Artificial diamonds grow, but not on watch brands

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Many watch brands use alternative materials like recycled plastics and cardboard packaging. But it is only recently that a few brands have turned to laboratory-produced gem-quality decorative diamonds, a change long overdue.

In February, French brand Barillet used lab-grown diamonds to bring a touch of pizazz to their Superpunk Diamants Lab Experience collection. And last September, the Japanese brand Citizen incorporated them into its L Ambiluna ladies’ watches.

Each of Barillet’s unisex watches, powered by a Swiss automatic movement, had 44 lab-grown diamonds set on the indexes and case. The brand specifies that the stones, a total of 0.42 carats on each watch, were chosen for their quality, color and purity.

“We called the watches Lab Experience because we are exploring new territories and experimenting with an innovative product, both technologically and ethically,” said Emmanuel Pander, co-founder of Barillet, in a telephone interview from Paris.

“We wanted to start a conversation about the exploitation of our planet’s natural resources and the technical and human means used to extract them,” he said.

The initial set of 10 Superpunks, each priced at 3,950 euros ($ 4,660) sold out in three weeks, Pander said, adding that there had been more orders since then. The brand sells online and through its three stores in France.

While lab-created diamonds are only now appearing in watches, a report released in February by management consultancy Bain & Company indicates that lab-grown diamond production has totaled six to seven million. carats in 2019 and 2020, showing double-digit growth. because of what he called “continued advancements in technology” and “falling retail prices”.

In contrast, rough diamond production in 2020 fell to 111 million carats, from a peak of 152 million in 2017, according to Bain.

Diamonds created in the laboratory are made either by a high pressure, high temperature method (known as HPHT) or by the chemical vapor deposition (CVD) method, both of which simulate the process that produces a natural diamond. The results are optically, chemically and physically identical to mined diamonds, say the manufacturers, but, depending on their size, gemstones can cost at least 30 to 40 percent less than mined stones.

In 2018, the United States Federal Trade Commission declared that lab-created diamonds could be marketed as genuine gemstones, provided they were clearly labeled, but later cautioned manufacturers against using them. general claims of “general environmental benefit”, given the energy used to produce them. In Europe and Asia there are fewer marketing restrictions.

The diamonds used in the Barillet Superpunks were supplied by Courbet, a Paris-based jewelry brand founded in 2017, in collaboration with a local laboratory, Diam Concept.

“We are currently in talks with several watch brands who have expressed interest in our lab-grown diamonds,” said Manuel Mallen, co-founder of Courbet, in a telephone interview. “They are starting to see the ‘lab’ as an attractive option, for reasons of cost and for their communication value. “

A colorless, internally flawless Courbet gem would cost € 10,000, “50% less than the price of a comparable mined diamond,” Mallen said. And, given the growing market, the company said it is expanding into China.

A veteran among a growing number of French jewelry retailers who describe themselves as ethically minded, private company Courbet has Chanel as a minority shareholder, although the fashion house has not used lab-grown diamonds for any of its watches. and jewelry.

“Chanel is attentive to the evolution of trends in its activities as well as to the emerging expectations of customers and society and regularly invests in start-ups or innovative companies with a long-term vision, as well as an acute awareness of what’s going on in the tech world, ”the fashion house said in a written statement. “This is why we took a minority stake in the jeweler Courbet. Having said that, we do not currently plan to use synthetic diamonds.

Citizen’s lab-grown diamonds were supplied by Swarovski, the Austrian crystal company, which began manufacturing them in 2017. And while the brand will continue to use lab-grown gemstones, a spokesperson said, it will also make watches with natural diamonds so that customers have option.

In 2017, an effort to demystify laboratory diamonds – the symposium “Synthetic diamonds: are watchmaking and jewelry in danger? – was held in Geneva, organized by the Association Romande des Métiers de la Bijouterie, a Swiss association of jewelers.

“The program was educational and positive about lab-grown diamonds,” said Marc-André Deschoux, founder of the online chain Watches TV, who attended the event. “A number of representatives of watch brands were in the audience.”

But, since then, few brands of mechanical watches have opted for laboratory stones. “It is still a taboo subject in Switzerland due to a persistent negative view of artificial diamonds,” said Deschoux. “But this industry is growing so quickly that some big brands are anticipating the future and investing in the product.”

One example is Lightbox, introduced in 2019 by De Beers, the diamond company that operates mines. Lightbox sells costume jewelry set with lab-grown diamonds for $ 800 per carat.

Yet not all brands envision lab-grown stones in the future.

“People tell us why not use lab-grown diamonds for your little pavers,” said Vartkess Knadjian, founder and managing director of Backes & Strauss, a British jewelry watchmaker, from Geneva. “We are purists; we will not go down that road.

“For some watch brands, diamonds are an afterthought,” Mr. Knadjian said. “But we thrive on our diamond heritage, it is important to emphasize the cut and quality of our diamonds.”

Despite the market growth, primarily in the jewelry industry, lab-grown diamonds continue to “evoke mixed associations,” according to the Bain report, which said most consumers still viewed them as “man-made” or ” affordable ”.

Watch brands are reluctant, Mallen said, because they fear that a conversation about lab-grown diamonds could open the door to questions about their sourcing of other materials, like gold, steel and the leather.

“Brands fear criticism for anything they don’t do,” Mallen said.

If a change occurs in watchmaking, lab-grown and mined diamonds will coexist, not as competitors but as two parallel markets, such as in the jewelry industry, Mr. Knadjian said.

“At the moment, there is a feeling of a wait-and-see attitude about lab-grown diamonds in the watch industry,” he said. “If a big brand decides to use them, others will follow.”

“But even then, people would buy the watch not for its lab-grown diamonds,” Mr. Knadjian said, “but for the watch itself”.

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