So here is my report after my day in Sarasota at lab-grown manufacturer Gemesis (which, I should mention, paid for my trip.)
After reading all the stories about how lab-grown gems are going to turn the industry upside down, the people at Gemesis go out of their way to disavow that notion, and stress that they see themselves as part of the industry, rather than opposed to it. In fact, their customers are contractually forbidden from trashing “mined” diamonds in their sales pitches.
Gemesis currently only produces yellow diamonds, which sell for slightly less than the cost of a comparable white stone, and about one third less than the cost of a natural fancy yellow. Next year, it hopes to produce pinks and blues, which will be more expensive than the yellows.
Colorless stones are also on the horizon, and they hope to produce them “within a three to five year time-frame.” However, they will only be bigger stones (in the four to ten carat range in rough), where there is likely to be a shortage. Smaller stones, they admit, are difficult to produce economically. The colorless stones will probably be cheaper than their natural counterparts – but not significantly. One of the challenges the company faces is that consumers expect machine-made diamonds to cost the same as cubic zirconias.
The company currently has “over 200” machines currently operating; an expansion, which breaks ground Friday, will make room for another couple hundred machines. The company won’t release production figures, but says it produces in “the tens of thousands” of carats. It hopes to double production over the next few years. It is easily the biggest producer of lab-grown diamonds in the world, it says.
About a year and a half ago, the company changed its business model — so it now sells rough, like a standard producer, rather than polished stones. It has ten “sightholders,” all of whom have started their own lab-grown “brands.” The companies are all required to laser-inscribe their stones.
One of the more interesting things about this whole process is that, while these diamonds are produced by machines, the production isn’t always consistent, and the growth process is unpredictable. “This is a natural growth process,” says chief operating officer Clark McEwen. “Just like when you grow tomatoes, they are not all the same, the qualities we produce are different, the shapes are different, just like in nature.”
The company is also investing a little more in marketing. In addition to hiring De Beers vet Joan Parker, January’s Town and Country will include an eight-page advertorial from the company.
According to CEO and president Stephen D. Lux, the GIA’s decision to grade the stones gave the product “the biggest boost” it ever had.
“We look at it as a watershed event,” he said. “It took a lot of resistance out of the trade.”
As far as the economics of all this, Lux says the company is “making money” now. (It has been around twelve years.) “I am relatively confident this will one day be a public company,” he says.
I’ll have some more of this in my full report in January, but here are some pictures. Check out some diamonds fresh out of the oven …
And here is a quick look at the Gemesis factory. It’s an impressive operation.