The Colossus of Rhodes
When I heard about De Beers’ move to enter the aboveground diamond sector, I wasn’t in the least surprised. For the mining and diamond colossus, it is very much business as usual; maintain their controlling stake in the diamond trade by any means necessary. We are talking about De Beers after all, the self-appointed first and last word in diamonds, who not only successfully changed the engagement ring game forever via some very slick marketing (and more dubious measures), but who have also been fending off challengers to the throne for over a century.
De Beers' new lab-grown diamond company is called Lightbox and from their undercutting price point through to their intentionally targeted adolescent marketing, they are going to great lengths to point out that non-mined stones are not to be valued too highly.
De Beers' open-pit Venetia Mine in South Africa, and mine workers in Botswana.
I was contacted several weeks ago by a journalist from Bloomberg who told me she was doing a story on lab-grown diamonds, with the request for an interview as Monarc Jewellery is the only UK designer/retailer specialising in the aboveground diamond field. I agreed to the phone interview, but became sceptical at the line of some of her questions, which seemed to be heavily weighted towards the premise of Lightbox, that non-mined diamonds did not hold the same intrinsic value as those from the earth. When the piece was published by Bloomberg.com (being re-run in the NZ Herald a few days later), I was none too impressed to see that I had been misquoted entirely. Whilst I stand by my assertion that De Beers feel very threatened by the competition of a truly ethical diamond trade, at no time did I intimate that for my supplier, the Diamond Foundry, being ethical was not enough, and that they would have to possibly lower their prices. The truth of the matter is that the ethics around what I am doing and those inherent in companies like the Diamond Foundry are everything! Through Lightbox, De Beers wish to reduce this conversation down to the price of a commodity and more exactly, one which they are able to produce with apparent little effort or cost.
That’s not to say that the article was a De Beers puff piece either, as their previous price-as-a-weapon tactics were highlighted in the disgraceful way they brought the Democratic Republic of Congo (then known as Zaire) to heel when they sought diamond independence in the 80s.
Lightbox has sought to further devalue their own product (and by proxy anyone else in the market), with De Beers CEO Bruce Cleaver stating that they will not grade these diamonds, as “Lab-grown are not special, they’re not real, they’re not unique. You can make exactly the same one again and again.” Not only is this self-deprecating marketing approach harmful to the burgeoning aboveground industry, it’s also packed with about as much truth as an old advertising campaign, that of ‘smoking for good health’.
"Aboveground diamonds are very real, being atomically identical to earth-mined diamonds, now graded by the industry-leading Gemological Institute of America (GIA) and are every bit as unique, with each one likewise holding their own fingerprint of differing characteristics, colour, inclusions, and clarity."
A Diamond Foundry staff member in San Francisco, and an aboveground diamond rough made at the Californian foundry.
All of this seems moot however, when you consider the larger picture of what De Beers is doing. De Beers is a company that was founded by a white supremacist, that sought to skirt the Sherman Antitrust Act during World War II, who have long been synonymous with diamond price-fixing and price-dumping and are complicit in the genocide of indigenous tribes. They are entering the market of aboveground diamonds, which I and others are championing because they don’t exploit the earth or come at the cost of human suffering.
While they may be able to use their deeply cynical tactics to try to kill off the nascent aboveground industry, what they will never be able to do is convince people that their products can ever be held up against truly ethical companies. That genie is out of the bottle and isn’t going back in!
Some further reading on De Beers and how diamond engagement rings came to be the standard:
- How an Ad Campaign Invented the Diamond Ring, as reported by The Atlantic.
- The Diamond Invention, as reported by The Atlantic.
- All Diamonds Out of Africa Are Conflict, as reported by Huffington Post.
- A Guilty Plea, as reported by The New York Times.
- Diamond Wars: A Special Report, as published by the New York Times.
- N.W. Ayer & Son, responsible for the De Beers' marketing campaign in 1938 that would change the falling price of diamonds at the time.