Diamonds might be for ever, yet their origins are evolving.
This week, Bloomberg reported the prices of some rough stones are in free fall as Americans opt for jewellery made using lab-grown diamonds, which are lower in cost.
As a result, even established jewellery houses have had to rethink costs and supply. Case in point: in the first half of the year, De Beers's profits dropped 60 per cent to $347 million, with average prices for its “real” diamonds falling from $213 per carat to $163.
Now, as the prices of both sink like a stone and many adapt to shifting appetites from consumers, industry opinion is increasingly divided about which stone sparkles brightest.
Third-generation diamantaire: ‘Times are changing’
De Beers, the world’s leading producer and distributor of diamonds that coined the phrase “a diamond is for ever” in a marketing campaign 75 years ago, used to be a staunch defender of natural stones. However, in the face of increased competition from synthetic diamonds, it joined the market in 2018 – but sold its lab-grown versions at a heavy discount compared to “rare” mined ones.
The move illustrated a global shift in trends, including among jewellery buyers and wearers in the Emirates. Last year, more than $1.5 billion of lab-grown diamonds were traded in Dubai, marking a 126 per cent year-on-year increase, as reported by DMCC.
For Aya Ahmad, founder of Middle Eastern company Fyne Jewellery, the ethical and environmental benefits of synthetic gems are deep-rooted. “As a third-generation diamantaire, I've witnessed the diamond industry's evolution, and I believe it's essential to adapt to more sustainable practices,” she says.
“Lab-grown diamonds are guaranteed to be conflict-free, which means they do not contribute to the unethical practices often associated with mined diamonds.
“Traditional diamond mining can be environmentally destructive. Lab-grown diamonds significantly reduce this impact by requiring fewer resources and producing fewer carbon emissions.”
Jewellery brand Pandora is doubling down on its commitment to use only lab-grown stones, with models Ashley Graham and Pamela Anderson wearing some in its advertisement campaigns.
Also this month, Swarovski extended its synthetic diamond line to all its flagship shores, including the UAE.
But will everyone be lining up to fill their shopping bag?
The realist: ‘Lab-grown diamonds have no value’
Roxanne Mukhi, founder of Dubai's Istana Jewellery, only uses natural stones in her designs and believes lab-grown diamonds are “merely a fad”.
“One of my main concerns with lab-grown diamonds is that people don’t understand the value of what it is they’re buying,” she says.
“Lab-grown diamonds literally have no value. Even though they have the same chemical composition as a naturally formed diamond, the fact that lab-grown diamonds are quick to produce reflects in their pricing, unlike natural diamonds that formed over billions of years.”
Mukhi also believes that ethical concerns about natural diamonds are largely unfounded.
“The amount of energy it takes to recreate the natural conditions in which mined diamonds are formed is enormous,” she says. “The majority of lab-grown diamonds are produced in countries where the labour laws and waste management are questionable.”
According to a Statista report in 2019, 56 per cent of lab-grown diamonds were made in China, where production industries often rely heavily on fossil fuels.
The amount of power needed to create a diamond can lead to a significant output in carbon pollution if the energy source is dirty, a point made in a 2019 Trucost report that found that greenhouse gas emissions are roughly three times greater for lab-grown diamonds.
For Mukhi, who holds a diamond training certification from the Gemological Institute of America, the real value in diamonds lies not in their appearance, but in their uniqueness.
“No two diamonds are the same,” she says, “Their rarity and the millions of years it takes them to form sets them apart.”
Jewellery heiress: ‘Natural diamonds are for ever’
Jewellery designer Ashna Mehta is heiress to Indian-Belgian diamond traders and manufacturers Rosy Blue.
Best known for designing Nicki Minaj’s diamond Barbie bling, Mehta only wears mined diamonds and says they hold generational value. “I exclusively use natural diamonds," she says. "Such jewellery will remain as heirlooms for millions of families across the world and is here to stay.”
Despite her personal preferences, Mehta insists she isn’t opposed to lab-grown diamonds and believes they will continue to co-exist among mined stones.
“Lab-grown diamonds broaden the range of jewellery available to consumers worldwide,” she says. “Some of my family members in Rosy Blue are involved in lab-grown diamonds. When you consider the versatility of the raw materials, you can see how they will become another designer's dream.”
Ethical consumer: ‘Millennials demand more’
The founder of Diamind, Pamela El Khoury, believes ethical and price considerations have caused millennials to invest in lab-grown diamonds.
“Lab-grown diamonds offer a price point advantage over their mined counterparts,” she says.
“This economic aspect has made them an attractive choice for a broader spectrum of consumers, including millennials who often prioritise affordability without compromising on quality.”
El Khoury’s personal preference also leans strongly towards lab-grown diamonds, which are graded and certified by the same laboratories that assess mined diamonds. “Lab-grown diamonds align perfectly with my values of ethical and environmental responsibility,” she says. “The process of mining natural diamonds often involves environmental disruption and has a significant carbon footprint.
“Lab-grown diamonds, on the other hand, are produced without the same negative impact on land, wildlife and local communities. This alignment with sustainability and ethics is a key reason for my preference.”
The future of diamonds
Regardless of preference, the lab-grown diamond industry will continue to soar, if the aforementioned figures from DMCC are anything to go by.
It's something that comes as no surprise to Basma Chaieri, founder of Dubai’s Etika Jewels, who has noticed a variation in prices as availability increases. “With more players entering the lab-grown diamond market, supply also has grown fast, making the prices more competitive,” she says.
She cites a report by industry analyst Paul Zimnisky in February, which revealed the price of a one-carat lab-grown diamond in the first quarter of the year stood at $1,450, which marked a 27 per cent drop from the same quarter in 2021, when the price was $1,980.
“We have witnessed a lot of fluctuation in the lab diamond market price over the last few years, but it has been stabilising lately,” Chaieri says. “We expect the current prices to be maintained now.”
For Mukhi, however, the figures are meaningless. “We don’t believe that lab-grown diamonds will have any value moving forward, which may in turn increase the value for natural diamonds,” she says. “Lab-grown diamonds are currently trending, but trends don’t last for ever."
It remains a multifaceted argument. As investment banker and jewellery connoisseur Priya Kapoor puts it: “A happy balance for me is to have a combination of both types. I wouldn't want my engagement ring or my investment pieces to be made from a man-made stone, but a woman can never have or wear too many diamonds. If I can add to my collection with a piece that is cheaper and just as nice to look at, I would definitely buy it.”