By Michelle Graff
It’s been a rough (no diamond pun intended) past couple of weeks for two of the industry’s largest producers of lab-grown, or synthetic, diamonds.

The board of Scio (formerly Boston-based Apollo) in Greenville, S.C. got what they wanted, forcing out interim CEO Gerald McGuire just a week after he took office, along with board members Edward Adams, Robert Linares (who is Adams’ father-in-law and the founder of Apollo), and Theodorus Strous. Scio shareholders had been advocating for change for months, pointing out that the company isn’t making any money.

Gemesis also announced major changes, hiring new CEO Lisa Bissell, who spent 20 years with diamond wholesaler M. Fabrikant & Sons, and changing its name to Pure Grown Diamonds. According to Gemesis, they brought Bissell on board to promote transparency within the lab-grown diamond industry, which is badly needed. Her appointment is part of the company’s vision to “set new benchmarks for the grown diamond industry,” Gemesis said.

These changes are, to me, a sign that these two companies are having trouble forging their identities, getting a foothold in the consumer market and, at the end of the day, making sales.

But why? What is the trouble with this product that, according to some sources, was poised to bring down the entire mined diamond industry in just a few short years?

To find the answer to this, I chose not to call jewelers but instead to go straight to the source: consumers. What do the people on whom the industry depends to buy diamonds think of lab-grown stones? Would they buy them?

Here’s what I found out in conducting this (very informal) poll.

1. “Lab-grown diamonds are a thing?” In conducting my (again, very informal) research, what became quickly apparent is that many people don’t know diamonds can be grown in a laboratory. “As a 27-year-old, my friends and family members are getting engaged at a rapid rate,” one respondent wrote. “I don’t have a single friend who has a lab-grown diamond engagement ring, nor have I ever spoken with someone … who has wanted one. Honestly, I don’t think many consumers are aware of them, especially men.”

If they are aware that lab-grown diamonds exist, they don’t understand the difference between a lab-grown stone, which is an actual diamond with the same optical, physical and chemical properties as the stones that grow naturally underground, and what we in the trade would refer to as a simulant: a stone that is made to look like, to simulate, a diamond but has a different chemical composition. The most common diamond simulant is cubic zirconia, or CZ.

Three of the people I polled mentioned CZ in the same sentence as lab-grown diamonds, not aware that there’s a difference. “Is this not the same thing as a cubic zirconia?” one respondent asked, while another wrote, “I do know about them (lab-grown diamonds) although I am not sure where they end and cubic zirconia/Swarovski crystal begins.”

2. Though there’s a lack of awareness, the stones aren’t a complete turnoff. Despite the lack of education on the existence and exact composition of lab-grown diamonds, I would characterize the overall reaction toward the stones as positive.

This is mainly due to the ethical aspect of lab-grown diamonds and, unfortunately, the perceived lack of ethics and human rights issues many think are inherent in the mining of natural diamonds.

It should be no surprise to anyone that today’s consumers are concerned about the origin of the products they buy; this has been stated time and time again in the seemingly endless number of surveys conducted about the Millennial generation. It is a trait that, in my opinion, is exhibited by members of Gen X as well.

One of my respondents, a self-proclaimed “diamond illiterate,” had no idea that lab-grown diamonds even existed until I asked her about them. But she was thrilled to learn about the stones; just look how many exclamation points she used in her response: “I had NO idea that diamonds could be lab-grown! I would absolutely be open to a lab-grown diamond, even over an ethically sourced (mined) one. I think it completely changes decisions and conversations!”

Another respondent who went with a mined diamond for her engagement ring--she liked the symbolism of something that had been forged over time under heat and pressure marking her union--said she’d be open to buying lab-grown diamond jewelry in the future.

In her response, she exhibited another trait apparent throughout the Millennials and the younger members of Gen X: They have no desire to “keep up with the Joneses.”

“I don’t feel I’ve anything to prove to anyone so I am not concerned about if what I’m wearing is ‘real’ or not. I’m more interested in the aesthetics (and ethics) of my jewelry,” she wrote.

3. They don’t like the term ‘lab-grown.’ One very interesting point that came up in my (again, very informal) poll is that the term “lab-grown” does not have widespread consumer appeal.

A few of my respondents thought the product could use a marketing overhaul and, apparently, so did Gemesis, which, as noted above, is now calling itself Pure Grown Diamonds and states on its website that, “All diamonds from Pure Grown Diamonds are lab-created, guaranteeing a socially and ecologically responsible point of origin.”

“They need to come up with another name other than lab-grown diamond,” one of my respondents wrote. “It’s brilliant how some bag-makers call their bags ‘vegan’ purses for their synthetic leather bags. I admit I feel better about myself when I purchase a ‘vegan’ purse.  I think the same could be done for the lab-grown diamond market.”

Another said, “’Grown’ in particular sounds weird … you’re losing the symbolism of something valueless and common being turned into something beautiful and rare(er) thanks to pressure and time. You have to compensate for that somehow.”

While having a “vegan” equivalent for lab-grown diamonds appeals to consumers, the industry is bound by Federal Trade Commission rules, which dictates that the term “laboratory-created,” “laboratory-grown,” or “(manufacturer name)-created,” precede the word diamond when describing a stone that was grown in a laboratory.

These FTC guidelines are jewelry-industry inside baseball, so to speak, and would not be something the people I polled would know about in commenting on lab-grown diamonds. But, overall, I do think their answers give interesting insight into consumers’ perspective on lab-grown diamonds.

Retailers, what do you think? Do the above thoughts align with your customers’ thoughts and feelings on lab-grown diamonds?

Get the Daily News >
National Jeweler

Fine Jewelry Industry News

Since 1906, National Jeweler has been the must-read news source for smart jewelry professionals--jewelry retailers, designers, buyers, manufacturers, and suppliers. From market analysis to emerging jewelry trends, we cover the important industry topics vital to the everyday success of jewelry professionals worldwide. National Jeweler delivers the most urgent jewelry news necessary for running your day-to-day jewelry business here, and via our daily e-newsletter, website and other specialty publications, such as "The State of the Majors." National Jeweler is published by Jewelers of America, the leading nonprofit jewelry association in the United States.