De Beers Group plans sales of laboratory-grown diamonds to US consumers

Kevin McCoy
An uncut diamond is selected from a collection of colorless and colored diamonds on a sorting table at DTC Botswana, a unit of De Beers, in Gaborone, Botswana.
Chris Ratcliffe I Bloomberg via Getty Images

Want to buy a lab-grown diamond? The world's biggest diamond mining company is betting lower prices will lure U.S. shoppers to man-made stones.

De Beers Group is launching a new company and U.S. production facility with a line of lab-grown diamonds that will sell for far less than nature-made gems, the international gem giant announced Tuesday.

Starting in September, a new De Beers firm called Lightbox Jewelry will sell laboratory-made diamonds that will retail from $200 for a quarter-carat stone to $800 for a one-carat gem.

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That's decidedly more affordable than the prices for natural diamonds and many synthetic gems. A typical one-carat round stone offered for sale Tuesday on Blue Nile, a major online retailer of certified diamonds, costs $5,657.

"Lightbox will transform the lab-grown diamond sector by offering consumers a lab-grown product they have told us they want but aren't getting: affordable fashion jewelry that may not be forever, but is perfect for right now," De Beers Group CEO Bruce Cleaver said in a statement issued with the announcement.

"Our extensive research tells us this is how consumers regard lab-grown diamonds — as a fun, pretty product that shouldn't cost that much — so we see an opportunity here," added Cleaver.

The announcement marks a business strategy change for De Beers from its previous stance of not offering shoppers lab-made diamonds. The company is owned by multinational diamond mining giant Anglo American plc, which earlier this month announced rough diamond sales of $550 million during its fourth business cycle of 2018.

Additionally, the change comes amid diamond industry concern that U.S. Millennials and other young consumers may have less interest in buying expensive diamonds as they save money for homes and other purchases.

Natural diamonds typically form over many years through a combination of high pressure and high heat deep in the earth. Mining companies recover the raw stones, which are then graded, cut and polished before being sold.

A rare few are mammoth, high-quality stones that weigh hundreds of carats and cost millions of dollars.

The lab-made versions marketed by De Beers will come from an exclusive partnership with United Kingdom-based Element Six, which bills itself as the world's leading supplier of synthetic diamonds for cutting, grinding, drilling, mining, polishing, optics, semiconductors and sensors.

The production process begins with minute slivers of lab-grown diamond crystal that are placed in a plasma reactor. Subjected to a heat of 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the slivers within two weeks grow into diamonds that are large enough for cutting and polishing.

Stephanie Liggins, the principal research scientist for Element Six, said the creation process can be tailored to produce any color diamond, ranging from icy white, to pink, blue, or whatever a consumer desires.

New lab-grown stones of 0.2 carats or above will have a Lightbox logo inside. Although invisible to the eye, the logo can be spotted easily under magnification, and will serve as a mark of quality and assurance, De Beers said.

The company is investing $94 million over four years to open a new Element Six production facility near Portland, Oregon. When fully operational, the plant will be able to produce more than 500,000 rough carats of lab-grown diamonds annually, De Beers said.