From every angle, diamonds are sparkling at me, brightly lit in glass cases: enormous necklaces, gobstopper rings and row upon row of delicate, glittering earrings.
I’m on the quietly moneyed George Street in Marylebone, where modern jeweller Lark & Berry has recently set up shop. Worn by stars from supermodel Martha Hunt on the Cannes red carpet to Oscar-winning actor Regina King at the Met Gala, Lark & Berry’s pieces are in high demand. A multi-billion-dollar industry, for years diamonds have been a symbol of wealth, glamour and status. Here, the pieces regularly top the six-figure mark, and when I try on a one-off diamond necklace (coming in at a cool £70,000) I can understand the allure.
The distinctive heaviness that comes with wearing a rock to rival the Koh-i-Noor may seem inimitable, but there’s something different about this necklace that no one, not even an expert, could tell without a microscope. Just like the other stones set into the rings, earrings and bracelets twinkling all around me, these diamonds were grown in a laboratory. They’re identical to natural diamonds in their look, feel and chemical make-up, but take just weeks to produce — a little like getting ice from your freezer, rather than a glacier. ‘They’re super-pure diamonds, no one can tell them apart,’ says Laura Chavez, founder of Lark & Berry, who set up the company as an eco-friendly and conflict-free alternative to natural diamonds.
Concerns surrounding the ethics of mining for stones, as well as oversupply and economic uncertainty, have caused disruption in the natural diamond industry in recent years. Globally, more than 130 million carats of rough diamonds are mined for jewellery every year, often under conditions that exploit workers and violate human rights. Add this to the fact that many lab-grown stones cost between 30 and 40 per cent less than their natural counterparts, and it’s not difficult to see the appeal. Even the royals are getting in on the act — earlier this year, the Duchess of Sussex wore a pair of earrings by synthetic diamond jewellers, Kimai. ‘Meghan wearing our jewellery didn’t just give credibility to us, but to the industry as a whole,’ says Kimai co-founder Jessica Warch. ‘It was the first time royalty was seen wearing lab-grown diamonds.’
Synthetic diamonds aren’t new — US company General Electric announced the creation of the first man-made diamond in 1955 and gem-quality, grown diamonds have been available for around 30 years. They’re produced by two methods: one mimics the conditions under which diamonds are naturally made, the other grows tiny diamond slices one layer at a time.
It’s only in recent years, though, that technology has advanced enough to make the high-quality diamonds needed for fine jewellery. For Warch, the breakthrough couldn’t come soon enough. ‘In terms of fine jewellery, we felt that the industry wasn’t adapting to the changing needs of our generation,’ she tells me. ‘We couldn’t find any transparency or answers. Everything that’s going on in the mines, from blood diamonds to child labour, is shocking.’
The Kimberley Process — an international certification scheme that regulates trade — has gone some way to cleaning up the industry by removing conflict diamonds from the supply chain, but for Chavez, it doesn’t solve the problem. ‘I think the mined diamond industry has made some progress, and it’s mainly because people have demanded it,’ she says. ‘But I think that if we have the possibility to grow diamonds, it makes no sense to keep mining for them.’
Now, even the world’s leading diamond company is adapting to the changes. Last week, De Beers Group cut prices of natural diamonds by five per cent to help stem a crisis in the mining industry. And in 2018 the company launched its first foray into lab-grown diamonds with Lightbox. ‘This is new technology — once it exists, you can’t put it back in the box,’ says Lightbox general manager, Steve Coe. So does the company famous for coining the phrase ‘a diamond is forever’ admit that the days of natural stones are numbered? Far from it. ‘I think they’re two different products that serve different needs,’ says Coe. ‘There’s something about the way nature has created diamonds over billions of years, and the fact that these stones are inherently rare. There’s something absolutely special about them.’
Chavez disagrees. ‘As I always say, what is value? A lot of people are now valuing the fact that they can buy a diamond that was grown without harming anyone, without having to mine, that’s conflict-free. Values, and what we’re looking for as consumers, are changing.’ By all means, say it with diamonds — but these days, the true sparklers are man-made, not mined.