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Have diamonds lost their lustre? For decades it’s been the symbol of everlasting love – and luxury – but changing tastes and economic challenges mean the jewel has fallen out of favour….

Diamonds are forever – aren’t they? Although Shirley Bassey boomed out this message in 1971, jewellery company De Beers had been saying it since 1948, when ad exec Mary Frances Gerety dreamed up the slogan ‘A diamond is forever’. The subtext was that these beautiful rocks were formed billions of years before you, and they’ll certainly be here after you’re gone: so, what better symbol is there for everlasting love?

The concept was a huge success and De Beers capitalised on it by linking diamonds with weddings (engagement rings as a concept had actually been around for centuries). It was a clever move says Aja Raden (presenter of last year’s Netflix documentary Nothing Lasts Forever) not because the stones in these modern engagement rings were small, white diamonds – the least desirable kind. It was because, as Raden puts it: ‘People want the best thing and [De Beers] convinced us that that’s a diamond.’

The idea had a sparkling allure, and it stuck. Until it didn’t. Because, 75 years on, diamonds are having an identity crisis. ‘Rough diamonds of a size that would usually be employed for engagement rings have gone down in price,’ explains London-based​ jewellery journalist and consultant Milena Lazazzera. ‘The industry is under pressure.’ Announcing unremarkable sales figures in June, the CEO of De Beers Group referred to ‘global macroeconomic challenges’ and described the industry’s mood as ‘cautious’.

Pictured is 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' featuring Marilyn Monroe in 1953 - where she can be seen wearing a pink gown and diamonds Pictured is 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' featuring Marilyn Monroe in 1953 - where she can be seen wearing a pink gown and diamonds

Pictured is ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ featuring Marilyn Monroe in 1953 – where she can be seen wearing a pink gown and diamonds

Sparkling statistics 

41.92 million carats of mined diamonds were produced in Russia in 2022.10 per cent of diamonds sold in 2022 were lab-grown compared to only 2 per cent in 2018.One in 10,000 have a colour – yellow and brown are the most common.Two billion years ago most natural diamond​s​ were formed.Ten days is the time it can take to grow a one-carat lab diamond.45 carats is the size of ​the ‘cursed’ blue Hope Diamond – one owner was Marie Antoinette. ​See it at the Smithsonian, Washington, DC.​​228.31 carats is the size of The Rock, a golf ball-sized white diamond sold at auction for £17.7 million last year.Two methods for growing lab diamonds. One is high pressure, high temperature (HPHT), the other chemical vapour deposition (CVD).​​1,500C is the temperature in the chamber where, in HPHT, a sliver (or ‘seed’) of another diamond is put in pure graphite carbon and placed under intense pressure. HPHT diamonds are more likely to be used for cutting tools.​​800C is the temperature used to make diamonds by CVD – more common for jewellery. The seed is put in a chamber of carbon-rich gas which adheres to it and a diamond grows around it.​​

Behind the scenes, there are rumours ​that Russia, the largest producer of natural diamonds, is coping with trade sanctions from the UK and US by selling its products cheaper elsewhere, pushing prices down across the board. But there are also societal changes contributing to the downturn: associating diamonds with marriage is backfiring, because fewer couples are tying the knot. Between 1989 and 2019, the number of weddings in the UK fell by 36.6 per cent. ‘Some of those who do marry are saying, ‘Why spend so much money on a ring when we could put it towards a down payment on a house?’ says Lazazzera. ‘These are reasonable considerations, especially in a cost-of-living crisis.’

Another factor is that we live in an individualistic era, and those who do want a rock on their finger aren’t necessarily opting for a diamond. Everything from your birthday card to your manicure can be customised, so why wouldn’t you want a more unique piece of jewellery? ‘I have a black onyx engagement ring, surrounded by little emeralds and pink tourmalines,’ says one London fashion editor.

‘I just adored it and hated anything traditional to do with getting married. Also, it was more affordable – because the only diamond I’d want would be a huge one.’

Other kinds of gemstones can also feel more meaningful to younger generations. ‘There’s a vogue for stones that have new-age properties,’ says trend forecaster and brand strategist Lucie Greene. ‘Millennials are more interested in the wellbeing movement than previous generations were, and there are lots of fine-jewellery pieces using crystals that claim to have a certain energy. A diamond can feel quite interchangeable – customers now want to build more of their personalities into that special piece.’

Since engagement rings usually represent about 30 per cent of a jewellery brand’s business, these companies are having to think again. In the US, some retailers are trying to market diamonds as friendship gifts, but in the UK they seem more commonly to be given within families. Annie Raine Wood Frost, a 22-year-old artist, has two elder sisters; she tells me that on their 21st birthdays, each daughter received a diamond ring from their parents, made using jewellery from their great-grandmother.

Today, women buy most of their jewellery themselves. You can see this in the tone of ad campaigns: gone are the loved-up couples of 1990s TV, unboxing a twinkling rock and then throwing their arms around each other. Mid-market jewellery brand Pandora’s latest advert, for lab-grown diamonds, features Pamela Anderson and a cast of mostly women emoting about the product (‘When I wear diamonds… I feel on top of the world!’) without mentioning romance at all.

While you might pass these purchases down the generations for sentimental reasons, another thing causing concern is they may not be a safe financial investment. The mined-diamond companies would argue that their gems will always be valuable because they’re a finite resource. But if you resell your jewellery, you’re unlikely to get what you paid for it, because of retail mark-ups and shifts in the market.

When you’re talking about manufactured gems, the situation is even less stable. ‘Natural diamonds lose value, but not as dramatically as lab-grown diamonds, which can be produced more cheaply and on a much larger scale,’ warns Lazazzera. ‘Prices have gone down, so if you bought one ten years ago, it’s worth much less now.’

In Nothing Lasts Forever, John Janik, a pioneer of lab-grown diamonds, points out that the value of the mined jewels was inflated to begin with. ‘If you want to make money off these mines, you’ve got to pretend they’re scarce,’ he says. ‘The reality is that a diamond is one of the most common gemstones on the face of the planet.’ Nevertheless, we consider them special, and many in the industry are not thrilled that innovation has created a cheaper product, which looks and feels the same.

Pictured is the iconic De Beers tagline Pictured is the iconic De Beers tagline

Pictured is the iconic De Beers tagline

For young consumers, though, says Greene, the manufactured version has an extra appeal. ‘Because of climate change, innovation has become a luxury pillar in its own right,’ she says. ‘Previously, lab-grown diamonds might have been seen as a cheap alternative – but now the science involved makes them feel almost state-of-the-art. There’s a glamour attached to the fact that you have a scientific breakthrough here – plus they might be less ethically problematic than a mined diamond.’

‘Might be’ is the key phrase, because the realities are complicated. Mining, which was linked to human-rights abuses and war crimes in the 20th century, has seen significant improvements in international regulation. Meanwhile, although lab-grown diamonds sound sustainable, this depends on how production is run; they can create heavy greenhouse gas emissions, for example. It’s sensible to ask about the supply chain behind the piece you want to buy.

Manufactured or mined, there’s no doubt that these glittering stones are being reinvented. It’s unclear whether in 50 years we’ll still associate them with proposals of eternal love. Even if diamonds aren’t forever, though, the appeal of something sparkly is still alive and well.

NetflixShirley BasseyRussia-UkraineLondon

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