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Lab diamonds gain in popularity

Less expensive gems seen as more ethical

By Erin McCarthy, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Published: September 9, 2023, 6:15am
2 Photos
Lauren Priori, who opened L. Priori Jewelry in Philadelphia seven years ago, has seen an increase in demand for lab-grown diamonds. She is wearing a pear-shaped lab diamond on the left of her finger and an oval-shaped mined diamond on the center.
Lauren Priori, who opened L. Priori Jewelry in Philadelphia seven years ago, has seen an increase in demand for lab-grown diamonds. She is wearing a pear-shaped lab diamond on the left of her finger and an oval-shaped mined diamond on the center. (Jessica Griffin/The Philadelphia Inquirer) Photo Gallery

PHILADELPHIA — Years before Jasmine Ma and her fiancé, Ricky Chen, stepped foot into a jewelry store — before they had even talked seriously about marriage — Ma made one thing clear:

She didn’t want a mined-diamond engagement ring.

“If he was going to put his money toward this, I’d prefer he get something lab-grown,” she said. Not only would they be able to get a larger stone for less money, but she’d also feel better about the decision ethically, Ma said she told him, due to diamond mining’s history of human rights violations.

The 27-year-old got her wish earlier this month when Chen dropped to one knee and asked her to marry him with a custom ring from L. Priori Jewelry featuring a 1.5-carat oval lab diamond as the center stone.

Ma doesn’t know how much Chen spent, she said, but lab-grown diamonds typically cost 50 percent to 70 percent less than mined diamonds, despite being chemically and physically identical. Aesthetically, the difference between the two is undetectable to the naked eye. (Professionals can use a special instrument to determine whether a diamond is lab-grown.)

For Ma and Chen, that savings equates to thousands of dollars that they can put toward their wedding, and the new home they recently bought in Horsham.

“To me, it didn’t make any sense to put that much into something when no one can tell the difference,” Ma said.

Ma and Chen are among an increasing number of couples who are buying lab diamonds. More than a third of couples who got married last year opted for a lab diamond as their engagement ring center stone, twice as many as in 2020, according to a survey of 12,000 couples by wedding planning website the Knot.

Ten jeweler industry insiders — local Philadelphia-area jewelers and executives at the national companies, Brilliant Earth and Grown Brilliance — told The Inquirer that they, too, have seen an explosion in demand for lab diamonds in the area in recent years.

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Increased demand beyond Jewelers Row

Several Philadelphia-area jewelers said that between 25 percent and 40 percent of their engagement ring sales are now for lab-grown diamonds. At Harry Merrill & Son, which has been on Jewelers Row for 70 years, more than half of customers want a lab-diamond ring, executive Robert Schwartz said.

Millennials and Generation Z, also known as the twentysomething and thirtysomething customers, are leading the lab-grown charge, jewelers said. They often start their engagement ring search on the internet, said Nicole and Kenyatta Black, co-owners of Old City’s Philadelphia Diamond Co., where more than half of customers arrive at appointments wanting to see rings with the lab-grown diamonds they’ve researched.

Many of these consumers are concerned about the environmental and ethical impact of their purchasing decisions, jewelers said. Lab-grown diamonds are made by scientists under controlled conditions, which proponents say cuts down on the potential for a negative environmental impact or human cost of mining diamonds.

Additionally, as the price of lab diamonds has decreased over the past decade, and the cost of living has risen, more couples are motivated by financial goals.

The lab-diamond customer base “is shifting from being people who are really interested in the sustainability and the green and the coolness of it to anyone who wants more bang for their buck,” said Lauren Priori, owner of L. Priori Jewelry, which sells lab and mined diamonds in Rittenhouse and King of Prussia. “The reality is life is really expensive right now.”

Steven Singer hates lab diamonds

While many longtime jewelers have begun selling lab-grown diamonds in recent years, not everyone is willing to sell the mined-diamond alternative.

“Consumers are being told that lab-grown diamonds are sustainable, and that couldn’t be further from the truth,” David Kellie, CEO of the Natural Diamond Council, a trade group for the mined-diamond industry recently told the Wall Street Journal. In a recent report, the group said it found that more than 60 percent of lab-grown diamonds are mass-produced in the largely coal-powered countries of China and India and mined-diamond trading is now conflict-free due to mandatory United Nations regulations.

Earlier this month in Philadelphia, outspoken business owner Steven Singer launched an advertising campaign to remind shoppers that his Jewelers Row shop sells only what he calls “real” — mined — diamonds. In addition to TV commercials and social media ads, the jeweler of “I hate Steven Singer” billboard fame also gave away 1-carat lab diamonds with purchase of a mined diamond in an effort to show his customers the difference between the two gems.

Singer disputes the environmental and ethical benefits of lab demands and said he doesn’t see them as a wise investment, given how much their price has plummeted over the past decade. ( Mined-diamond prices are also down, which industry analysts attribute to oversupply after the record demand of recent years.)

Singer said customers regularly walk out of his store when they find out he doesn’t sell lab-grown diamonds. Because of that decision, he said, his business has lost somewhere between $1 million and $5 million dollars in gross sales a year for the past 10 to 15 years.

“It was a stupid business decision because we would’ve made a ton of money,” Singer said. But “now that people are finding out the truth … my perception is that we’re on the right side of history.”

Changing perspectives

Eleni Weisser, 34, of Fairmount, had always intended to upgrade her engagement ring for her 10-year wedding anniversary. But it wasn’t until a friend got engaged last year that she started thinking about doing so with a lab-grown diamond, which she said she had not heard about when she got married.

“She said it was a lab stone, and I was like, ‘Oh, I hadn’t heard anyone admit it out loud,’ “ she said. “It kind of changed my perspective on it and normalized it.”

“With designer jewelry, I think there is still the perception that lab-grown diamonds are for the cheap stuff,” said Rona Fisher, a Philadelphia jewelry designer who has been working with lab-grown diamonds for over a year.

Several jewelers said older customers often mistakenly associate these lab-grown diamonds with cheaper, less-durable diamond simulants like cubic zirconia and moissanite.

Weisser eventually upgraded her 1.25-carat mined-diamond ring with an almost 3-carat lab diamond for thousands less than the couple would have spent on a mined diamond. She said she can’t tell the difference.