Man-Made Diamonds Grow, but Not on Watch Brands

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Man-Made Diamonds Grow, but Not on Watch Brands

Production has increased sharply in recent years, yet just two new timepieces include the gems.

By Nazanin Lankarani

April 6, 2021

Many watch brands are using alternate materials like recycled plastics and cardboard packaging. But only recently have a couple of brands turned to decorative gem-quality diamonds produced in a laboratory, a change that has been a long time coming.

In February, the French brand Barillet used lab-grown diamonds to bring a touch of pizazz to its Superpunk Diamants Lab Experience collection. And last September, the Japanese brand Citizen included them in its L Ambiluna women’s watches.

Each of Barillet’s unisex watches, powered by a Swiss automatic movement, had 44 lab-grown diamonds set on the hour markers and the case. The brand said that the stones, a total of 0.42 carats on each watch, were chosen for their quality, color and purity.

“We called the watches Lab Experience because we are exploring new territory and experimenting with an innovative product, both technologically and ethically,” Emmanuel Pander, co-founder of Barillet, said in a phone interview from Paris.

“We wanted to start a conversation about the exploitation of our planet’s natural resources and the technical and human means used to extract them,” he said.

The initial run of 10 Superpunks, each priced at 3,950 euros ($4,660) sold out in three weeks, Mr. Pander said, adding that there had been more orders since then. The brand sells online and through its three stores in France.

While lab-created diamonds are only now showing up in watches, a report published in February by the management consultancy Bain & Company said lab-grown diamond production reached a total of six to seven million carats in 2019 and 2020, posting double-digit growth as a result of what it called “continued advances in technology” and “lower retail prices.”

In contrast, rough diamond production in 2020 fell to 111 million carats, down from a peak of 152 million in 2017, according to Bain.

Lab-created diamonds are made by either a High-Pressure, High-Temperature method (known as H.P.H.T.) or the Chemical Vapor Deposition (C.V.D.) method, both simulating the process that produces a natural diamond. The results are optically, chemically and physically identical to mined diamonds, makers say, but, depending on their size, the gems can cost at least 30 to 40 percent less than mined stones.

In 2018, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission said that lab-created diamonds could be marketed as real gems, as long as they were clearly labeled, but it later warned makers against blanket claims of “general environmental benefit,” considering the energy used to produce them. In Europe and Asia, there are fewer marketing restrictions.

The diamonds used in Barillet’s Superpunks were supplied by Courbet, a Paris-based jewelry label founded in 2017, in collaboration with a local laboratory, Diam Concept.

“We are in talks now with several watch brands who have shown interest in our lab-grown diamonds,” Manuel Mallen, co-founder of Courbet, said in a phone interview. “They are starting to see ‘lab grown’ as an attractive option, for cost reasons and for their communication value.”

A Courbet gem that is colorless and internally flawless would retail for €10,000, “50 percent less than the price of a comparable mined diamond,” Mr. Mallen said. And, given the growth in the market, the business said it was expanding into China.

A veteran among a growing number of French jewelry retailers that describe themselves as ethically conscious, the privately held Courbet has Chanel as a minority shareholder, though the fashion house has not used lab-grown diamonds for any of its watches and jewelry. “Chanel keeps a close eye on the evolution of trends in its activities as well as on the emerging expectations of clients and society and regularly invests in start-ups or innovative companies with a long-term perspective, as well as a keen awareness to what is happening in the tech world,” the fashion house said in a written statement. “This is why we have taken a minority stake in the jeweler Courbet. That said, we do not currently plan to use synthetic diamonds.”

Citizen’s lab-grown diamonds were supplied by Swarovski, the Austrian crystal company, which began making them in 2017. And while the brand will continue using lab-grown gems, a spokesman said, it also will make watches with natural diamonds so customers will have options.

In 2017, an effort to demystify lab-grown diamonds — the symposium “Synthetic Diamonds: Are Watchmaking and Jewelry in Danger?” — was held in Geneva, organized by the Association Romande des Métiers de la Bijouterie, a Swiss jewelers’ association.

“The program was educational and positive over all about lab-grown diamonds,” said Marc-André Deschoux, founder of the online channel Watches TV, who attended the event. “A number of watch brand representatives were in the audience.”

But, since then, few mechanical watch brands have made the shift to lab-grown stones. “This is still a taboo subject in Switzerland because of a lingering negative view of man-made diamonds,” Mr. Deschoux said. “But that industry is growing so rapidly that some big brands are anticipating the future and investing in the product.”

One example is Lightbox, introduced in 2019 by De Beers, the diamond company that operates mines. Lightbox sells fashion jewelry set with lab-grown diamonds priced at $800 per carat. Still, not every brand envisages lab-grown stones in its future.

“People tell us why not use lab-grown diamonds for your small pavé settings,” Vartkess Knadjian, founder and chief executive of Backes & Strauss, a British jewelry watchmaker, said from Geneva. “We are purists; we will not go down that path.”

“For some watch brands, diamonds are an afterthought,” Mr. Knadjian said. “But we thrive on our diamond heritage, it is important to emphasize the cut and quality of our diamonds.”

Despite market growth, mainly in the jewelry sector, lab-grown diamonds continue to “evoke mixed associations,” according to the Bain report, which said most consumers still considered them “artificial” or “affordable.”

Watch brands hesitate, Mr. Mallen said, because they fear that a conversation about lab-grown diamonds would open the door to questions about their sourcing of other materials, like gold, steel and leather.

“Brands worry about being criticized for all the things they don’t do,” Mr. Mallen said.

If a shift does come in watchmaking, lab-grown and mined diamonds will coexist, not as competitors but as two parallel markets, like in the jewelry sector, Mr. Knadjian said. “At the moment, there is a sense of wait-and-see about lab-grown diamonds in the watch industry,” he said. “If one major brand decides to use them, others would follow.”

“But even then, people would buy the watch not for its lab-grown diamonds,” Mr. Knadjian said, “but for the watch itself.”