Just two months after Jessica Warch and Sidney Neuhaus, launched their lab-grown ethical diamond business, Kimai, Meghan Markle was spotted wearing their “Felicity” earrings on her first official Royal outing of 2019 – creating instant demand for their burgeoning jewelry brand and sparking even bigger conversations around the future of the diamond industry.
Born into diamond trading families in Antwerp, Belgium, Warch and Neuhuas grew up surrounded by diamonds and understand first-hand the controversies linked to traditionally mined diamonds. “Before a diamond gets to its final customer it will exchange hands approximately 15 times,” says Warch. “It is therefore extremely hard to trace the supply chain of a natural diamonds and have accurate information about which country they came from, which mine, and who cut them.”
“Before we started Kimai we found it difficult to find ethical, elegant and stylish jewelry that we could afford to buy for ourselves,” says Warch. “That’s when we first heard about lab grown diamonds and became intrigued.” Lab-grown diamonds seemed like the answer to the questions they’d been asking themselves: How can we make sustainability sexy? How can we educate people to make better choices? And where is the jewelry that fits our wants and needs today? “We couldn’t find answers to those questions using mined diamonds, so we started our own business using diamonds with a clean and transparent supply chain,” says Warch.
Earlier this month The Financial Times reported that the world’s natural diamond reserves are expected to be almost completely depleted by the middle of the century. Patrick Evans, former chief executive of the world’s third-largest diamond miner, Canada’s Dominion Diamond, told the FT, “I’ve explored on four continents – it’s about 1,000 times more difficult to find an economic diamond mine than a gold mine,” he said. “The industry is just not investing in exploration.”
Digging enormous holes in the ground makes little sense financially, and it makes even less sense from a sustainability and ethical standpoint, especially because technological advances now make it possible to create diamonds in a lab instead – diamonds identical to those produced at depths of 150-250km below the earth’s surface, that have taken 1-3.5 billion years to form naturally.
Kimai diamonds are made by simulating this natural process in the lab. First a thin slice of diamond seed is placed inside a heat chamber that’s a scorching 800-degrees Celsius. Each seed is made of a repeating lattice of carbon atoms — just like all diamonds. The seeds are then placed inside a microwave plasma oven. The oven zaps natural gas into a plasma of carbon, which sticks to each seed and slowly builds up a diamond, atom by atom. In six to 12 weeks a lab grown diamond is formed.
According to Warch, Kimai diamonds have the exact same chemical and physical characteristics as naturally-occurring mined diamonds. Even a certified gemologist with a 10x loupe is unable to tell them apart. The diamonds can only be differentiated by scanning machines. De Beers, the world’s largest diamond miner, launched a screening machine last year called “SYNTHdetect”. While it’s in De Beers’s interest to ensure the diamonds can be told apart to protect their interests in the mined diamond market, they’ve simultaneously pivoted into the lab-diamond business. In September of last year, for the first time in their 130 year history, they started selling its own lab-grown diamonds (targeting the fashion jewelry market rather than engagement rings). They invested US$94 million in a plant in Oregon, US, according to the FT. Significantly, while De Beers has never sold man-made diamonds for jewelry before, the company’s Element Six unit is one of the world’s leading producers of synthetic diamonds, which are mostly used for industrial purposes. Bruce Cleaver, CEO of DeBeer’s told the FT that their lab-grown diamonds sold through their Lightbox Jewelry brand, cost 20 to 30 per cent less than DeBeers’s natural stones. With respect to Kimai and the size of diamonds used in their jewelry, Warch points out that most small diamonds (lab grown or mined) rarely appreciate for resale. “At the moment it’s still a guess as to how the market will react to lab grown diamonds,” she says.
So how is the old guard reacting to change? “That’s a tricky question,” says Warch. “There has been much success for generations without having to look for an alternative. But we have noticed a switch in the last year with diamond traders turning into lab-grown diamond traders. I think they know they have to seize the opportunity if they want to survive.” Meghan Markle’s surprise endorsement aside, the future for Kimai is certainly shiny and bright. This year the pair are expanding Kimai’s jewelry range and exploring how to work with recycled gold. “It’s kind of a rebellion,” says Warch. The kind of rebellion Markle is clearly on board with.
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