The diamond industry is in the midst of a major shakeup from the ground up, and it’s impacting how people are putting a ring on it. A groom first gave a bride a diamond engagement ring back in 1477 when Archduke Maximilian of Austria proposed to Mary of Burgundy with a sparkler set with stones in the shape of an “M.” Turns out, Maximilian and Mary were trendsetters. This move kicked off a fad amongst European royalty, who from then on began adding more precious stones to their jewelry. But it wasn’t until the late 19th Century, when diamonds were discovered in South Africa, that the idea of using a diamond to pop the question became more mainstream.
We have DeBeers to thank for that. They basically struck marketing gold in 1948 when the company’s ad agency launched the now-famous “A diamond is forever” campaign. From then on, asking for someone’s hand in marriage became synonymous with saving up two month’s salary and researching the “Four Cs,” and engagement rings quickly became the top sellers at jewelry counters across the country. Today, more than 80 percent of American brides get a diamond engagement ring before walking down the aisle, and the industry is a whopping $13 billion dollar business worldwide.
But now, because of rapid technological advancements in lab-grown synthetic diamonds and the fact that—thanks to the internet and Instagram—buyers are armed with more information and options than ever before, the engagement ring shopping experience is changing.
At its core, you could say a diamond, which is among the hardest materials in the world, is really just a lump of coal that has flourished under intense geological pressure over millions of years. The labor intensive mining process, paired with cracker jack marketing, is a large part of what drives the price. But with lab-grown diamonds beginning to flood the market, the conditions involved in each stone’s creation story have become a hot topic, resulting in a controversy that currently divides the fine jewelry world. Why? Because these lab-grown stones aren’t anything like cubic zirconia or moissanite, which are considered lesser for good reason. Instead, grown diamonds have the exact same chemical properties as those created in the depths of the earth, and as a result, are commanding attention from buyers who might otherwise go for a mined stone. The only way you can actually detect the difference between a lab grown diamond and a mined one is with a special machine—and they can be produced in a matter of months, at a fraction of the cost, and in a way that some say is less harmful to the environment.
Most storied jewelry houses are banking buyers won’t care. “There’s that belief that diamonds are rare and precious, and I think it’s also going to be a generational thing,” Nadja Swarovski, the matriarch of the legendary crystal manufacturer told Vogue Business. “My mother would never buy a created diamond, but my daughters would only buy a created diamond.”
Time will tell if the kids are into it. In the interim, here’s how engagement ring-buying has changed today, and what you need to know before you take the plunge.
1. Information is power. “When customers come in to purchase an engagement ring they have usually done their homework,” says Rhett Outten, the owner Croghan’s Jewel Box in Charleston, S.C.—a store that’s been in the same family for over a hundred years. “They have been on our website. They have photos of what they want in mind. They are much more educated about diamonds than the customer of 5 years ago. Having said that, they are looking for someone they trust to help them sort it all out.”
2. Together forever. “You’d be surprised at how many couples are shopping together now,” says Kegan Fisher, the co-founder of Frank Darling, a new fine jewelry brand whose goal is to create a pleasant, ethical, and highly personalized shopping experience. Much like Warby Parker, they have a home try-on kit that allows shoppers to try replicas of any of the four styles available on their site, free for one week. This way, customers can really take prospective rings out for a test drive before making what will probably amount to one of the biggest buying decisions of their lives. “Two thirds of couples are collaborating on the purchase, which is a big shift from the surprise shopping that Hollywood loves. We also see the online route gaining popularity. We see a lot of Pinterest boards, but also couples holding hands every step of the way. We designed the whole experience around the couple. But, still everyone loves a surprise proposal. Luckily, you can have your cake and eat it too, so why not?”
3. A family of bands. “The one thing all brides seem to want is a diamond band or even two stacked below the engagement ring. Rings sitting flush and tight against each other has become a strong request too,” Outten explains. “Mixing metals with bands and engagement rings is popular, for instance, a platinum engagement ring stacked with a rose gold band and a diamond band. It is the mix that makes it unique and personal.”
4. Star power. Those in the business often joke about how Blake Lively’s ring sparked a major trend—after Ryan Reynolds proposed, everyone wanted an oval. “It’s a classy shape for someone who loves the sparkle of a round but wants something unique,” Fisher explains. “Carat for carat, they’re also more affordable than round diamonds.” Similarly, when Meghan Markle stepped out post-ceremony in that Stella McCartney halter dress with Princess Diana’s aquamarine ring (which is guesstimated to clock in at 30 carats) on her right hand, a star was born and that stone’s cool factor catapulted up. Imagery of both stones circulated widely thanks to social media.
5. What’s old is new. “It is a certain bride who is drawn to an antique diamond ring,” Outten explains. “They want the workmanship. The idea that this stone could have been cut by the glow of candlelight and is truly one-of-a-kind is a romantic one. They like the warmth of an old stone and the feeling that it was not mass produced. They are generally sentimental and have happy memories of seeing antique jewelry on a grandmother or family member. The ‘bang for the buck’ factor is sometimes at play here too as you can usually get a bigger stone for the same amount of money as a smaller modern cut one.”
6. Reconsidering the real real. Synthetic gemstones have been manufactured as far back as the 19th century. That said, creating a decent-sized diamond was something scientists struggled with for a long time. “It’s a process called CVD,” Frank Darling co-founder Jeff Smith explains. “It starts with a seed of carbon placed inside a high energy chamber. Special gases fill the chamber and as energy interacts with the gas, it crystallizes on the seed, like falling snow. It takes a few weeks for it to reach full size. Then it’s cut and polished with the same tools and craft as natural diamonds.” Another approach involves simulating the crushing force of the earth by applying high temperatures and pressure to dissolve carbon into a diamond seed. Either way, the outcome is a stone that has the same properties as a diamond made in the ground but with different, distinguishable crystal patterns.
To many, diamonds have always been the ultimate symbol of rarity, luxury, and uniqueness, and lab diamonds are complicating that—so much so that “grown diamonds” is a term the Diamond Producers Association initially claimed was misleading. This ruling was ultimately overturned by the US Federal Trade Commission, and synthetic manufactures were given permission to market their product as “real.”
7. Cost is competitive. Grown diamonds cost on average 30 to 40 percent less than natural diamonds. As their prevalence becomes more and more accepted, this gap is expected to widen—with mined diamonds potentially having to drop in value in an effort to remain competitive. A survey by market research company MVI found that the percentage of consumers willing to by an engagement ring with a lab-grown diamond is steadily increasing, up from 55 percent in 2016 to almost 70 person in 2018. “Lab diamonds are a more sustainable alternative, both environmentally and financially,” Fisher says. “You could double your diamond size, or save it for the wedding or honeymoon.”
At the end of the day, an engagement ring is one of the most personal purchases you will ever make, and likely the most sentimental thing you will ever wear; so choose wisely. Work with a jeweler you trust, and go with something that will make you feel happy and loved every time you look down at your hand.