A Kimai campaign image

LONDON — This has been the year of breaking with every shape and form of tradition, from working in the office to getting engaged.

Life goes on, people are still falling in love and planning a future together, but gone are the days of heteronormative clichés — men getting on one knee to propose marriage or having to spend three months’ salary to buy an engagement ring.

Instead, women are now a big part of the decision-making process, there are ring options to suit every budget, and sustainability concerns are top of mind.

Young jewelry labels have been helping to lead the way with online services, sustainably-minded lab-grown stones and campaigns that showcase fewer romantic, idealized heterosexual couples and more women going about their day, grabbing the morning paper or having a burger for lunch, all while wearing their engagement ring.

“We just wanted to showcase the modern woman: She’s working and she’s wearing jeans and sneakers, she doesn’t have a man next to her, and she isn’t wearing a gown to go to a gala. It’s all about those casual moments,” said Jessica Warch, cofounder of the lab-grown diamond label Kimai, which has unveiled its first engagement ring collection online, due to demand during lockdown and a series of bespoke orders.

A Kimai campaign image

A Kimai campaign image.  Courtesy of Kimai

Kimai’s collection consists of six styles, including more traditional bands with an oval-cut diamond at the center, as well as modern, asymmetric designs that work as engagement rings as much as they do as everyday, stylish pieces.

Prices range from 1,525 euros to 2,100 euros.

“The rule of spending three months of a man’s salary on the ring is definitely something we wanted to get away from because it’s more about the woman wearing the ring. It shouldn’t be an accomplishment for the man. It’s definitely an accomplishment of love — and of a certain moment in time — but it’s not about [feeding] the man’s ego, or [showing off] how much he spent,” added Warch’s partner and cofounder Sidney Neuhaus.

Neuhaus said the company has been able to offer competitive price points by sticking to its digital-only, direct-to-consumer business model and keeping margins low. Yet the quality of the stones is just as high as that offered by heritage jewelers using mined stones, he contended.

A big part of Kimai’s engagement ring collection unveiling has been educating customers about the four Cs — clarity, cut, carat weight and color — when picking their ring and demonstrating how their pieces can live up to the highest of industry standards.

“We go above G or H color grade, which is really high quality. We want the diamond to shine, we don’t want to sell customers a big diamond that, at the end, is yellow because of its bad quality,” said Warch.

“A lab-grown diamond is as real as a diamond from the mine and they are both judged and graded the same way, so customers receive the exact same certificate. This allows us to build credibility.”

There’s already a growing audience of consumers who are on the lookout for lab-grown diamond alternatives when shopping for life milestones such as an engagement ring. Kimai’s aim is to tap further into that community and offer those customers a personalized service akin to a family jeweler of generations past.

“We’re not trying to educate customers who are stuck in old ways and old traditions, but we do want to educate open-minded customers and make them aware of the impact of mining,” added Warch.

A Kimai campaign image

A Kimai campaign image.  Courtesy of Kimai

Fellow lab-grown diamond jeweler Lark & Berry has had a similar response with a growing audience of what it calls “ethical consumers looking for stones that are guaranteed to be conflict-free, and have the lowest impact possible on Earth.”

When it comes to engagement rings, Lark & Berry has been putting a particular focus on its bespoke services, which can help foster a “creative partnership” between the brand and the end consumer.

According to founder Laura Chavez, this new, and ageless, generation of buyers is getting more experimental with regard to the designs they want, offering brands the opportunity to evolve their bridal collections and come up with more design-led pieces.

“There’s no official rule anywhere that says your engagement ring has to be a diamond. One new trend we’ve seen emerging is asymmetric cluster rings. They can create a big look, without the big price,” added Chavez.

“Things are just very much moving away from the traditional solitaire styles. Little hidden details on rings are also popular with bespoke customers.”

Lark & Berry's engagement rings

Lark & Berry’s engagement rings.  Courtesy of Narita Savoor

Reducing price points and debunking the myth of “socially acceptable” price tags is a big priority for Chavez, too.

“We are able to offer the fairest fine-jewelry prices on the market — no mined diamond price gouging. The expectation to show off your wealth via the engagement ring and spend three months’ salary is just outdated, not to mention impossible for a lot of people these days in unsure economic times.”

Fenton & Co.’s chief executive officer Laura Lambert pointed to the three months’ salary marketing spin (which was created by the diamond industry in the Sixties) as adding financial pressure to a relationship and being “damaging rather than celebratory.”

“We wanted to address such preconceptions around conformity and have been committed to opening up conversations within the bridal industry to people and couples from a wider range of cultural backgrounds and sexual orientations. There is still a very heteronormative and single culture narrative around love and commitment which excludes and devalues so many people,” said Lambert, whose direct-to-consumer label offers ethically sourced colored gemstones and was designed with the aim of debunking industry myths from the get-go.

Its ultimate mission is to create modern heirlooms that are less about living up to social norms and more about making memories.

“It’s not our moment, it’s about you. I do think that there’s been a lack of respect in the industry when it comes to the way they treated their customer, and the whole notion of the diamond. This idea that if you’re getting engaged it has to be a diamond, it has to [cost] three months’ pay — these are all very modern inventions. I much prefer the idea of what really matters to you and your emotional state,” she said.

To that end, the label has published “Notes on Love,” featuring a series of essays compiled during lockdown by a range of creatives, including the author and podcaster Elizabeth Day, writer Alain de Botton, activist Venetia La Manna and clinical psychologist and yoga teacher Dr. Sophie Mort.

“The book was a way of giving some of these stories and voices a forum. Publishing it let us go deeper into our commitment as a brand to celebrate a wide range of people and the message around individuality,” said Lambert.

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