With Undisclosed Synthetic Diamonds, the Situation Is Still Uncertain

This week’s forum in New York City offered some general guidelines for retailers looking to protect themselves

At the U.S. Jewelry Council forum on Undisclosed Synthetic Diamonds, held at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City on Nov. 1, National Jeweler’s Michelle Graff and I were given the task of summarizing the day’s events and prescribing takeaways. But that wasn’t easy to do.

If anything became clear during the day’s worth of presentations, it’s that the situation with undisclosed lab-grown diamonds remains very unclear. We know undisclosed stones are out there. We don’t know how many. And there is no easy way to spot them.

“If a consumer comes in and asks: Is the diamond real?” said one retailer. “I’m a gemologist, and I have no clue.… Right now, we have no confidence in our supply chain.”

(The program was done under Chatham House Rules, which means attendees can talk about what was discussed, but can’t identify speakers. In one case, a speaker gave me permission to quote her directly.)

A representative of India’s Gems and Jewellery Export Promotion Council (GJEPC) did outline the suite of measures his group is undertaking to prevent “mixing” in the supply chain, with controls that trickle down to even the smallest factory. A study commissioned by the GJEPC estimated that about 2 – 3 million cts. of lab-grown gems are produced every year, representing about 2–3 percent of gem-quality production.

The heads of major grading labs said they were “confident” they could identify every lab-grown stone, simply because naturals and synthetics are produced in distinct ways.  One person equated it to the difference between a human being and a robot. If you split a human being in a half, she explained, it will be messy. A robot, less so. But another person warned that manufacturers sometimes adjust their process to make identification more difficult. “We will always be a little bit behind,” he said.

The presentation that perhaps spurred the most talk was from Cecilia Gardner, president and CEO of Jewelers Vigilance Committee, who said that retailers can’t just rely on a supplier’s assertions that stones are all natural (though some felt that requiring suppliers to make such an assertion has at least some merit).

“You must demonstrate actively that you are checking your products,” Gardner said. “This is your responsibility. If you just rely on the representations of your suppliers, you are not positioning yourself well should you step in it.”

So how does a retailer safeguard against accidently selling undisclosed synthetics? In the last year, we have seen introductions of several new detection devices, including machines that can be used on melee and mounted stones. Some of these devices represent substantial breakthroughs. But just about all of them carry high price tags, and some don’t work for every stone. (“Everyone keeps telling us they want a simple $99 device, that they can put on the counter,” said one gem lab representative, admitting that was not possible now.) Cheaper machines do exist, but they are generally screeners rather than full-blown detection devices. Still, in the absence of an all-encompassing device that’s accessible to all, some might adopt them, just for further peace of mind.

Gardner recommended a quality control program, outlined in a JVC booklet that can be purchased here. She admits this may not prevent undisclosed lab-growns from ending up in a retailer’s inventory, but it might provide legal protection if a retailer accidentally sells one. 

Others talked about the age-old principle of “know your customer” (KYC), finding out about the protocols and guarantees provided by the Responsible Jewellery Council, and adapting Signet’s Responsible Sourcing Protocol for diamonds, which has been made open source and is now available to the industry.

It would have also been helpful to have more representatives of the lab-grown diamond industry at the conference, possibly even as part of a panel. (A representative of the International Grown Diamond Association did attend, as did some dealers who sell the stones. But not as many as one would hope.) As speakers made clear repeatedly, there is nothing wrong with lab-grown diamonds; this seminar was looking at the misuse of them.  

Then again, that could also be said for conflict diamonds—the stones were fine, the problem was what people did with them. And yet, to many, that issue hurt the product’s image overall. (Ask the lab-grown dealers: That issue is a major part of their marketing.) As I’ve argued before, instances of nondisclosure risk tarnishing both the natural and lab-grown sectors, in the trade and possibly to consumers. It’s up to both sectors to make sure all rules and regulations are followed. 

The discussion this week, as inconclusive as it was, at least got the conversation started. But we’ll have to keep talking.

JCK News Director