Three days before New Year’s Eve, Zach Bass proposed to his girlfriend, Sam Wannemacher, during a private pre-hours tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Greek and Roman hallway. As a friend offered to take their picture in front of the art, Bass got down on one knee, and told Wannemacher he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her.
The scene was romantic. The light, streaming in from the museum’s roof ceiling, was just right. The two-carat round ring Bass chose for the occasion was just what Wannemacher wanted: elegant, understated—and made in a laboratory.
Rather than forming underneath the Earth’s surface, lab-grown diamonds are produced via CVD, or chemical vapor deposition. Scientists fill a low-pressure vacuum with gases, which ultimately react to each other and form a diamond. Jessica Warch, who co-founded the sustainable jewelry line Kimai—as worn by Meghan Markle earlier this month—said the process can take six to twelve weeks, as opposed to millions of years.
When things between Bass, 32, and Wannemacher, 30, got serious, the Denver-based couple began talking about engagement rings.
“Zach told me, ‘You understand that the diamond industry is a complete corrupt sham, right?’” Wannemacher, a public relations executive, recalled.
Bass was referring to De Beers’ former monopoly over the trade, which last peaked in the late 1980s, when the British corporation boasted an 85-percent market share. For a century, the De Beers stockpile—and savvy advertising such as the famous “Diamonds are forever” campaign—inflated prices.
De Beers' control over the diamond industry has steadily decreased in the last 20 years. The corporation reported a 34-percent market share in 2018. Still, millennials are not so quick to forgive the darker side of mining as told in films like Blood Diamond.
“There are a lot of ugly practices around diamond mining in Africa, and I didn’t want to buy into that artificial, marketing-created need to buy a diamond,” Bass, an engineer, said.
After doing her own research into the trade, Wannemacher agreed. “I think it’s awful that people are conned into believing they have to get diamonds from the ground,” she said.
So when it came time to pick a ring, Bass had two options: pick a family heirloom from his mother, or go lab-grown. After not finding what he was looking for in his family’s collection, Bass bought the stone from Diamond Foundry, an online shop Wannemacher had put on his radar.
“I was doing web searches and found Diamond Foundry, and I said to Zach as a joke, ‘Look, Leo endorses this, they must be legit,’” Wannemacher said of the San Francisco producer. The company site prominently features a supportive quote from Leonardo DiCaprio, an investor.
It does not hurt that lab-grown diamonds cost, on average, about 30 to 40 percent less than rocks pulled from the ground. Thrifty couples can use what they saved to put down a mortgage, buy a car, splurge on a honeymoon—or just get a bigger ring.
“If we went with a regular diamond, I probably would have only got a carat and a half or something,” Wannemacher said while looking at her two-carat stone.
Erin Butler, an architectural designer in San Francisco, celebrated her four-year anniversary with boyfriend Rush Majumder in Iceland. As the couple spent time in the country's stunning Diamond Beach, he pulled out a lab-grown diamond and proposed. It was a decision the couple had made together.
“We heard from a lot of friends who got engaged that [rings] can be really up-priced,” Butler, 26, said. “We did our research on the Jerrod’s and the Tiffany’s, and we weren’t into the politics of that, even though the industry has been changing for decades.”
Months before the trip, Butler had “fallen in love” with The Emerald ring from California-based jewelry designers Vrai & Oro, who source their stones from Diamond Foundry. “Rush has family diamonds and I have family diamonds, but we wanted to come together and create a new family heirloom,” she said. “We can tell our kids that a brand in San Francisco made the diamond. How cool is that?”
Telling older family members, however, can be less cool. Both couples agreed that “in general” their friends and families are supportive, and interested in the fact that they opted for a lab grown diamond. It can be a tough sell to older relations, though. “
“A lot of people will make a joke after I tell them, something like, ‘I guess my diamond is bloody, then,” Wannemacher shrugged.
“The people who question why we didn’t get a real diamond are usually the same ones who are confused about why we bought it online, or why we lived together before we got married,” Butler said. “Others ask if it’s really a real diamond, which is frustrating. It is, we got it appraised.”
Even Bass, a proponent of lab-grown stones, sometimes slips up. “At our engagement party, Zach called it an ‘artificial diamond,’” Wannemacher said. “I was like, ‘Zach! Don’t call it artificial, it is a real diamond.’”
Ana Correa, an accessory editor for trend forecasting company WGSN, believes brands need to do much more to define exactly how their goods are more ethical than the old-fashioned way.
“So far, the conversation has been around how these diamonds are made and trying to explain to customers how they share the same quality as mined diamonds,” Correa said. “I think that if they focus on being very clear and direct with the difference between the two processes, people will see buying lab-grown as a sustainable responsibility.”
De Beers once lobbied against lab-grown diamonds, but now wants a piece of the shiny action. Last year, the brand launched Lightbox, one of the cheapest lab-grown companies in the field. While the pink and baby blue stones lack the gravitas of a Serious Wedding Ring, at $200 a half-carat, it makes for a cute graduation or birthday gift.
A representative for Diamond Foundry told The Daily Beast that the company is the first in the world to be certified carbon-neutral, which means their goods “will always be free of any human and environmental toll.”
According to Correa, labels can take note from a 2015 Levi’s campaign that highlighted how wasteful their old-model supply chain cycle was, admitting that 85 percent of all American clothing ends up in landfills.
The strategy acknowledged a fault in the industry, and posed the brand’s new recycling ethos as a potential solution. Lab-made diamond companies can do the same. “Real data examples of the supply chain will have more impact,” Correa said. “Overall, it’s about making the customer feel right about their purchase both sentimentally and ethically.”
Old guard diamond experts dispute the claim that lab-grown stones are always more ethical than Earth-made.
According to Grant Mobley, a gemologist and diamantaire (diamond-cutting expert) based in New York, carbon emissions for lab-made diamonds are “comparable to greater than” those released in the natural mining process.
Along with that, Mobley said, many labs are located in China, India, and Singapore, where working conditions are less regulated. While FTC mandates insist that retailers must clearly disclose a Diamond’s origin, the rules do not specify any method of disclosure. “This leaves a loophole for deceptive marketing practices by some producers,” Mobley said.
For every Diamond Foundry, which markets its lab-grown stones as a point of pride, there is the potential for more dishonest sales.
In December, a couple in St. Louis thought they were buying a $7,000 naturally made engagement ring, only to find out that it was in fact from a lab. While the information was disclosed on their receipt, they allege they were never told in person.
“What I feel like is a ring we spent all this money on that will be worthless at some point,” Molly Carlson, the bride-to-be, told KMOV4. While lab-grown diamonds are real, they do not have the same resale value as earthen rocks.
“I’ve never personally seen that kind of BS, but I’ve heard about it,” Peter Kahan, who runs the family-operated Katz Jewelry Company in New York’s Diamond District, said. “There are some people that play that game.”
Kahan has sold lab-made stones alongside natural jewelry for around four years, and he thinks one of the best way to avoid getting duped is to read the Diamond Certification document of any purchases carefully. One red flag, according to Kahan, is a dealer who does not have a hard copy of the document on hand. “They shouldn’t say, ‘The certificate is online,’” he said.
Kahan said that half of his business now comes from lab-grown diamonds, and the generation gap the engaged couples spoke of has begun to close. The jeweler recently sold an engagement ring to an older couple from Florida. “Baby boomer age, like me,” Kahan said.
“They wanted a four-carat diamond. That’s a big, expensive rock. I showed them one four-carat mined diamond, [it was] $100,000. I showed them a four-carat lab, [it was] $60,000.”
The bride-to-be, who arrived fully expecting to leave with a natural rock, did not know what to do, and asked her fiancé’s opinion. “He said, ‘You buy the lab one, I’ll buy you a car.’”
It was an offer she could not refuse. And it got sweeter, according to Kahan. “I sold them a big pair of earrings, too.”