LONDON — Sustainability is an issue within the fine jewelry industry once again, with consumers and brands alike questioning the provenance of diamonds — and considering alternatives.
Twelve years ago the film “Blood Diamond,” which starred Leonardo DiCaprio, captured the mood of many consumers worried whether their rocks had come from battle zones or financed warlords. A few years before that, De Beers waged a war of words with Survival International, a nongovernmental organization, about diamond mining and whether it was driving the Bushmen of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve from their homes.
Those issues forced De Beers and others to develop the Kimberly Process to clean up their supply chains and put a focus on transparent sourcing, with the launch of Forevermark-branded diamonds just one example of De Beers’ efforts to be more ethical. Today there are other dynamics at play in addition to provenance. Now the conversation is about price and environmentally sound sourcing and manufacturing, as mining isn’t the cleanest industry.
As a result, the concept of lab-grown diamonds — once anathema to the big brands — has been gaining momentum and jewelers new and old are jumping on the opportunity to take a stake in the market with accessibly priced collections and the opportunity to make major red carpet statements about sustainability.
The newly launched label Lark & Berry, which is based in London, is among the latest brands to join the conversation. Created by Laura Chavez and designed by Katie Rowland, it specializes in synthetic diamonds and is targeting a growing breed of price- and sustainability-conscious consumers.
“I started this because it was really hard to find jewelry I could afford that was also good quality. When I discovered that you can create diamonds in the lab, I realized that this is how we can make it happen; they are more accessible and you can also guarantee that they are 100 percent conflict-free and sustainable,” said Chavez, in an interview aboard a two-story yacht in Cannes. The brand used the boat as its home during the Cannes Film Festival to mark its launch and introduce its product to celebrities, models and influencers.
Chavez said she wanted to have a presence at the festival, and to be seen next to the big jewelry industry players that hold court in Cannes, in order to highlight that “Lark & Berry is a luxury brand, but we are doing things differently.” Apart from dressing celebrities and offering elaborate, one-off pieces suitable for the red carpet — the brand dressed Martha Hunt at this year’s amfAR gala — Chavez wants to focus on including more accessible pieces that can be worn every day.
The range consists of dainty rings that can be stacked together, diamond studs and delicate pendants, with prices starting at 200 pounds. The aim is to avoid the disconnect between the red carpet and the regular consumer: “It’s about creating access and demystifying the whole industry. If you’re going to an event, we have unique pieces to offer. But we also wanted to let women know that they can wear diamonds every day and we have a range of more casual pieces that you wouldn’t be so scared of.”
Similarly, the label is taking a more contemporary approach in the way it plans to market itself, with a focus on reaching consumers via influencers and Instagram-friendly imagery, as much as through red carpet placements. During the two-week event in Cannes, the brand hosted an array of influencers aboard its yacht, which served as a backdrop for selfies and still-life images that garnered buzz on social media.
As it builds its following, the brand plans to introduce its own e-commerce channel, while a brick-and-mortar store in London’s Marylebone neighborhood is in the works for later this year. “It will be more of a boutique experience, nothing big, so it becomes more personal. We want the customer to be comfortable in the jewels. They should not be scared of coming into the store,” Chavez added.
As for the jewelry industry’s move toward sustainability with cultured diamonds, Chavez explains that there continues to be resistance from some of the more traditional jewelers, who tend to dismiss lab-grown gems as synthetic.
“Having worked on the launch and getting to know suppliers for almost a year and a half now, I could see that there has been a lot of resistance of people not wanting this to happen,” Chavez said. “They call cultured diamonds synthetic, but they’re not — they’re real diamonds with the same chemical components and the same sparkle but better, because they are 100 percent conflict free. We can get the top quality, top clarity and color without it breaking your wallet.”
Swarovski was one of the first jewelry companies to embrace the concept of man-made diamonds, as part of its higher-end Atelier Swarovski line. Nadja Swarovski said she wanted to enter the fine jewelry arena in a bid to gain more exposure on the red carpet, but she decided to do it in a conscious way, using a mix of sustainably sourced gemstones, man-made diamonds and emeralds and sustainably sourced gold that would appeal to the next generation of luxury consumers.
The diamonds she’s working with have the same physical and chemical composition as mined ones and are certified by the Gemological Institute of America.
In order to ensure she stays ahead of the game in this new arena, Swarovski has joined forces with Stephen Webster on a collection featuring fabricated diamonds and gems like emeralds and rubies.
“It’s a product for the new generation of jewelry consumers,” Webster said. “I tested it with a small survey in my kitchen — my wife wasn’t interested but my daughters, who are aged 26 and 18, were all over it.” He added that having Swarovski stand behind this new jewelry movement means it’s likely to have more reach.
“It needs Swarovski behind it. It really does, because otherwise it would sit there and it would be very easy to just be dismissed. In some ways, that’s what’s happening with that side of the diamond industry. But if you now have Swarovski behind it, championing it and bringing on designers, you can’t ignore it then. You may or may not like it but you can’t ignore it — that’s the big difference.”
The crystal giant has also tapped Penélope Cruz to create a capsule jewelry collection using cultured gemstones, which was presented during the Cannes Film Festival and road-tested by Cruz on the red carpet, on the festival’s opening night. Given the high visibility the Cannes red carpet offers, Cruz quickly sparked a conversation around sustainability and the need to rethink red carpet dressing.
One of the brands that had long resisted the growing trend toward man-made diamonds was De Beers, the world’s diamond mining giant. But seeing a commercial opportunity — and access to a new market — the brand has launched a new brand, Lightbox Jewelry, offering lab–grown jewels at affordable price points.
But does the jeweler value cultured diamonds as highly as it does mined stones? Absolutely not. According to the De Beers Group chief executive officer Bruce Cleaver, lab-grown diamond jewels are seen as “a fun, pretty product that shouldn’t cost that much,” which is why the company set out to create a collection priced between $200 and $800, below the current market offer for real diamonds.
“As the technology advances, products become more affordable. After decades of R&D investment, we’re able to offer consumers a better price today. While it will be a small business compared with our core diamond business, we think the Lightbox brand will resonate with consumers and provide a new, complementary commercial opportunity for De Beers Group,” Cleaver added.
The new affordable collection will also highlight the distinction between lab-grown and mined diamonds for the brand. “We’ve learned from our research that there is a lot of confusion about lab-grown diamonds — what they are, how they differ from diamonds, and how they are valued. Lightbox will be clear with consumers about what lab-grown diamonds are and will offer straightforward pricing that is consistent with the true cost of production,” said Steve Coe, general manager at Lightbox Jewelry.
Lightbox will initially be available in the U.S. and the first collection will offer youthful designs in pink, blue and white-colored gems, featuring stones ranging from a quarter to one-carat.