How To Make Magic With Lab-Grown Gems
I think jewelry is the most magical thing you can wear For something so small that can fit in the palm of your hand, it can hold a world of memories and emotions. It has the ability to reach into the past as well as reach into the future, and I find that endearingly romantic. A lot of jewelry embodies a lot of human suffering, whether that is the suffering of miners, whether it's the environmental disruption, they produce something very beautiful, but it often comes at a kind of nasty cost. The more people get concerned about that, the more they are open to alternatives.
In this place, we mine the sky to get the gases we need to make diamonds. Our entire ingredient list is the wind, the sun, the rain and atmospheric carbon, that's it, no more. There is still so much to explore in the world of science and also material innovation and how to turn something negative and wasteful into the things that we want. Anabela Chan is telling a new 21st century romantic story about jewelry, which is that the designer's eye is just as important as the materials they're made from. I've made pieces for everyone from sort of Beyonce, to Rihanna, to Taylor Swift, Julia Roberts, Lupita Nyong'o.
From the Oscars to the Grammys. When I told people I wanted to create fine and high jewelry using laboratory grown gemstones, people thought I was crazy . There are several pieces from my own collection that I treasure.
One of them is this ring from the late Andrew Grima. This was one of his sort of architectural inspired rings that he designed in the '70s. He is known as the father of contemporary jewelry design. He famously said that a 50 carat Topaz can become a work of art that can be worn and enjoyed, yet a 60 sort of carat diamond needs to be locked up in a vault.
Traditionally, high fine jewelry is notoriously exclusive. I wanted it to be more accessible, because it is the ultimate craftsmanship. It's the ultimate sort of handcrafted treasure that shouldn't just be accessible by so few people in the world. The most beautiful colors and geometries and textures come from nature. And a lot of the times when I design I'm merely trying to capture that moment of magic I see in nature, transforming that into something that can be worn. I would always start by having a sketchbook and my drawing easel, and going to draw subjects that interest me.
Just seeing something ordinary as something extraordinary. The two pieces we're making are a pair of broaches inspired by a blade of grass with morning dew drops sort of running through the veins. I will then start to sketch each piece of jewelry in pencil. And then from those initial sketches, there could be hundreds of them, I will then take sort of my favorite ones, and then transition them into paints which is known as jewelry renderings. That will essentially be like a map for the craftsmen to work with. I was trained very traditionally at art college as a fine jewelry designer, working with sort of mined gemstones, and I think what really sort of changed my trajectory was when I went on my honeymoon to Sri Lanka.
I knew that Sri Lanka was famous for its color stones, and so I made a few visits to artisanal mines in the area. These are some of of the most precious commodities in the world and yet the people who mine these stones live some of the harshest conditions in the world, it just didn't make any sense. And that's when I began my research into laboratory grown gemstones, gemstones cultivated in a science lab rather than mined from the ground.
So I'm sat here in the Cotswolds, in our lab, the place where we created the process to make these diamonds from the sky. The most permanent form of carbon that we know of is a diamond. We set out to do this in order to lock carbon up into a permanent form. It's like a carbon capture and storage project.
But what we learned very quickly was that there's not a lot of carbon in a diamond actually, maybe four grams in a one carat stone. But when we looked at the diamond mining industry we found that to make that same one carat stone requires the digging of 1,100 tons of rock, and the exposure of 30 tons of toxic metal to the environment, the consumption of 5,000 liters of water, and the production of half a ton of greenhouse gas. So De Beers have made famous this slogan, "diamonds are forever". What they don't tell you is that the impacts of diamond mining are forever. So the holes in the big diamond mines in Russia for example, are so big, you can see them from orbit.
And so the avoided carbon that we are achieving through making diamonds from the sky is way bigger than the carbon that we're actually pulling from the sky and locking up. And what we make are diamonds. They're chemically, molecularly identical to diamonds that are dug out of the earth.
Lab-grown diamonds as a thing have been around for decades but they were small, and they were used for industrial diamonds. Gem type diamonds have begun to be a major industry in more or less the last 10 years. The knowledge that they exist is becoming greater but people still have confusion because there have been for a long, long time, imitation diamonds, cubic zirconia, things that look like diamonds but are not diamonds. A lab-grown diamond, it's not an imitation. It's not like vegan meat or something, it is the same thing made in a different way. So the magic starts where we first pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere with a machine from Switzerland.
We then split rain water into hydrogen and oxygen and we feed a combination of hydrogen and carbon dioxide to our bugs. These are ancient bacteria that take these two ingredients and stitch them together into methane, and then we feed the methane along with some other gases into our diamond ovens. So in our diamond oven, we might lay out 16 diamond seeds in a square pattern.
And they live of in this ball of plasma while we feed it with gas. It runs at about a 1,000 degrees centigrade, so it's very hot. But within this plasma ball, we can turn our gases into a crystalline structure that is a diamond. And at the end of two weeks, we pull out a square like this. It's like a window with a, with a black edge.
And we chop this block up into 16 individual stones with our laser. And then we trim each one of those to remove the black growth from around the edges and then we have what we call roughs - little squares or cubes of material that looks a little translucent. And we send it away and it gets cut and polished into the shape that we all traditionally associate with a diamond. And is this the, the biggest one that you've done? Yes, the biggest, yeah. And any given batch will come out with a different color or clarity, but we are achieving quality in the top 1% of all diamonds, we know this, we send them away for assessment in the same way that diamonds ripped out of the Earth are sent for assessment. And we get back the same basic metrics.
Although many sort of laboratory do work with renewable energy, the source of the original elements often have to be taken from existing minerals. And I think the excitement with what Skydiamond is doing is that it actually takes something that we don't want, something that is of waste, and turn that into something that is treasured. At retail mined diamonds, traditional diamonds, cost two or three times more than lab grown diamonds. And I think it's kind of an old fashioned idea that luxury requires the most expensive materials.
You can also use more unique designs. You can use more sort of ingenuity, many potential sources of value can make something luxurious. I think for a younger generation, the idea that you can have this scientific breakthrough to create this special stone has a kind of romance to it just as the old "diamond is forever" slogan had a different kind of romance. When working with recycled gold, you can purchase pellets of gold that actually come from different sources, whether it's from tech industries, extracted from discarded electronics like computer chips and mobile phones and also from repurposing sort of antique jewelry. So all of this sort of metal is then remelted together, and refined into the pellets that we are using today.
The process of creating this piece involves first a wax model of a blade of grass, so like carving of a miniature sculpture. From the wax model, it is then lost-wax casted into gold - one of the oldest techniques within fine jewelry. So how it works is by setting that wax piece inside a plaster cast, and then melting gold pellets, and pouring the metal into the plaster cast. It will then fill the void where the wax was.
And so you lose the piece of wax hence the term lost-wax casting. And once the metal has cooled down, when you open up your cast, you will get the piece that resembles exactly your original wax but in solid gold. And from that, you will then start working on finishing the piece by filing and assembling. And within the gold piece, we will then work on the setting of each gemstone.
A piece of jewelry finally sort of come to live in those final stages of polishing it, because that's when you see the transformation of a piece that is maybe quite dirty and quite gritty, and that final polish gives it that shine. The fine jewelry industry has always been about prestige. Whether it's showing off your wealth, or showing off your power, what conveys prestige changes over time. And if that includes being concerned about the materials that things are made, not just that they'd be expensive or rare, but that they'd be ethically sourced, you're going to have to take that into consideration.
And that opens the way for lab-grown gems among other things. To doubters, I would say come back in 20 years. Come back in 20 years and see where we are. I suspect that we will no longer even be talking about this distinction. There will just be diamonds. Lady Gaga wore a pair of our feather earrings with laboratory grown Tourmaline.
And that was, for me, the first time sort of seeing it out on the red carpet. It always blows my mind when a celebrity wears one of our pieces. I think in the beginning, people choose it predominantly for the design and for its aesthetics.
But when they find out more about the sustainability, and the ethical sort of ethos behind what we do and the reasoning and why we use certain materials, they become much more supportive. The other pair of the broach features Tahitian pearls with anodized aluminum. So pearls used to be the most precious gems, the gems that represented wealth, that represented power. You see a lot of them in Renaissance art showing how rich the person wearing them is, and the reason the pearls were so valuable is that they are extremely rare in nature. But in the a late 19th century someone figured out that you could culture pearls, so that you could have a reliable supply of pearls.
It became affordable because of this technological breakthrough. But if you owned an old string of pearls that was worth the price of a building in Manhattan, which is a real example, suddenly that string of pearls was worth a lot less. And that is the kind of dynamic that lab-grown diamonds could present for the diamond industry.
For this particular piece, I've chosen to use pearls from Kamoka Pearls. I'm always fascinated by the incredible colors they are able to achieve where you get these sort of pistachio hues to golden, to silvery gray, to midnight sort of blue. I came across Kamoka Pearls around two, three years ago. What really drew me to them was the way they farm their pearls is a perfect example of how people can work with nature in harmony to actually improve the environment around them. So traditionally, when it comes to pearl farming, water jets are used to clean the oysters and by using water jets, it changes the current surrounding the oysters, it can damage the coral reefs and change the pH level of the water, and actually disrupts the whole ecosystems.
Kamoka Pearls utilizes exotic fishes to clean their oysters. Not only have they been able to regenerate the reef surrounding their island, they've also been able to regenerate some endangered species in the ecosystems, which is phenomenal. Making jewelry is a messy process, and I always say it is like beauty emerges from organized chaos. The process to make this piece involves hand shaping aluminum metal, piercing it out of the sheet using a piercing saw, and it's very much guided by subtle changes of directions to pierce the piece out into the form, and then molding it into blade of grass. Chasing is setting a piece of some sheet metal that is essentially flat into a platform where you shape the metal by knocking and tapping on the hammer.
So every vein and every grain has been worked on individually and organically. Aluminum is so much lighter than gold or platinum, or silver. So I'm able to work with much sort of bolder geometry. And at the same time, it is about creating a new color palette that mimics nature, because aluminum can be colored in a myriad of different ways compared to traditional precious metals. You run an electric current into a bath where the metal is then submerged into sort of different tanks and beakers that allows the color to be imbued into the aluminum.
I've chosen a specific type of pearl that reflects the colors in the leaves. And to set the pearl into aluminum, we then create a cup with a pin in the center, which is known as the setting. The pearl is then drilled, and then to secure in place, we use a resin. I see this pair of broaches being equally shared between sort of partners and family members. Equally worn by men and women at the same time. They are inspired by the same elements, presented in a different language, yet they complement each other in the same way.
I think the future of fine jewelry really is about sustainable and ethical and mindful operations in every sense. And it's being able to learn from the past to offer different perspective in the present, always in mind for a better future. I suppose this is one of my favorite quotes by Maya Angelou, "Do the best you can until you know better. And when you know better, do better."