From his perch near the corner of 8th and Sansom streets in the heart of Philadelphia’s jewelry district, Jeffrey Debs, the owner of Jeffrey Debs Jeweler Gemologist, sees a lot of soon-to-be-engaged couples. The store, whose roots go back to 1956, when Debs’ uncle founded the business, is well-known for its custom bridal offerings. Since taking over in 2011, Debs has gradually narrowed his focus to what he calls “the big four”: engagement rings, wedding rings, diamond studs, and diamond bracelets.
Nearly four years ago, in August 2017, Debs, a graduate gemologist, overcame his initial skepticism about man-made diamonds when a wholesaler offered him a selection of lab-grown goods on memo, and he said yes.
The growth in customer awareness and interest in the category, especially among younger couples looking for good value, has been so steady that Debs has become a true believer. Now, he just needs to persuade the members of his own generation to give lab-grown diamonds a try.
“I’m 56, and I have people coming in for their second marriages,” Debs says. “I’ll make the correlation: We all know what we’re faced with at this age: retirement, college for those of us who have kids, we all need money. Why spend this humongous difference for a shiny rock on your hand when you can get a 50% larger stone, much higher quality, and spend so much less money? It should be a no-brainer.”
Below, Debs reflects on his deep dive into the category. The interview has been edited and condensed.
When did you first learn about lab-grown?
I first learned about it as a student of GIA, the class of August 1987. When I talk to customers, I use a lot of these different historical points that I learned at GIA to explain the timeline: I mention that General Electric is credited with synthesizing the first HPHT diamonds in the 1950s. Then I walk them through with a 30-second spiel. I’ve been tracking lab-grown since then and noted it would be cool if they came out. When that fellow from Gemesis was doing it, I thought that was cool. But they only did yellow colors and they were really small. By the spring bridal season of 2018, I noticed an uptick in customer inquiries about lab-grown.
What was your mindset about lab-grown before you got into the category?
I was aware of the fact that this seemed to be becoming a category. I was concerned about mixing them in with my earth-mined inventory because at that time there were no affordable detectors to buy, and I didn’t know how this would sit in the eyes of customers, especially with all the talk of no resale value, or trade buyback.
Those are the factors that kept me from jumping in for six months, and then I got a call from a national wholesaler who’d gotten into lab-grown and he wanted to give me some memo goods. Prior to that phone call, I’d read a trade article about Diamond Foundry and called them out of the blue. I spoke to their vice president of sales and told him I had a few questions. I asked if his stones were certified and laser inscribed. He said, “No.” I asked why not? He said, “Because we feel the onus of that should be on the retailer.” I said, “I beg to differ, I think you need to be out in front of this, have it inscribed on invoices, proudly on the forefront.” We didn’t have a meeting of the minds. Within a week, I got a call from the wholesaler, coincidentally, and started a memo program. That was August 2017.
How did that early memo program go?
The company that gave me the goods had displays and their own brand of lab diamonds. I started small with less than a dozen in the case. We don’t label anything with the sell price, just the MSRP. With lab-grown, I started including signage showing the sales price and the comparison to earth-mined and the difference between the two, making it simple for the customer to understand.
What kind of reactions did you get from customers?
The majority of people then and still now do not know about lab-grown. Back in 2017, probably two out of 10 had heard about them. Now, it’s nearing half, but it’s still less than half.
The reactions I’d get were, “I don’t want that, that’s not real.” Or the smarter consumers would say, “How could that be worth anything if they can constantly make them in a factory?” We’d talk about the lab technicians, yield growth, and fact that the earth is running out of diamonds. We’d give them all these bullet points and say, “You may not hear much about it now, but soon enough you’ll hear a lot more about this.” Those were the conversations we had in 2017 and still do.
Now we make it about the value difference and what’s important to a customer. I’ll say, “In my 40 years in the industry, we never had a true competitor to the elite earth-mined diamond until we had lab diamonds. The only difference is the future expectation of value if you’re ever going to sell it.”
Do customers care about that part?
The ones I deal with, they’re appreciative you’ve told them and let them decide, but they don’t care. They’ll say, “I’m starting out bigger than I could with an earth diamond.” I say, “It’s like frozen ice in the Arctic or frozen ice in your freezer—it’s the same thing. H20 is H20, carbon is carbon.”
How big a business is lab-grown for you now?
Without lab-grown it would be a totally different financial story. I have been mentally preparing myself for this for years and realized I had to taper off my natural purchases to make space for it. We do maintain a big inventory but didn’t see any point in laying out gobs of money and making such a small return and never having the right stones.
I didn’t see the financial case for that moving forward. I’ve switched to where the vast majority of my engagement ring center stones are lab-grown, especially on larger stones, 2 carats and above. The margin is great. It’s transformative for me. No regrets whatsoever. I told myself, I’m foolish if I don’t take a ride on this wave. It may crash, but you’ve got to live in the here and now—COVID has taught us that.
How might that crash play out?
I’m still worried about that. I’m monitoring my inventory so we don’t get too rich with asset purchases. I make sure we’re as good as the competitors online. We have to monitor the goods to make sure we’re not sitting on them too long. And if there’s been a value change on the wholesale side. What I’m concerned about is: Will this become the CZ of the future? If they’re churning these things out 24-7, they’ll flood the market, destabilize the price, and the cost of valuation will not be tied to earth diamonds. That’s my biggest fear, even though it’s a pinnacle product and years beyond CZ and moissanite. But the responsibility is on the industry.Follow JCK on Instagram: @jckmagazine
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