only real “luxury” gemstones. Until now.

Indeed, Origins Diamonds’ Ross Reid points to the news of LVMH’s Lusix investment as proof that the debate is at least close to being settled. The $90m investment is a game-changer considering the luxury goods conglomerate’s footprint and position as global tastemaker, constantly seeking out and purchasing brands that are considered to be at the forefront of innovation in the sector.

This is preceded by efforts to differentiate the man-made from the natural variety, with De Beers, for example, stating that it wants to make a clear distinction by selling lab-grown diamonds for far less than the natural kind.

Forbes reports that Lusix is expected to double its production after the LVMH investment, meaning more jewellery bearing lab-grown gemstones will be hitting the market sooner than many expect, which will probably further affect prices. Discussing man-made diamonds in a blog post on luxury timepiece manufacturer Tag Heuer’s website, Lusix chair Benny Landa states, in not so many words, that the difference between their stones and those coming from mother earth is not only negligible but should have no bearing on the definition of products as luxury or otherwise.

“Nature grows diamonds a couple of hundred kilometres below the surface of the earth at enormous pressures and temperatures,” he says, adding, “but the fundamental process — the migration of carbon atoms to combine with one another, and self-assemble into diamond — that’s our process, too. All we do is create the conditions that allow nature to grow the diamond.”

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