Business

How Special Is a Diamond, Really?

Netflix’s documentary Nothing Lasts Forever exposes how De Beers has hyped up diamonds, which have little intrinsic value. Yet it turns out that diamonds are better material than silicon for semiconductors, making them useful for a fast-growing $500 billion industry.
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diamond on black coal background © Byjeng / shutterstock.com

August 03, 2023 00:11 EDT
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In Netflix’s documentary Nothing Lasts Forever (2022), the American jewelry expert and author Aja Raden describes the story of the diamond business as “a lie about a lie about a lie about a lie.” She calls it delightful, and perhaps in a way it is, but the fact remains that one of the 21st century’s most lucrative businesses is built on the foundation of deceit and manipulations.

Nothing Lasts Forever takes a look at synthetic diamonds and how they are rapidly undercutting real diamonds. The documentary features giants and experts of the industry, including a De Beers insider, which we are repeatedly told is a rare occurrence. According to Raden, the appearance is even a sign of weakness for a company that has until now refused to talk to the press or entertain any criticism. De Beers is single-handedly responsible for inventing the industry by selling the romantic myth: “diamonds are forever,” an enduring symbol of love and commitment.

Until the late 19th century, no one was interested in diamonds. They are actually the most commonly available gemstones on the planet and have little intrinsic value, unlike gold. Even the ones that have exotic origin stories attached to them, like the Queen of Kalahari, are mined in generic mines, amidst the dirt and pickaxes or, in modern times, bulldozers. However, thanks to the genius of marketing and salesmanship, the diamond industry today is valued at $28 billion, with more than half of the demand coming from the US.

An “eternal” diamond could’ve been made two weeks ago

While creating an industry out of thin air is par for the course in the age of capitalism, it’s worse when it leads to reverberations of the very same falseness that is at the heart of it.

Synthetic diamonds, or lab-produced diamonds, cost a fraction of the “real” ones and take about two to three weeks to be manufactured. However, they are often sold at the price of the real ones. Synthetic diamonds, as the documentary shows, can be manufactured in China, get mixed up with the real ones and there is absolutely no way to tell the difference between the two. The majority of China’s output is directed to India and polished in Surat, from where they might be sold locally or supplied overseas.

To counter this threat, De Beers and many companies launched portable machines that can act as your personal gemologist by testing whether a diamond is natural or lab-made. It’s a gimmick, of course, because—as most people in the industry would tell you—there is absolutely no way to tell the difference. In terms of their chemical composition, they are exactly the same. But it was a new way to make money in this chimera of a business.

Soon enough, a cottage industry of fake licenses for real vs. lab-made diamonds was set up as well. And if that wasn’t enough, De Beers and vehement opposers of synthetic diamonds like Martin Rapaport are now in the business of selling and pricing synthetic diamonds too. Despite all of this, diamonds remain amongst the most expensive gemstones available to the masses.

All to make a buck

The story of diamonds has been a story of the worst aspects of capitalism. From the “blood diamonds” of Africa, which led to civil wars in regions where diamonds are mined for sale to Europe and the US, to high-level financial frauds like that of Nirav Modi, the lure of owning something apparently exclusive has perpetuated bloodshed, strife and dishonest trade.

Even in the best-case scenario with natural, conflict-free diamonds, the diamond business is effectively a scam that ultimately punishes the average consumer more than anyone else. It’s one thing for the rich to play status games within their networks, like collecting expensive artworks, but for an industry to willfully sell worthless stones at high prices to people who spend their hard-earned money is a whole different ball game. As far as scams go, this one is legitimized in the name of luxury and special occasion purchases, but a scam all the same. 

While what is said of diamonds could be true for many other things—luxury accessories, designer clothes, and the like—none of these markets are as normalized as the one for diamonds. It is for this reason that the chorus calling out the falseness of diamonds being rare, precious or wonderful needs to be louder.

Diamonds are valuable…as a material

Diamonds would be better redirected towards industrial use, such as in diamond transistor technologies. It turns out that even though close to 95% semiconductors make use of silicon, diamond is a much better alternative to it.

Being the hardest natural material, diamond stands five times more heat than silicon, cools faster and, according to the latest experiments, can carry several orders of magnitude more electrical current. The semiconductor industry, currently valued at over $500 billion, is expected to more than double by 2030, something which is clearly far more significant than the diamond jewelry market.

It’s an unlikely arc for a product to move from being the king of jewelry to a semiconductor material, but it might be the only way diamonds may actually become special. For this reason, synthetic diamonds need to be promoted in a way they can be actually useful, bypassing the De Beers cartel that seeks to control an unethical market for its own interest. At the same time, it calls into question the ethics of mining vast stretches of land, a practice that not only disrupts the natural ecology of a place but also leads to pollution and further consequent harm.

On the other hand, Stephen Lussier, the insider featured in the documentary and a former De Beers executive, jokes that, had they not bored a 2 km-wide hole into Botswana to mine for diamonds, there would probably have been a few cows in its place. He believes that his company provided economic development to a country that was otherwise poor. But perhaps it’s time for De Beers to reckon with the true market for diamonds instead of the smokescreen they created.

[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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