Would the boss of the world’s best known diamond company consider buying his wife a sparkler that had been grown in a lab?
‘Not if I wanted to stay married,’ guffaws Al Cook, the chief executive of De Beers – a company that can claim to have endowed the gemstones with much of their expensive mystique.
Lab-grown diamonds are, however, becoming increasingly popular. Experts say 2023 was a pivotal year with sales of lab-grown gems making up 17 per cent of the overall diamond market compared with just 2 per cent five years earlier.
Sales are expected to continue booming. Lab-grown diamonds are as much as 90 per cent cheaper and are being lauded as the future of jewellery by retailers including Pandora, advertised by Pamela Anderson.
But for traditionalists like Cook, there is a limit on how far diamonds can be democratised without losing their cachet. De Beers sold diamonds worth £300million last month despite a tough economic backdrop which has left many leading luxury brands struggling.
Cachet: Lab-grown diamonds are as much as 90 per cent cheaper and are being lauded as the future of jewellery by retailers including Pandora, advertised by Pamela Anderson (pictured)
The company’s ‘A diamond is forever’ slogan, dreamed up in the 1940s, is credited with inventing the modern concept of an engagement ring. The whole point of diamonds is not that anyone can have them, but that they are aspirational, alluring and viewed as one of life’s ultimate luxuries.
An iconic cinema moment features Marilyn Monroe in a pink gown singing Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend in the 1953 classic film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Richard Duffy, the boss of London-listed miner Petra Diamonds, is sceptical about how meaningful man-made stones are. ‘I have three daughters,’ he says. ‘I’m not sure if one of them was getting married and showed me a five-carat lab-grown diamond that I would think very highly of her new husband.’
However, more young men are buying their fiancees lab-grown engagement rings than ever before – and the trend is upsetting traditional mining giants. According to price-tracker and expert Paul Zimnisky affordability is the decider for most people mulling the purchase of an engagement ring.
For one-carat stones – which feature in many engagement rings – the cost is now $5,035 (£4,000) for a mined stone, while the man-made equivalent costs just $1,325.
Fan: Leonardo DiCaprio has invested in a San Francisco-based lab-grown jewellery start-up
Some couples prefer to save on the ring. Younger buyers are also attracted by lab-grown’s green credentials and the fact that there are no uncomfortable questions about whether they have been mined by children or whether the proceeds of sales finance warlords.
Celebrities such as Taylor Swift and Emma Watson are fans. Actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who has invested in a San Francisco-based lab-grown jewellery start-up, ironically starred in the film Blood Diamond.
One analyst said: ‘With lab-grown diamonds you can get something that is exceptionally high quality for a dramatically lower price. The younger generation just doesn’t care if they are grown in a lab.’
But it is not always the case that lab-grown is greener, with production requiring huge amounts of energy that is not always from green sources.
The diamond industry is fighting back against the binary perception that mining is bad and lab-grown is good. Petra Diamonds and De Beers – which even has its own lab-grown division called Lightbox – are working on their own technologies that will allow customers to trace the origin of stones from their mines. ‘We live in a world where people want to know where their cheese is from and their coffee is from,’ Cook adds. ‘They want to know where their diamonds are from.’
The industry is clearly going through upheaval but – for now at least – real diamonds remain a girl’s best friend.