MILAN — The suspended moment right before making a choice is far more important than the decision taken, according to Italian actress-cum-entrepreneur Fiammetta Cicogna.
“That’s when your inner strength is revealed,” she said about that moment, which inspired the name and philosophy behind the jewelry label she introduced last summer and dubbed “Inbilico,” or “in the balance” in English.
As a consumer, those seconds or minutes could refer to the moments before picking between different designs or the ones preceding the choice of a sustainable option. Cicogna poured these two concepts into the brand, which intends to make jewelry more approachable, functional as well as socially and environmentally friendly by offering contemporary pieces crafted from recycled or certified sustainable gold and lab-grown diamonds.
Tapping into the growing appetite for lab-grown diamonds — but also joining the debate between these and mined stones — Inbilico was founded almost by chance, even if its seeds were planted long ago.
“I had never imagined to launch a venture in jewelry. But for many years, when I was younger, I went back and forth from Italy to Kenya and, ever since, I’ve had this niggle about mining, which I’ve always considered wrong,” recalled Cicogna.
While these concerns percolated for decades, almost four years ago her friend Manuela Picciotto — Inbilico’s cofounder and designer — landed by chance on a page sponsoring lab-grown diamonds, sparking her interest in them.
“We fell in love with the technology behind it and decided to buy one of these diamonds, asking an expert in Valenza [a key Italian goldsmith district] to realize a jewel based on this,” recalled Cicogna, adding that they met strong resistance when the goldsmith heard it was a man-made stone. A second attempt bluffing on the origin of the gem showed them that not even experts could notice the difference between man-made and mined diamonds.
“That’s when we decided we had to launch this business,” said Cicogna.
“Consumption is already against the concept of sustainability, but the truth is that we do consume and can’t do otherwise, but we can try to do it better,” continued Cicogna, underscoring lab-grown diamonds’ benefits in terms of protection of the environment and biodiversity, fair worker treatment and conflict-free sourcing, among others.
Yet while man-made diamonds are infiltrating the mainstream, many industry players still don’t recognize them as valuable alternatives to mined ones, labeling them as fake or artificial even if they share the same composition — pure, crystallized carbon — and are graded by the same 4C examination of cut, color, carat and clarity.
The difference between the categories lies in the conditions needed to form the stones, with heat and pressure applied by nature or simulated in laboratories. In the case of Inbilico, diamonds are born from small seeds, which are diamond splinters, that go under high temperatures, remain in incubation for about four weeks, consuming only a glass of water per carat and the equivalent of three days of electricity for domestic use.
On the other hand, pushback from the diamond mining industry questions the amount of energy used in labs and contends that the natural process provides more jobs along the supply chain and improvements are being made in supporting local mining communities, working toward becoming carbon neutral and executing large-scale conservation projects. In addition, the pro-mined-diamond sector continues to stress that only their stones store real value.
“I believe so much in humans and there’s this technological humanism that enables us to replicate what’s on earth using our skills and technology. So there’s a different way to do things,” she continued. “I’m not going against haute joaillerie companies that use mined diamonds, but as a new brand I can’t pretend not to know about these new ways. It would be like launching a brand of real furs now.”
The cofounder said that the sourcing of lab-grown diamonds has not been easy, as “there are only 25 laboratories worldwide.” While at the beginning Cicogna and Picciotti sourced single stones from different countries, once the duo got serious about the brand they sought certified diamonds to ensure their sustainability.
“We thought about working with Diamond Foundry but the shipment from the U.S. was too much to offset in terms of carbon footprint,” Cicogna said. Hence, the brand looked at closer suppliers, working with the Fenix Diamonds company in Belgium.
“My dream is to bring the technology here and grow my own Made in Italy diamonds, but for the moment that’s too expensive,” said Cicogna, who also wishes to establish laboratories in Africa one day to enable local communities to work in better conditions and be involved in the creative side of this industry.
With lab-grown diamonds costing an average of 30 percent less than mined ones, Inbilico aims to attract consumers with more approachable price points, overall offering precious but not intimidating jewelry. Whereas mined diamonds are often associated with significant gifting occasions, the lab-grown alternatives’ lower price points open up an opportunity for more frequent gifting or self-gifting for daily use, they contend.
With prices ranging from 390 euros to 2,100 euros, the Inbilico designs fit this goal. Cicogna and Picciotti focused on multifunctional, transformable pieces, which could be combined with each other or jewelry that customers already have, with the goal to break boundaries across eras and brands as well as allow personalization and enhance self-expression through accessories.
“Sustainability is also re-using,” said Cicogna, who recalled how the brand’s concept was inspired by combinable bijoux she found in a market in New York and used to customize a Tiffany & Co. piece she had.
Cicogna described Inbilico as “jewelry for those who don’t like to wear jewelry,” hinting at its essential, asymmetric designs. These mainly focus on single earrings and ear cuffs playing with linear and elliptical shapes and micro-pavé effects. “The idea is to have like rays of light that can catch someone’s gaze. I like the fact that these pieces could make someone get closer to you and spark a conversation: they are a way to break the ice,” said Cicogna.
The brand will soon introduce choker necklaces in gold or combining organic fabrics, which will add to the “bio-punk” aesthetic of the label, as Cicogna defined it.
While the product design was a smooth process and is already opening doors for experiments with bigger carats and tailor-made projects — including statement pieces developed for rappers, which are “a dream come true” for Cicogna — packaging “was the biggest headache,” said the cofounder, underscoring the expensive prices demanded by Italian companies for sustainable options. The result of a partnership with a Norwegian supplier instead, the Inbilico packaging is recycled and features bags derived from plastic bottles, hydro soluble glue and ink derived from soy.
So far the most receptive markets to Inbilico’s offering in Europe include Spain and the Scandinavian countries, with many contacts with local buyers spurred at VicenzaOro last month. The U.K. is also a potentially key market according to Cicogna, but she said it’s proving to be more challenging than expected.
While there have been talks with Selfridges and Liberty, LuisaViaRoma already added Inbilico to its LVRSustainable section. The distribution partnership includes a diamond ear cuff exclusively developed for LuisaViaRoma and an overall six-month distribution exclusive with the e-tailer, which is in addition to the brand’s own online store.
Working on the awareness of lab-grown diamonds and fighting the resistance of traditional retailers are the biggest challenges for Cicogna. She compared the resistance she met to another business venture she’s involved in with her husband, who launched the Heavensake brand focused on the Japanese traditional beverage.
“We had the same problem, there are countries with more rooted preconceptions. We started distributing it from Europe but then stopped and focused on the U.S. instead, which is a more open-minded market in this sense,” said Cicogna.
Similarly, Inbilico will soon look Stateside, too, heading to Las Vegas for the Couture jewelry trade show in June. Cicogna underscored how exhibiting at the event will be strategic as the awareness around lab-grown diamonds is significantly higher in the U.S.
“In Italy we’re slowly catching up, but there’s so much need to educate consumers with culture and clear communication,” said Cicogna, who plans to do her part by developing informative video content with help from the production company she owns.