Fear and Trembling in Carlsbad: The Diamond Business in 2018

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The diamond business in 2018 has been in something of a fugue state, searching to find its identity. From the annual summer Las Vegas trade show to this fall’s research and business Symposium at the Gemological Institute of America in Carlsbad, California, market participants wander a strange new sociological, demographic and technological landscape. They seek to grasp what they sense is still there, that is, the place of diamond in today’s world.

Millennials as a market group are dissected in seminars and trade magazines like a foreign species. Some industry members wonder not how much, but if, the next major population wave values jewelry. Given our concern for the planet and its people, what is the role of a mined commodity put to non-essential use. that has been, in some cases, produced in exploitative and violent conditions? Aren’t tatoos, say, much more benign (and even better, because more experiential) than jewelry to satisfy the impulse to decorate the human form with beauty and symbolism? Just as capable of evoking emotion without the expense?

I think that as our minds hum daily with information from everywhere all at once, this has changed the way we experience things. We want to know how the objects we choose to be in our lives make human sense. We want to know where they came from, who made them, the good or the harm they do — we want to know the stories behind them, and we want those stories to reflect our values — economic, environmental and social — and also how we allocate the energies in our own lives — including time and money.

Nothing is as “thing-y” as diamond. Probably the oldest thing in most of our lives, having been born inside the earth from one to three billion years ago. The hardest thing. The purest thing. The most transparent and colorless, most brilliant, most fiery, most lustrous thing in the natural world. These same qualities make it perhaps the most versatile substance in existence, whether for cutting sharp in eye surgery, drilling through rock for oil, or conducting solar heat safely away in spacecraft; therefore it is one of the most studied things as well.

In fact, because of its wide application, diamond has been produced artificially since the 1950s. By the time I re-entered the business as an adult in the 1970s, yearly synthetic diamond production exceeded that of all mined, both gem and industrial qualities. But it has only been commercially available in gem quality since the 1990s, starting with fancy yellow and moving on to other colors. Now, in the last five to ten years, colorless material has entered the market, holding the promise of greater environmental sustainability and ethical accountability than its natural counterpart.

So, in this changing world of things, how does diamond fit in? Last month I went to Carlsbad as one of nearly 800 diamond and gemstone industry members from all over the world to consider this question. The single issue uppermost in everyone’s mind was the real arrival, the hard launch of lab-grown diamonds in the marketplace — how to distinguish them from natural mined diamonds and what they mean for the future of the diamond business. Before the conference itself, some of the leading materials scientists in the world gathered to present new technologies for peering down into the molecular structure of a particular diamond, then to commit this “DNA” to blockchain — thus to assure you, the end user, of that stone’s natural origin — and freedom, for instance, from the bloodstain of having been used to finance violence on the African continent. At Symposium, some of the preeminent researchers from GIA and gemological research laboratories elsewhere brought “street level” gemologists like me news of their latest techniques and instruments to separate the lab-grown from the natural material. And at the end, CEOs from five of the most potent sellers of diamonds (including DeBeers, Signet, and Blue Nile) discussed the future of the diamond business in terms of the “sustainability” and “value” of traditionally mined diamonds — from their benefits to the mining communities where they are extracted to using them, to greener outcome, to transfer wealth from one generation to the next.

Using spectroscopy, science has found the markers to tell lab-grown from natural diamond, although the means are not yet within reach of most retail stores. Meanwhile, the diamond growers work to refine their product every day. In the gemological world, this race between manufacturers and experts has gone on for a long time. As far as we know, there is no end. The process itself increases knowledge and provides benefits. Whoever is ahead at a certain time must better understand what Francis Bacon said: “Nature, in order to be commanded, must be obeyed.”