Many watch brands use alternative materials like recycled plastics and cardboard packaging. But only recently have a few brands shifted to lab-produced gem-quality decorative diamonds, a change that is long in coming.
In February, the French brand Barillet used synthetic diamonds to add a touch of spice to its Superpunk Diamants Lab Experience collection. And last September, the Japanese brand Citizen integrated them into its L Ambiluna women’s watches.
Each of Barillet’s unisex watches, powered by a Swiss automatic movement, featured 44 synthetic diamonds set on the indexes and case. The brand specifies that the stones, totaling 0.42 carats on each watch, were chosen for their quality, color and purity.
“We called Lab Experience watches because we are exploring new territories and experimenting with an innovative product, both technologically and ethically,” said Emmanuel Pander, co-founder of Barillet, in a telephone 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 within three weeks, Pander said, adding that there have been more orders since then. The brand sells online and in its three stores in France.
While lab-created diamonds are only now appearing in watches, a report released in February by 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 it called “continuing advances in technology” and “decline in retail prices.
In contrast, rough diamond production in 2020 fell to 111 million carats 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 HPHT) or the chemical vapor deposition (CVD) method, both of which simulate the process that produces a diamond natural. The results are optically, chemically and physically identical to mined diamonds, manufacturers say, but, depending on their size, gems can cost at least 30-40% less than mined stones.
In 2018, the United States Federal Trade Commission said that lab-created diamonds could be marketed as real gemstones, provided they were clearly labeled, but later warned manufacturers against general complaints of “general environmental benefit”, taking into account the energy used to produce them. In Europe and Asiathere are fewer marketing restrictions.
The diamonds used in Barillet’s Superpunks were supplied by Courbet, a Paris-based jewelry brand founded in 2017, in collaboration with a local laboratory, Diam Concept.
“We are currently in talks with several watch brands that have expressed interest in our lab-grown diamonds,” Courbet co-founder Manuel Mallen said in a phone interview. “They are starting to see lab culture as an attractive option, for cost reasons and for their communication value. »
A colorless, internally flawless Courbet gem would cost €10,000, “50% less than the price of a comparable mined diamond,” Mallen said. And, given the growing market, the company said it is expanding into China.
A veteran among a growing number of French jewelry retailers who describe themselves as ethically conscious, the private company Courbet has Chanel as a minority shareholder, although the fashion house has not used lab-grown diamonds for any of its watches and jewelry.
“Chanel closely follows the evolution of trends in its activities as well as the emerging expectations of customers and society and regularly invests in start-ups or innovative companies with a long-term vision, as well as a keen awareness of what’s happening in the tech world,” the fashion house said in a written statement. “That’s why we’ve taken a minority stake in jeweler Courbet. 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 to use lab-grown gemstones, a spokesperson said, it will make also watches with natural diamonds so customers have options.
In 2017, an effort to demystify laboratory diamonds – the symposium “Synthetic Diamonds: Are Watches and Jewelry in Danger?” — was held in Geneva, organized by the Association Romande des Métiers de la Bijouterie, a Swiss association of jewelers.
“The program was educational and positive about all things lab-grown diamonds,” said Marc-Andre Deschoux, founder of 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 opted for laboratory stones. “This is still a taboo subject in Switzerland due to a persistent negative view of man-made diamonds,” Deschoux said. “But this industry is growing so fast that some big brands are anticipating the future and investing in the product.”
An example is Lightbox, introduced in 2019 by De Beers, the diamond company that operates mines. Lightbox sells fashion jewelry set with lab-grown diamonds for $800 per carat.
Still, not all brands are considering lab stones in their future.
“People tell us why not use lab-grown diamonds for your little pavé settings,” said Vartkess Knadjian, founder and managing director of Backes & Strauss, a British jewelery watchmaker, from Geneva. “We are purists; we will not go down that road.
“For some watch brands, diamonds are an afterthought,” Mr. Knadjian said. “But we thrive on our diamond heritage, it’s important to highlight the size and quality of our diamonds.”
Despite market growth, primarily in the jewelry sector, lab-grown diamonds continue to “evoke mixed associations,” according to the Bain report, which says most consumers still view them as “man-made” or “affordable.” “.
Watch brands are hesitant, Mallen said, because they fear a conversation about lab-grown diamonds could open the door to questions about their sourcing of other materials, such as gold, steel and silver. leather.
“Brands fear being criticized for anything they don’t do,” Mallen said.
If a shift occurs in watchmaking, lab-grown diamonds and mined diamonds will co-exist, not as competitors, but as two parallel markets, like in the jewelry business, Knadjian said.
“At the moment there is a feeling of expectation about lab-grown diamonds in the watch industry,” he said. “If a big brand decides to use them, others will follow.”
“But even then, people would buy the watch not for its lab-grown diamonds,” Mr. Knadjian said, “but for the watch itself.”