Demand for ethical jewellery is on the rise, and it’s not just your everyday, demi-fine jewellery brands that are taking their sustainability credentials seriously. In the fine jewellery category, where precious stones are more commonplace, brands are turning their backs on the traditional diamond trade in favour of the lab-grown variety.
Kimaï, a London-based jewellery brand, is one young business betting on lab-grown diamonds in the wake of a generational shift towards ethical consumption. It’s founders, Sidney Neuhaus and Jessica Warch, both come from Belgian diamond trading families, so they’ve seen first hand how the establishment is failing to keep up with changing consumer priorities. “Over the years, we came to realise that the industry wasn’t evolving with our generation,” Warch says over Zoom. “We felt like it didn’t talk to us — it’s a very traditional and intimidating industry — plus with all the controversies from blood diamonds to child labour, that’s not what we’re looking for these days.”
It’s widely known that the diamond trade has a long and problematic history. Extracting diamonds from the earth using open pit mining is an environmentally disruptive and carbon intensive process — an estimated 57kg of carbon is released for every carat of diamond mined and some mines are so huge, they can be seen from space. Not to mention the human rights issues associated with diamond mining. Despite the introduction of the Kimberely Process in 2003 (intended to prevent the flow of conflict diamonds into the industry) there are still loopholes that allow for the exploitation of workers. The Kimaï team believe that traditional diamond supply chains — which includes the miners, transporters and traders — are still therefore untraceable and untrustworthy. “Our mission is really to bring transparency to an industry that has known many controversies to show that today, we can do things differently and have the exact same result,” says Warch.
Enter lab-grown diamonds. Kimaï works directly with a lab in Israel and a team of jewellers in Antwerp who make and send the finished product straight to the customer, meaning their supply chain cuts out all of the middle men. As for the diamonds, they’re commonly made using a Chemical Vapor Deposition method, which essentially places diamond seeds (small pieces of natural diamonds) into a chamber filled with methane and hydrogen gas, which are heated to between 900 and 1200 degrees celsius. In under a month, you have a rough diamond ready to be cut and polished.
Despite the increasing popularity of lab-grown diamonds — a 2018 study found that 70 percent of Millennials would consider an engagement ring with lab-grown diamond — there’s still an element of education needed to convince traditionalists. “Many people can see them as fake diamonds, so we see part of our role is to educate them on the stones,” says Warch. “Lab-grown diamonds are identical chemically and physically to mined diamonds — our parents are in the industry and no one is able to tell the difference between the diamonds, and at least these don’t come at a cost for the planet or the people working in mines.”
Millennials might also be drawn to lab-grown diamonds because of cost — they’re often at least 30 percent cheaper than mined ones, because much of the perceived value of a natural diamond comes from the huge effort it takes to extract it from the earth. The brand’s range of engagement rings starts at £1,360, a far more accessible price point considering it was once considered standard to spend three months salary on a ring.
Warch believes that their price points reflect a significant shift away from the way her parents’ generation value jewellery, compared to the Millennials buying from Kimaï. “Our parents were putting all of their savings into jewellery, but we have different priorities,” she says. “We want to travel and experience different things while still wearing nice jewellery, so the value of the piece doesn’t come from the price of the stone, but the emotional value behind the piece.”
For now, the brand sells through their online store. This is partly out of necessity (COVID has temporarily shuttered their brick-and-mortar retailer, Browns) but this hasn’t proved to be a barrier to sales. In fact, fine jewellery sales globally have boomed since the start of the pandemic. In the US, one on Kimaï’s strongest markets, jewellery sales grew by $1 billion in June, July and August compared the 2019, with sales from engagement rings leading the growth. “Most people are at home, so it’s the right time to be selling pieces online and of course, even if you’re not wearing new clothes, you know that jewellery is going to last,” says Warch.
So how do you sell engagement rings online? As with most occasions in the last year: “We do it on Zoom!” says Warch. “We get on a call with customers, we try to understand what they’re looking for and based on that we offer them different stones and walk them through the entire process.” This is where being a young start-up plays into Kimaï’s strength — the personal touches of dealing with a small team is reassuring. “Customers have our number, they know they can contact us at any time, so although you’re not seeing the piece in person, we’re sending as much information as possible.”
The lab-grown diamond market still holds an extremely small market share — by 2023 it’s projected to represent only two percent of the diamond market — but it’s growing rapidly. De Beers, the world’s leading diamond seller, announced they’d enter the world of lab-grown diamonds in 2018, last year completing a $94 million lab in the US where they plan to create 200,000 lab-grown diamonds a year. It’s certainly an investment that Kimaï believe will pay off as the next generation of fine jewellery buyers come of age. “We grew up with a new mindset [regarding sustainability], but the younger generation are even more extreme — they grew up knowing they want to have a positive impact on the environment,” says Warch. “I think it’s just going to keep growing and keep taking a bigger market share.”