Ethical “Cultured” (UPDATED)

Compromises by their nature generally don’t please everyone, but, amazingly, the recent FTC decision on the word “cultured” seems to have pleased just about everyone.

The Jewelers Vigilance Committee, you may remember, asked the FTC to disallow the word “cultured” to describe lab-grown diamonds, as a German court had done. It even hired a lobbying firm to press its case.

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The FTC denied the request. (Release here.) So “cultured” is now okay. But, as the JVC notes in its press release, the FTC ruled that if “cultured” is used, it must be used  in tandem with one of the previously allowed terms (“synthetic,” “created,” “man made,” “laboratory grown.”) Which is why JVC Cecilia Garner just told me: “Our view is we won. The FTC said that, if you just call it cultured, that’s insufficient. I’m very pleased with that.”

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As well she should be. I agree that “cultured” doesn’t really describe a lab-grown product. But this ruling is a pretty good compromise.

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This decision probably won’t have much real world impact, as the two companies that use the word “cultured” already use the other terms with it. Gemesis’ site uses the words “cultured diamonds” prominently, but it also notes that Gemesis stones are “diamonds grown by man.” Fine. Apollo’s site is also pretty clear.  And Chatham, the third player in this game, doesn’t use the word “cultured,” preferring “created.” Even Gardner says that “Gemesis and Apollo were never the problem. The issue was someone else who might use the word.”

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Meanwhile, Gemesis president Stephen Lux told me his company is “very pleased,” and doesn’t expect to change its marketing. However, he argues that the FTC should ban the word “synthetic” for lab-grown diamonds, since most consumers think it means “fake,” along the lines of CZ. As “synthetic” seems to have originated from the gemological community, I don’t see that happening. (I try not to use the word, for what it’s worth.)

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That confusion is very real, though, so here’s one final thought: Recently, Hearts on Fire sued Blue Nile, because Blue Nile allegedly reserved the keywords “Hearts on Fire” as a search engine keyword, even though Blue Nile sells no Hearts on Fire product. Right now, googling “cultured diamonds” gets you companies that almost certainly sell CZ, even if their ads on google say they sell “synthetics.” This runs afoul of the FTC Guides and is misleading — yet it seems like it’s been going on for years. Might it take a lawsuit to clear this up?

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UPDATE: Chaim writes — partly in response to this post — that any talk of a “compromise” is spin, and the denial of the petition was an unequivocal loss for the JVC, and the other associations that signed it.

To me, an unequivocal loss for the petitioning associations would be for the FTC to put “cultured” in the same category of acceptable terms as “created,” “lab-grown,” etc. It didn’t do that.

Now, I’ll grant you, the FTC statement was a little vague about how “cultured” should be used. However, if you look at the FTC’s letter to the petitioners (PDF), things are far clearer. It says, on page four, first paragraph: “…any advertisement using the word “cultured” would not be consistent with the Guides if it failed to include one of those four qualifying terms.”

So the FTC is putting limits on the term “cultured.” That is not everything the JVC and company wanted. But, I think we all can admit, it’s close enough that they did get something out of this.

 

JCK News Director