“The greatest scam of all time”: The rise of man-made, lab-grown diamonds

Synthetic diamonds are big business – and they don’t take 3 billion years to create, either. But are all forms of diamonds really forever?

The modern diamond industry has been called “the greatest scam of all time.” Others see it as one of marketing’s biggest successes. Famously explored by journalist Edward Jay Epstein in his Atlantic story, Have You Ever Tried To Sell A Diamond?, Epstein traced the origin of our global diamond market (worth about $79 billion globally in 2019) to the discovery of huge South African diamond mines which flooded the market, thereby lowering the price of the precious stones, in the late 19th century.

Long-story short, this market saturation led to the creation of De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd. (now De Beers), to control supply in 1888. But the part we’re interested in didn’t begin until 1938 when Harry Oppenheimer, the De Beers founder’s son, recruited the New York–based ad agency N.W. Ayer to help persuade the American public that a diamond was the only stone synonymous with romance and that the size of said stone did very much matter. 

Thus began the greatest myth in retail history. The truth being that if you think investing in a large rock for your partner’s finger/ wrist/ necklace demonstrates the depth of your affection, well, you’re eating right out of Oppenheimer’s hands.

Cut to 2021 and the debate isn’t so much about whether diamonds are a marketing ploy (who cares, really? Just because a New York ad exec decided they’re romantic, doesn’t mean it isn’t so right?). No, now the debate is very much a question of do you go lab-grown, or au natural? 

With ethics around diamond mining long being overlooked (genocide, war, exploitation, deforestation, murder, intimidation, pollution and habitat destruction should be more synonymous with diamond mining than cupid’s arrow) many companies have announced the move to synthetic, lab-grown alternatives. 

While a ‘natural’ diamond may take millions if not billions of years of immense natural pressure to be formed, lab-grown diamonds can replicate this process quickly and efficiently, without the need to disrupt entire eco-systems in their mining.Typically, lab-grown diamonds are produced by heating bits of carbon around a diamond ‘seed’ to incredibly high temperatures. When the carbon cools it forms a new diamond. (There are two methods, both are complex).

Pandora (incidentally the world’s largest jewellery retailer) was the first to announce it would switch entirely to lab-grown diamonds in 2021. Meanwhile, in 2020, De Beers invested in a facility to produce 400,000 lab-grown diamonds a year. (And, if you’re interested in this sort of thing, in 2019 Meghan Markle sported a pair of lab-grown diamond earrings from Antwerp-based company Kimaï.)

These moves were hailed as ecological and ethical wins, and certainly curried favour with millennial and generation Z consumers who increasingly place more importance on a company’s global impact. So with the world’s largest retailers committed to lab-grown, everything is sorted, right? Turns out the truth – as it so often is – is not quite that simple.

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