In 2005, Anna-Mieke Anderson, CEO and founder of lab grown diamond company MiaDonna & Co., slid her diamond ring off her finger for the last time.
She had just discovered the gem was a product of a diamond conflict zone, a geographical region where diamonds are used to fund deadly civil wars and armed battles. Feeling unsettled after the realization, she got rid of the ring and decided to sponsor a young boy in war-torn Liberia where she quickly learned firsthand what it’s like to be raised in community torn apart by conflict diamonds. Anderson recalled that in one of his letters, the boy had written in earnest “I had a great summer, only one of my friends was killed.”
Moved by her experience, Anderson decided to start her own lab grown diamond company in Portland, Oregon, joining a burgeoning market of alternatively produced gemstones created using solar power and advanced technology, rather than extraction from the earth. In the early days of the company, she could only produce diamonds at a quarter of a carat with a yellow hue, but over the past decade has learned how to leverage the technology to produce bigger, more exuberant colorless diamonds.
For consumers, lab grown diamonds provide two primary benefits — the gems are about 40 percent cheaper on average and are produced using more sustainable methods. Transparency of origin has been an increasing priority for consumers, according to Martin Roscheisen, CEO and founder of the Diamond Foundry, whose company rose to prominence with the help of celebrity advocate Leonard DiCaprio when he reached out to the company after filming “Blood Diamond” in 2006.
“Diamonds are a luxury product and for any luxury product the notion of provenance is adamant: Where is it from? Who made it? What were the circumstances of its origins? In diamonds we now see a shift towards that, too,” Roscheisen said.
According to a study conducted by New York-based research company Frost & Sullivan, lab grown diamonds are seven times less impactful to the environment than mined diamonds, use significantly less resources and emit a fraction of the air pollution. The same report predicts that by 2050, there will be a shortage of 278 million carats in meeting the diamond market demand, a deficit that lab grown diamond company executives said they can help fill. The key is raising awareness, as lab grown diamonds comprise less than 1 percent of the $14 billion diamond business, according to a Morgan Stanley report.
“The truth is that while the worldwide demand for diamond jewelry and engagement rings is on the rise, mined diamonds are in fact a depleting resource, and the demand will vastly outweigh the supply in coming years,” said Suraj Mehta, director of Pure Grown Diamonds.
Beyond their ethical benefits, lab grown diamonds add an element of novelty that is enticing to younger shoppers, according to Mary Leigh Bliss, chief content officer at Ypulse. Bliss cited the rise of companies like Catbird — a Brooklyn based jeweler that reimagines recycled, conflict-free gems from heirloom pieces and currently has 176,000 followers on Instagram — as indicative of this trend. The ability for lab grown diamonds to be both unique and cost efficient makes them an increasingly desirable offering for consumers.
“Standing out is more important than having that big rock,” she said. “What we often see with millennials is they idealize products that are better for them or better for the world. They want to purchase things that are doing less damage and there’s a lot of guilt with consumption. At the same time, they want to go with the option that’s more affordable.”
In order to tap new diamond consumers, lab grown diamond companies are taking to social media to get the attention of users and to raise awareness about the gems. Diamond Foundry uses its social platforms to tell stories of the couples who purchased its products while Pure Grown Diamonds leverages social media to teach potential consumers about the benefits of the alternative gems, according to Mehta.
“Education is such an integral part in developing consumer acceptance of lab-grown diamonds, so we work hard to keep consumers informed on every facet of what makes our diamonds so special, from their quality, to their guaranteed origin, to their environmental benefits,” Mehta said, noting that its Facebook page has 200,000 followers.
Anderson, the founder of MiaDonna & Co., said she anticipates that demand for lab grown diamonds will only continue to grow, comparing its evolution to the transformation of technology and the ways consumers adapted to the internet.
“This is simply the evolution of the diamond. Industries go through change,” she said. “Look what happened when streaming videos came along — no one goes to the video store to get a VHS. Different industries evolve. And normally they evolve to be a better, cleaner more efficient system, and that’s where I believe the diamond industry is going.”