What’s in a Name Again?

It never ceases to amaze me how often this industry debates the same issues over and over—sometimes for decades—without solving the problem. Here we are again, fighting over what to call a lab-grown diamond. Haven’t we already had this discussion about emeralds, rubies, sapphires, et cetera?

Natural-diamond dealers want any non-natural diamond to be called synthetic. Lab growers, fearing negative consumer reaction to the word, want the stones to be called anything but.

Let’s examine the word synthetic. Merriam- Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary has multiple definitions, but the one most relevant to this discussion reads: “of, relating to, or produced by chemical or biochemical synthesis; esp : produced artificially.” Meanwhile, the gemological definition of synthetic is “chemically, physically, and optically identical to natural.”

In pharmaceutical science, synthetic has positive connotations. Being able to replicate something the body needs but can no longer produce on its own means lives saved or the quality of life greatly improved. Maybe the man-made version isn’t 100 percent the same as the natural, but it’s surely better than going without.

But a diamond isn’t a pill, and the diamond growers have a point when they argue that the word synthetic can evoke a negative connotation in the minds of consumers. Synthetic fiber may get a huge thumbs-up when you’re talking about polar fleece, but try selling a polyester dress shirt and it’s a different story. So of course they don’t want the word attached to their product. Since the Federal Trade Commission requires a man-made stone to be clearly labeled as non- natural—as it should be—the growers have suggested a host of alternative words they think sound better.

One word, cultured, is perhaps the biggest bone of contention. At present, FTC guidelines do not allow the use of the word in regard to synthetic diamonds. Scientifically, the word means inducing a natural process (such as implanting an oyster with an irritant to start the natural process of producing nacre) and putting it in the optimum medium for the natural process to proceed normally, whereas synthetic means putting all the disparate ingredients (a diamond seed, carbon atoms, and the appropriate trace elements if color is desired) into a controlled environment that re-creates the kind of conditions (heat and pressure) necessary for the desired reaction (crystallization) to occur.

Since natural diamonds’ value is based entirely on their relative rarity, the natural guys don’t want to see any lab-grown cousins threatening the value equation. And they also have a point. If you can make a gorgeous 5.00 ct., D Flawless in a laboratory, why would anyone pay $100,000 for one that comes out of the ground?

Why indeed. There is a reason that certain brands command premium prices relative to similar products: The name conveys a particular sense of value in the mind of the consumer. It doesn’t really matter whether that value is intrinsic or perceived; if the customer believes in the value and is willing to pay for it, that’s what the product is worth to him or her.

All this, however, is predicated on something that hasn’t happened yet: the diamond growers’ ability to mass-produce gem-quality, near-colorless stones in quantities significant enough to be profitable at a retail price that’s about 30 percent of—not off—the price of a comparable natural. In informal chats with my industry peers, we all seem to home in on that as the tipping point of marketability for lab-grown diamond jewelry. We just don’t see very many consumers trading in the mystique of natural for a mere 30 percent off. And since we’re not seeing a flood of big man-made white stones selling for 70 percent less than naturals, it’s probably safe to assume that the growers haven’t been able to hit that price point profitably on a consistent basis. They’ve been far more successful at creating big colored diamonds, but the appeal of those is limited to a fairly sophisticated consumer, whereas the mainstream market is still a white-diamond market.

So we could be splitting hairs—again—over nothing. That said, eventually it will be economical to mass-produce synthetic whites at appealing prices, and it’s never a bad idea to be proactive.

Man-made rubies haven’t choked the value of Burma rubies, and man-made emeralds haven’t wiped out the Colombian emerald market, so I doubt that man-made diamonds—whatever they’re called—will wipe out the natural diamond market. Given everything competing for consumer dollars, let’s look at what’s really at stake: total share of wallet spent on jewelry, period. Let’s not put so much energy into winning the proverbial battle that we ultimately lose the war.