Early this year, when Nadja Swarovski was deciding how to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Atelier Swarovski, she had a vision.
“I wanted to do something responsible, sustainable and forward-thinking,” she said, to celebrate the line known for collaborations with design leaders like Karl Lagerfeld, Zaha Hadid and Christopher Kane.
The creation of a fine jewellery collection was the beginning, but then Swarovski, who is Atelier Swarovski’s artistic director as well as a member of the company’s executive board, went further.
Instead of designs made solely with crystals — the sparklers linked with the name Swarovski as tissue is to Kleenex — she decided to mix in diamonds and emeralds, too. But these were gems created in laboratories. Just don’t classify them with inexpensive diamond substitutes like cubic zirconia, moissanite or rhinestones — or crystal.
Swarovski called the concept “conscious luxury,” a choice to use laboratory-created gems because they “have a lower impact on the environment and society,” she said. “People want to know where their products come from. People care.”
Man-made diamonds have been around for more than 60 years. “The first scientific discovery of growing a diamond in a lab was in late 1954,” said Susan Jacques, the president and chief executive of the Gemological Institute of America. But it’s only in the last 10 years that the process has been refined to such a degree, she said, that many of the diamonds that come out of the lab are virtually the same as those that come out of the mine.
Tom Moses, the institute’s executive vice president and chief laboratory and research officer, said, “We judge diamonds by the four Cs,” the metrics of cut, colour, clarity and carat established by the institute in the mid-20th century. “The goal of labs is to grow something perfectly clear, transparent and colourless, without any occlusions visible at 10-times magnification.” (Occlusion is an industry term for imperfections.)
Laboratories rely on the same elements as nature — carbon, high pressure and intense heat — to create diamonds. But good ones can’t just be churned out.
“The slower the growth rate, the higher the quality,” Moses said. “Too slow a growth has not been commercially feasible,” but, with technological improvements, the laboratories believe they have succeeded.
A piece from Swarovski's new high jewellery line.
Man-made diamonds are virtually indistinguishable from the real thing, with the same pure white colour, total clarity, hardness, longevity, brilliance and what the pros call fire, Jacques said.
“To the naked eye, they are identical,” she said, adding that the instrument capable of distinguishing between natural and lab-created diamonds is very expensive and not common; the institute has one, but most jewellers do not.
It is easier to discern the difference between a mined emerald and one produced in a laboratory. “Real emeralds have natural occlusions,” Jacques said. The grown ones don’t; they are simply “too perfect,” she said.
Man-made gems received increased attention after the 2006 film “Blood Diamond,” a fictional story based on illicit diamond trade and its funding of a civil war in Sierra Leone. After starring in the film, Leonardo DiCaprio invested in the Diamond Foundry, which produces lab-grown diamonds in San Francisco, and he is now one of its ambassadors.
“Grown diamonds can be even better than real diamonds in terms of the ecological and social costs,” said Jeremy Scholz, the company’s chief technology officer. “Our diamonds are grown in an environmental factory. The energy that we use is from 100 percent renewable sources. It’s a sustainable method. I’m not sure mining companies can say the same thing.”
Jacques countered that mining companies are not irresponsible about the way they treat the land they mine or its surrounding communities, donating to local schools and hospitals. And, she added, real diamonds have a distinctive appeal: “They’ve been growing in the earth for billions of years,” a quality more seductive than being created yesterday in a test tube, she said.
As for price, there is little difference between lab-grown and mined diamonds. Scholz acknowledged that man-made diamonds are expensive to produce and are only about 10-30 percent cheaper than natural ones of similar size.
But François Le Troquer, Atelier Swarovski’s vice president and managing director, said he expected prices for lab-produced diamonds to be as much as 50 percent less than those for mined ones in the future.
Proponents of man-made diamonds say there is another reason the gems’ popularity will increase: Some diamond mines are almost played out.
A piece from Swarovski's new high jewellery line.
“The life of a mine is 25 to 30 years,” Jacques said, noting that the Argyle mine in Australia, the world’s largest single producer of diamonds, has only a few productive years left.
New mines have been discovered in Botswana and Canada, she added, but their output won’t compensate for Argyle’s loss.
So even though Swarovski has a division that sells mined gemstones to other jewellers, the company, which had 3.37 billion euros (US$3.93 billion) in revenue in 2016, has turned to man-made stones.
“We were driven to use materials that embody the innovation rooted in our brand,” Swarovski said of the fine jewellery collection, adding that the lab-created diamonds and emeralds “represent that spirit of exploration.”
The gems grown for the collection were gathered from several sources, including Diamond Foundry, then cut by Swarovski specialists to match its artists’ designs.
Pieces were produced in Paris by Cambour, the celebrated jewellery fabrication company.
Inside Cambour’s unremarkable workshop building in the 10th Arrondissement, artisans on one summer day assembled jewelry for Chanel, Van Cleef & Arpels and some of “the biggest names on the Place Vendôme,” said Sandra Bouteille-Tuszynski, the company’s head of accounts receivable, who previously worked at Hermès and Bulgari.
The handful of men and women, hunched over workbenches and peering through loupes, had set the stones for the 23 Atelier Swarovski high jewellery pieces that were introduced in May, during the Cannes Film Festival, at a presentation at the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes (where Naomie Harris wore the collection’s Mosaic earrings and ring, both set with lab-produced diamonds and emeralds).
The collection’s three themes — Mosaic, Art Deco and Concentric — were worked into earrings, rings, necklaces and bracelets of 18-karat gold set with geometrically cut Swarovski crystals and lab-grown diamonds and emeralds.
Pieces are available only through special order on www.atelierswarovski.com, with prices from US$3,950 to US$96,000.
In 2018, the company plans to adapt the designs, using crystal, cubic zirconia and silver, and sell them for a starting price of about US$395.
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