When her boyfriend proposed to her in 1999, Anna-Mieke Anderson became the proud owner of a diamond engagement ring. All was bliss until her father asked her where the diamond itself came from. Little did he know his question would alter the course of her life.
In researching an answer to her dad’s question, Anderson learned that diamond mines have a reputation for fostering corruption and exploiting workers, their families and the communities in which they exist, reports the Financial Times. They’re also associated with “environmental devastation, severely damaging the land and water,” according to Brilliant Earth. Seven years later, Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2006 film Blood Diamond would help create mainstream awareness of these issues.
Hoping to make even a small difference, Anderson found an organization that advocates for mining communities and sponsored a 7-year-old boy named PonPon. As she exchanged letters with him, a stark picture of his life in Liberia developed. “It wasn’t until he wrote to me and said, ‘I had a great summer because only one of my classmates was killed,’ that I realized how severe this was,” says Anderson.
With PonPon in mind, Anderson decided to make a bold move and launch her own line of conflict-free fine jewelry. But she wanted to define “conflict-free diamond” on her own terms. Currently, the designation is under the purview of the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, created in 2003 to prevent the import of diamonds “used by rebel movements to finance military action opposed to legitimate and internationally recognized governments,” according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website.
Vrai & Oro’s 2018 Mother’s Day campaign, called ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears,’ aimed to ‘share real experiences of modern motherhood.’
Courtesy of Vrai & Oro
Anderson also wanted to account for protecting against human-rights violations, preventing environmental damage and supporting the communities in which these mines exist. But she kept running into a significant roadblock: She couldn’t find diamonds that met her criteria for being conflict-free.
And she was not alone. Vanessa Stofenmacher, founder of lab-grown diamond brand Vrai & Oro, faced the same issue. “There’s no bar code on a rough diamond,” says Stofenmacher. “You cannot trace the diamond back to its origin. And all the diamonds are polished in the same location, so it’s all mixed together.”
The answer, they soon discovered, would not be found in the earth but rather created above ground—in the lab.
A clear business plan
Anderson founded her lab-grown diamond fine-jewelry company, MiaDonna, in the early aughts, at a time when lab-grown diamonds hadn’t yet made a significant splash in the market, largely because they still couldn’t be grown past a quarter carat—a fairly small size, particularly if someone wants to get into the engagement-ring business—and in any color but yellow. But still, Anderson saw an opportunity. “I thought, this is where the industry is going,” she recalls. “I can guarantee exactly where they’re made and how they’re made. I know everything about this diamond.”
Stofenmacher also sensed the possibilities, and felt that consumers would eventually embrace the fact that these gems had been made and not mined. “I saw my mindset shift completely,” she says. “I knew if I could tell that story to customers, they could also see that shift and they would stop looking at lab-grown diamonds as a simulation of a diamond, and start seeing it as a real diamond just created in a different way.”
Both women were right. Today, the lab-grown-diamond industry can produce up to 2 million carats every year, according to global management consultancy Bain & Company, and can produce stones in all colors and sizes, not just the aforementioned yellow and quarter carat. In fact, lab-grown diamonds are IIa quality—the covetable colorless standard that just 2% of mined diamonds meet—making them oftentimes “more perfect” than their earth-grown counterparts.