A Tale of Two Lab-Grown EnterprisesNovember 05, 20
It's a tale of two lab-grown enterprises. One big, one small. One backed by the longest-established player in the diamond industry, the other a start-up by the newest of all newcomers. They could hardly be more different, yet they grabbed headlines in the same week and, as we'll see, there is a spark of something that unites them.
The first is the well-documented launch by De Beers of its $94m Lightbox manufacturing facility in the USA, which will churn out 200,000 carats a year.
The second is a British project called SkyDiamond that promises "all of the bling and none of the sting" - producing the world's first zero-impact diamond.
The first is an acknowledgement by De Beers that man-made diamonds - like electric cars and digital cameras - are here to stay and if they don't stake their claim in a fast-emerging market they'll be left behind.
The second is a mission statement by an environmental crusader. Dale Vince, a former hippy and New Age traveler made many millions with green energy produced by wind farms and now plans to produce the world's first carbon-negative diamonds. He also owns Britain's first vegan football team.
The first, Lightbox's 60,000sq ft factory near Portland, Oregon, is a big business venture designed for maximum efficiency, located close to a cheap supply of hydroelectric power, channeling its output through its own online operation and via a newly-announced deal with Blue Nile.
Vince's lab-grown diamonds, accredited by the International Gemological Institute, are produced using carbon taken from the atmosphere in a secret process perfected over five years, that uses wind and solar energy, and a supply of rainwater.
Lightbox, by contrast, says it will use five to six megawatts of electricity, equivalent to the power consumption of roughly 4,000 homes in Northwest USA.
Vince says that producing a one-carat CVD diamond uses almost 4,000 liters of water and generates 108.5kg of CO2 emissions - enough gas to fill two shipping containers.
The new Lightbox factory, in Oregon, USA
Dale Vince, of SkyDiamonds, England
'Making diamonds from nothing more than the sky, from the air we breathe - is a magical, evocative idea - it's modern alchemy," he said. "It's industry fit for the 21st century - going beyond low or even zero emissions - our new process puts back air that is cleaner than we take out - we have negative emissions. This is a new benchmark."
SkyDiamonds expect to produce just 200 carats a month to start with, increasing to 1,000, or 12,000 a year - compared with Lightbox's target of 200,000 annually. Lightbox has a simple charging structure - a fixed $800 per carat, for any diamond, any size, any cut - compared with anything between $3,000 and $6,000 per carat for a comparable natural diamond. SkyDiamonds has yet to announce prices but has indicated they'll be more expensive - close to those of mined gems.
There could hardly be more differences between two enterprises producing the same near-commodity. And yet there is a spark of similarity. Lightbox, via De Beers, traces its origins back to Cecil Rhodes - an entrepreneur, a disruptor, a pioneer, an early adopter, a leader, and a hard-headed businessman*.
Back when Queen Victoria was on the throne he saw and exploited a new commercial opportunity to extract shiny bits of carbon from the ground in Africa. But if the technology had existed in his day to make them by machine then maybe he'd have put sentimentality to one side and drawn up a completely new business plan.
Dale Vince is a long way to the left of Rhodes politically, but shares the same sense of adventure and desire to push boundaries. His pursuit of profit is, however tempered by a consideration barely recognized in Rhodes' day - the good of the planet.
*also, for the sake of balance, a man who now stands accused of colonialism and imperialism, but that's another story.
Have a fabulous weekend.