De Beers Backtracks on Synthetic Diamond Guidance

A few weeks back, De Beers issued some extensive guidance for its sightholders on synthetic diamonds, which can be seen here.

Most of the information was pretty useful and basic—know your supplier, follow the laws, don’t misrepresent your product—things we can all get behind. But at least one sentence struck a few people, including me, as verging on misleading. To wit, sightholders were advised on page 3:

“Never use the word ‘diamond’ to describe or identify any object or product not meeting the definition [of natural diamond].”

This is both somewhat right and completely wrong. One cannot just use the word “diamond,” without a modifier, to describe a created stone, according to both trade rules and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). (The same rules apply to created rubies and emeralds.)  However, lab-grown diamonds, with the appropriate modifiers, can be called diamonds because that is what they are. And yet, many people, including a South African newspaper, seemed to think De Beers was discouraging sightholders from calling lab-grown stones diamonds in any way, shape, or form. Which, again, verges on misleading.

I am happy to say that, after receiving inquiries on this, De Beers says it will change the disputed sentence to this:

“Accurate descriptions and clear labeling are fundamentally important to consumer confidence and are a requirement of the Best Practice Principles. Never use the unqualified word ‘diamond’ to describe or identify any object or product not meeting the CIBJO and FTC definition; if the word ‘diamond’ is used to describe a synthetic, this must always be immediately preceded by one of the following qualifiers: ‘synthetic,’ ‘manmade,’ ‘artificial,’ or ‘lab-created.’ ”

According to the FTC, “lab-grown” and “[company]created” also work, as does “cultured” when used in conjunction with the other terms. But at least we are in the correct ballpark. 

The De Beers guidance also repeatedly refers to the product as synthetics (a plural noun) and never as diamonds. But while that may not be my cup of tea, I would not necessarily call it misleading.

Of course, there are some people in the lab-grown business that feel the word “synthetic” is misleading, given many consumers think of it as fake. (Its origin, in this context, comes from synthesis.) Gemesis president Suraj Mehta has even asked the FTC to ban it. 

However, that is quite a long shot. As long as leading gemological labs use that term, as long as the major producer of these stones (for industrial purposes) calls itself US Synthetic, they are stuck with it, just as natural diamonds are stuck with the unflattering term “mined.” And really, many consumers don’t think the term is so bad, and some lab growers don’t have a problem with it either.  

Yes, I know the word is often abused on the Internet, by misleading sellers of simulants. But the manmade diamond companies need to band together and go after these sites instead of just complaining about them. And it seems some growers actually make sales to these simulant-selling sites, adding to the confusion even more—which makes very little sense to me. The diamond growers have a legitimate complaint about the way certain terms are misused, but when they go into business with these people, they are cutting their own throats.


CORRECTION/FURTHER THOUGHTS: The original version of this post contained these words: “There is a product called ‘synthetic oil that, from my understanding, has a similar meaning to synthetic diamonds.” As you can see in the comments, Tom Chatham objected to that, and as there is some ambiguity on this point, I have eliminated that sentence, and probably should have not included it in the first place.

Perhaps a better example would be “synthetic vitamins,” which are, according to most experts, chemically identical to the natural, though there is debate on that too (whereas everyone agrees synthetic diamonds are the same product as naturals). I think it’s clear that the term “synthetic” has different meanings in different contexts; from an Internet search, you can find one scientist explaining:

when we talk about “synthetic” substances versus “natural” substances, we’re referring the difference between how they are made—how they come into being—not any difference between their molecules. The molecules are identical.

And yet, synthetic leather and synthetic hair are not the same as their natural equivalents. This confusion angers people who object to the term being used for diamonds (and gemstones). And I’ve said many times, they have a point. Many consumers—even some in the trade—do consider the term synonomous with “fake,” and synthetic/lab-grown diamonds are in no sense fakes. However, given that the word “synthetic” seems to have multiple meanings, it seems highly unlikely that the Federal Trade Commission will forbid use of one of those definitions. But we’ll just have to see.

JCK News Director