How lab-grown diamonds became every girl's best friend

How lab-grown diamonds became every girl’s best friend: They’re a third of the price. Far more ethical. And even a top expert can’t tell the difference. No wonder they’ve ruffled the feathers of the jewellery industry

  • Six to seven million carats of lab-grown diamonds were produced last year 
  • They can be created in less than four weeks and sold for a third of the price 
  • Kate Walsh of Pandora UK and Ireland, says method makes diamonds accessible
  • Laura Chavez, 37, reveals the backlash received for her brand Lark & Berry

A few months after Laura Chavez set up her jewellery company in 2018, hate mail started arriving.

One letter was ‘signed by two important people in the UK jewellery industry, both men, presidents of organisations that I think readers would know,’ recalls 37-year-old Laura.

‘They went through everything on our website, outlining what was wrong, then threatened to take legal action. I had such a shock. A colleague said: “You’d better watch your back!”’

What had Laura done to cause such a reaction? Nothing illegal, she was assured by her lawyers. She had simply set up one of the world’s first companies to sell jewellery made exclusively from lab-grown diamonds. And, as London-based Laura reflects: ‘The fact these big people cared about our tiny business meant that we were on to something.’

FEMAIL explored the rise in lab-grown diamonds. Pictured: Laura Chavez, 37, from London, who is the founder of Lark & Berry

Indeed, lab-grown diamonds are the biggest threat the diamond industry has ever faced. They can be created in weeks, sold for a third of the price and are identical — chemically, physically and optically — to natural diamonds. The only difference is they were not formed billions of years ago.

Lab diamonds are grown in factories over one to four weeks. When they’re ready, they can be cut and polished as exquisitely as any natural diamond.

In 2019 (the most recent figures available), the lab-grown market grew by 15 to 20 per cent, according to managing consultants Bain & Company and the Antwerp World Diamond Centre, the world’s diamond-trading hub. Six to seven million carats of lab-grown diamonds were produced last year.

Today, the lab-grown jewellery market is estimated to be worth $1.9 billion (£1.35 billion) and is expected to grow at 22 per cent annually to $5.2 billion (£3.69 billion) by 2023, according to diamond industry analyst Paul Zimnisky.

The shift has certainly upset the traditional diamond trade.

De Beers, the historic diamond company, initially tried to position lab-grown diamonds for the ‘masses’ and mined stones for the ‘classes’.

With the launch of Lightbox, a fashion-focused collection of white, pink and blue lab-grown diamonds in 2018, De Beers set the price at £567 per carat rather than £2,124 per carat for a mined diamond, and did no grading, to suggest this was done only for ‘real’ diamonds.

But the lab-grown market is expanding regardless — with huge implications for the diamond industry.

‘It has made diamonds far more accessible for people shopping on the High Street,’ says Kate Walsh, managing director of Pandora UK and Ireland.

Kate Walsh who is the managing director of Pandora UK and Ireland, said the lab-grown market has made diamonds more accessible for people shopping on the High Street. Pictured: Matilde Mourinho, founder of Matilde Jewellery

Pandora, the world’s biggest jewellery brand, recently launched Pandora Brilliance, a lab-created diamond collection. In the past, Pandora rarely used mined diamonds, as they were too expensive for their customers.

‘I only remember a handful of limited-edition charms we did four years ago,’ says Kate. ‘We used really small chips, almost off-cuts, to keep it affordable.’

Now, with prices starting at £250 for a sterling silver and lab-grown diamond ring, Kate says ‘it’s definitely an industry we expect to grow in coming years’.

So far, there is only one established lab in the UK. Most ‘growers’ are in the U.S., China or India.

Two techniques are used. HPHT (High Pressure High Temperature), invented in the 1950s, mimics the high pressure and temperature found in the earth when natural diamonds are formed. A ‘seed’ (chip of diamond) is placed into a piece of carbon, and the pressure and temperature used forces the carbon to form a diamond.

CVD (Chemical Vapour Deposition) is more expensive, often producing higher-grade diamonds. A thin slice of diamond is placed in a vacuum chamber filled with carbon-heavy gases. Under 1,000c, the gases turn into plasma which bonds with the diamond slice to build the diamond in layers.

Diamonds can be grown in any size or colour, but the big appeal for environmentalists is that they’re gentler on the Earth — and on humankind.

Helen Dimmick who is a gemologist and jewellery expert, said it’s important that lab-grown diamonds aren’t sold as a green solution because there is a massive energy expenditure, when they are created. Pictured: Jessica Warch and Sidney Neuhaus, founders of Kimai

Lab-growns don’t pollute water sources or destroy habitats. They don’t see firms employing miners on low wages in unsafe conditions. They’re not mined in war zones or sold to finance bloody conflicts. Evidence of ‘blood diamonds’ emerged from Sierra Leone’s civil war in the 1990s, inspiring the Leonardo DiCaprio film Blood Diamond.

But lab-grown diamonds aren’t without fault. ‘There is a massive energy expenditure when a diamond is created and it’s important it’s not sold as a green solution,’ says Helen Dimmick, a gemologist and jewellery expert.

‘Not all lab growers are created equal,’ agrees Joanna Park-Tonks, founder of British jeweller Chelsea Rocks, who is calling for more regulation. ‘We need to build trust and establish standards.’

Others say the mining industry is being unfairly tarnished with past wrong-doings.

One thing is for sure: the world of diamonds is changing fast. And it’s predominantly women at the forefront of the new lab-grown diamond boom. As these new jewellers show, now, more than ever, diamonds really are a girl’s best friend…

THE TRAILBLAZER

Laura Chavez, 37, set up Lark & Berry (larkandberry.co.uk), offering fine jewellery made exclusively with lab diamonds, in July 2018. She lives with partner Erik.

‘I’ve always loved jewellery, but never used to buy diamonds,’ explains Laura. After seeing the movie Blood Diamond, ‘I realised that if I’m buying this, people are dying. It’s that extreme’.

Laura Chavez, 37, (pictured) learned about lab diamonds while doing a part-time jewellery course in Hatton Garden in 2015

She first learned about lab diamonds in 2015 while doing a part-time jewellery course in Hatton Garden (alongside her MBA at London Business School). They seemed like the perfect, ethical solution.

However, she could find only two tiny companies partially using them in engagement rings. ‘I thought, “Why isn’t anyone doing this?”’ recalls Laura, who decided to create her own.

‘I didn’t know anything about jewellery,’ she admits. ‘You think it’s for women, made by women. But I remember going to trade shows and being shocked that 90 per cent were men.’

The biggest challenge she found, though, is that ‘diamonds have been controlled by the same people for a long time. They don’t allow room for new players, because there’s so much money in this business.

‘Many diamonds have already been mined, with a price set, so if people grow them, then it’s tougher to sell existing stock.’

Which is probably why Laura has faced so much opposition.

Laura (pictured) revealed sales for Lark & Berry’s 100 piece range have increased by 600 per cent in the past year

In February 2019, a high-end necklace, bracelet and earrings set of Lark & Berry’s (retailing at £100,000) was entered into The Graff Jewellery Award, by the artisan who’d made them. After 30 days of judging by 20 experts, it won.

Sharing this on her website, Laura was contacted by an awards representative. ‘He was so angry — screaming at us, telling us to remove it,’ she says.

On the entry form, it wasn’t specified that the diamonds had to be mined — and it appears no one had realised these were lab diamonds. ‘Two days later, the artisan told us he’d decided to return the award,’ says Laura. ‘I think he felt pressured to give it back. He has lots of clients.’

Yet she is adamant that this ‘legitimised us even more — the fact the best experts couldn’t tell the difference, then got so mad; lab diamonds are exactly the same.’

Today, Laura’s resilience has paid off. In the past year, sales for Lark & Berry’s 100-piece range (sold online and in its London store) have increased by 600 per cent. It has launched lab-grown coloured cultured gems, too, such as sapphires and rubies.

Laura (pictured) revealed she’s focused on making Lark & Berry as sustainable as possible, using recycled gold, carbon-neutral shipping and planting five trees per purchase

Prices start at £105, but are mainly between £600 and £1,000, going up to £100,000. Celebrity fans include Helen Mirren, Kylie Minogue, Tess Daly, Jane Seymour and Jourdan Dunn.

‘Now there are so many brands popping up,’ says Laura, which shows ‘this is the future’.

She is focused on making Lark & Berry as sustainable as possible, using recycled gold, carbon-neutral shipping and planting five trees per purchase. The firm works with labs that use 100 per cent renewable energy, and will soon be including ‘sky diamonds’, which are made using a new technology, where excess carbon is captured from the air, then converted into something that can be made into diamonds. ‘So we can say that diamonds are literally falling from the sky!’

INSPIRED BY MUM

Matilde Mourinho, 24, started Matilde Jewellery (matildejewellery.com) in December 2020. She lives in London with her parents football manager Jose Mourinho and Matilde Faria.

When Matilde was 18, her parents gave her a special birthday present. As the daughter of football manager Jose Mourinho, the present, a bracelet, had all the glamour you’d expect — white gold set with a discreet diamond. ‘I was so excited. It was my first piece of proper jewellery,’ says Matilde.

Six years on, Matilde is the founder of Matilde, a jewellery company keen to demonstrate its sustainability credentials. It uses lab-grown diamonds because they ‘have the least impact on the environment’.

Matilde Mourinho, 24, who lives in London, was first introduced to lab-grown diamonds while shopping with her mother in 2019. Pictured: Jeweller Matilde Mourinho with her father Jose

It also works with recycled gold, which costs more, but if she can avoid polluting the earth thousands of miles away, then she’s happy to pay the premium. When we meet she quotes statistics: ‘Did you know that for each carat of diamond mined, 250 tons of the earth is shifted?’

And yet on her wrist is the bracelet: a symbol, surely, of all that’s wrong about the traditional jewellery industry? ‘I did think “I’m going to have to stop wearing it”,’ she admits. ‘Then I thought, “If it just sits in a box in my room, it’s actually worse. Part of what I love about jewellery is what it signifies and stands for.’

Matilde studied at the London College of Fashion before doing an MA in Entrepreneurship: Fashion and Creative Industries at Conde Nast College of Fashion and Design. She was first introduced to lab-grown diamonds while shopping with her mother, also called Matilde, in 2019.

‘We walked into a shop where a jewellery brand was doing a pop-up. The founder came up and said: “Did you know all our jewellery uses lab-grown diamonds?” I was like, “What?” I was intrigued.

‘My mum was born in Angola, which is where a lot of the horrible impact from blood diamonds took place. She was always vocal about it. She thought it was amazing that lab-grown diamonds existed.’

Matilde (pictured) has had pieces from her collection worn by celebrities including Naomi Scott and Priyanka Chopra Jonas

Matilde may be known for her father but she talks about her mother the most: her style, her support. She borrows clothes off her all the time, especially bags.

She decided it was a ‘no-brainer’ to go into lab-grown diamonds. ‘Consumers expect transparency. With lab-grown diamonds you’re able to give them that,’ she says.

She launched Matilde with her savings and money from her parents. The 31-piece collection costs £75 to £1,850 and has been worn by celebrities including actress Naomi Scott and film producer Priyanka Chopra Jonas.

Her inspiration is nature and Portugal. Her parents grew up streets apart in Setubal, near Lisbon, and Matilde spent her early childhood there. A ring set with tiny diamonds is called Deusa (Portuguese for ‘goddess’).

Another, in the shape of Heart of Viana, a traditional Portuguese symbol, was designed with her mother for Mother’s Day. ‘My mum is my biggest brand ambassador. Dad doesn’t wear jewellery, only a wedding ring.’

MAGIC OF MEGHAN

Jessica Warch and Sidney Neuhaus, both 27, co-founded London-based Kimai (kimai.com) in November 2018.

Just two months after launching their lab-diamond brand Kimai, Jessica and Sidney woke to discover Meghan Markle had worn their £495 Felicity earrings to London charity Smart Works.

‘It was insane. Our sales went crazy,’ remembers Jessica. ‘She brought credibility to an industry that most people hadn’t heard of, showing even royalty were wearing them.’

This was no coincidence, Sidney explains. They’d funded Kimai with £10,000 of savings and couldn’t afford marketing, so thought Meghan would be ‘the perfect ambassador’. They spent months courting her. ‘There was a lot of cold-emailing people and not taking no for an answer!’

From the outset, says Jessica, ‘[magazine] journalists were saying, “We can’t write about you, because we’re sponsored by that [diamond] association.” They couldn’t hurt their ad revenue.’

Jessica Warch and Sidney Neuhaus (pictured) founded lab-diamond brand Kimai in 2018, after learning about the trend from family friends 

Initially they were shocked, but it happened so much they got used to it. ‘It made us laugh,’ she says. ‘It showed they were scared of this new industry.’

In fact, Jessica and Sidney, who’ve been friends for more than 20 years, grew up in exactly that world. They’re from Antwerp: Jessica’s dad, Phillipe, is a diamond trader, and Sidney’s father, Serge, is a jeweller.

The pair moved to London in 2012 — Jessica to study at Cass Business School and Sidney to become a gemologist.

When they heard from family friends about a new trend for ethical lab-grown diamonds, they were hooked. A year on, they launched Kimai: 20 designs using recycled gold and lab diamonds.

Initially, their families were sceptical. ‘They thought they were fake,’ says Jessica. ‘Or, they’d say, “What’s the value in ten years?”’

‘But,’ she maintains, ‘they weren’t angry. They’re more supportive, the more they know.’

This wasn’t their only challenge. ‘As women in business, it’s trickier raising funds,’ says Sidney. ‘Most investors are men. They don’t understand the product as well.’

The duo secured £920,000 in November 2019, from mainly female angel investors, including designer Diane von Furstenberg, and now have an all-female staff.

It’s a business run by women, for women. Today, they have 40 pieces, sold globally through their website and in Selfridges and London store Browns. Last year, sales increased by 200 per cent. Celebrity fans include Emma Watson and Jessica Alba.

Yet in Antwerp, they say, the traditionalists are hitting back with a huge billboard campaign for ‘Only Natural Diamonds’.

‘That started when lab diamonds were becoming popular’, laughs Jessica. ‘They’re scared of the impact we’re having.

‘But our mission isn’t just to sell jewellery: it’s to end an unethical industry. So, yes, it’s challenging, but it only motivates us more.’

JET-SET JEWELS

Joanna Park-Tonks, 44, launched Chelsea Rocks (chelsea-rocks.com) in 2018. She lives between London and Salzburg, Austria.

Joanna Park-Tonks, 44, (pictured) who founded Chelsea Rocks  in 2018, was first introduced to diamonds as a student more than 20 years ago

Joanna was first introduced to diamonds as a student at Durham University more than 20 years ago. As part of her year abroad, she worked for De Beers in Milan. For a shy only child with a romantic disposition, it was eye-opening.

‘It was a world of incredible glamour. I loved it. Fashion shows, restaurants, grand gestures. The whole office flew business class on an all-expenses-paid Christmas trip to Rome.

‘My mum said, “Jo, this is an incredible opportunity. Why don’t you work for them?” De Beers was at the peak of its powers, with a global monopoly; very traditional, very closed-shop. But I was too much of a frere bird.’

After working as a trainee analyst for strategy and consulting company Accenture for three years, she left to launch her own management consultancy, and in 2007 moved to Vienna.

Joanna (pictured) whose collection ranges from £295 to £2,000, said she wants to offer ‘ the creme de la creme of lab-grown diamonds’

The turning point came in her early 40s. ‘I thought, “I’m not married. I don’t have children.” I was at a crossroads.’ Still hankering after the glamour of the diamond world, in 2018 she visited a leading jewellery trade fair in Germany.

‘I thought, “This industry is ripe for innovation.” One, it’s antique, not in the digital era. Two, the niche occupied by lab-grown diamonds was ripe for exploitation.’ She launched Chelsea Rocks soon after, funding it herself.

‘I left a well-paid job in Vienna, friends and a nice lifestyle to live atop a mountain with my parents in Salzburg. Everything hinges on Chelsea Rocks.’

Sold under the slogan, ‘Luxury comes with a clean conscience’, the collection is mainly diamond earrings set in white, rose or yellow gold. Inspired by the shape of a martini glass, ice cubes and Chelsea — the affluent area where Joanna used to live with ‘some jet-set girls and a private banker’ — it channels glamorous evenings out.

Prices range from £295 to £2,000, available online and from her friend’s shop, Ainsworth Jewellers, in Blackburn, Lancashire. ‘I want to offer the creme de la creme of lab-grown diamonds,’ she says. 

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