I wrote this blog post and review of D.NEA Diamonds and Derco Jewelers to help other men and women in my situation navigate the lab-diamond market. I have no affiliation with any of the companies I mention, nor am I employed by, funded, or sponsored by any of these companies. I received no special discount (I paid full retail price for the diamonds) for writing this post. I wrote it after the fact and no company was allowed to preview it or approve it. I actually work in the natural foods industry and am simply a consumer of lab-diamonds, not a broker or re-seller.
With that, here is our story:
I was so excited when my boyfriend of 4 years and I decided we wanted to get married. My fiance was kind enough to want to get me a beautiful engagement ring that I would wear forever. I am very lucky!
The Problems with Mined Diamonds
For years, I knew that I didn’t want a traditional or conventional engagement ring. Frustrated with the artificially inflated cost and socio-economic and environmental impacts of mined diamonds, I knew I wanted a colored stone (sapphire) with conflict free diamond accents.
Unfortunately, unless you go and dig up a diamond, cut, and polish it yourself, there’s no way to know an entire history of a diamond. That’s because diamonds that are cut and polished aren’t regulated by the Kimberly Process, a loophole that makes conflict diamonds pretty much impossible to distinguish from non-conflict diamonds. The vast majority of the world’s diamonds are cut and polished in sweatshops in India. Plus, the mining of diamonds wreaks havoc on our planet, polluting water supplies, using significant amounts of energy and fossil fuels, and damaging the soil. To produce a one carat natural diamond, miners may use an open cast strip-mining method to extract the diamonds from the earth. This method destroys the ecosystem as it extracts 275 tons of ore from the earth. It also further destroys the outlying environment putting massive stress on the region.
Companies like Brilliant Earth promise to provide you with conflict free stones of all types, although I have read online that these companies still send their Canadian diamonds overseas for cutting, placing them right back into the mix that’s not regulated by the Kimberly Process. Their colorless diamonds are still around $4,000/ct (J color) mined, which for me was too expensive. You may find Brilliant Earth is a good option for you since they are a small company based in San Francisco that cares greatly about the origins of their stones, but I just wasn’t comfortable buying mined stones from them.
Mined Colored Stones
The mining of colored stones in some parts of the world can also be detrimental. That’s why I was most interested in a Ceylon sapphire, not just because they are beautiful, but also because legal mining practices in Sri Lanka as a whole are generally considered more responsible than other geographies with similar gemstone resources. This is due to Sri Lanka’s heavy government regulation and the country’s thousand year-old traditional mining practices. Government regulation is focused on reducing negative environmental and social impacts – use of heavy equipment and strip-mining are prohibited. Most mining operations in Sri Lanka are small-scale operations in which each participant shares in the profit of the venture.
Knowing my reservations about mined diamonds and my love affair with Ceylon sapphires, my fiance picked a sapphire in October 2011. Now, let me be clear, I would have been fine with a lab sapphire (which have been around for years). Lab sapphires are significantly less expensive and are not ridden with any environmental or socio-economic issues. However, my fiance looked at several lab sapphires and found the colors to be too dark or too purple. Inclusions are actually a good thing in sapphires because they help break up the color and make it interesting looking, whereas lab sapphires tend to be one solid color. With that, he felt comfortable with the origins of the stone given that it was from Sri Lanka to buy natural.
My fiance went through Derco Jewelers, in San Francisco, CA. Derco is a high-end jeweler in the gift center. We were introduced to them by a friend, and the sales representative, Pete, was happy to help my fiance find the perfect ring. Pete showed my fiance hundreds of potential ethically-sourced sapphire stones until he found the one he liked: a Ceylon natural sapphire with a deep blue color.
Unsure about how I would like the sapphire set, he had it set in a basic presentation setting under the assumption we would change it together since he wanted the proposal to be a surprise. I was indeed surprised! He proposed over Thanksgiving 2011.
In December, we started to research how we would add to the stone. I originally wanted light blue sapphires in a halo setting around the main dark blue sapphire. We looked at some light blue sapphires, but they didn’t quite sparkle enough. It was also difficult to find enough light blue sapphires of the exact size and color we wanted.
After looking at settings online, we figured out the type of setting we really wanted: a three-stone setting with smaller diamonds on the band with a matching wedding band of small pave stones (half way around). We knew we wanted all round stones and the side stones to be about 4mm and the band stones around 2.3mm given some of the settings we had seen. We found one ring in particular at a jeweler in Palo Alto that we really loved and wanted to emulate. So we set out to find the right provider that could get us these stones in the size and color we wanted. I was still very interested in light blue stones as opposed to colorless or white stones.
My fiance had read an article about lab diamonds, but I was skeptical. I thought he meant CZ’s but he was referring to actual diamonds that maintain the same chemical properties of mined diamonds, only without the potential for conflict. Lab diamonds have been used for industrial purposes for years, but only recently have they been cut and polished to be used for gems and jewelry. Here’s a great excerpt about lab diamonds from a Yahoo article:
For numerous reasons, laboratory grown diamonds are typically less expensive than earth-mined diamonds. It can take less than a few months to create a man-made diamond versus the thousands of years it would take to create a natural diamond. The processes to create or extract the diamonds vary greatly as well. Whereas natural diamonds require hours of man power and heavy equipment to mine for diamonds and extract them, a laboratory technician can create a diamond in a controlled environment with minimal effort and equipment. In general, man can create a diamond more economically than he can mine one.
The most important difference between lab grown diamonds and natural diamonds is the origin. The lab grown diamonds are physically grown in an environmentally controlled laboratory, which replicates the same process that occurs over millions of years under the earth’s crust. It takes 70 days or less to grow a diamond in a lab.
Laboratory grown diamonds, also called created diamonds, are gemologically the same as earth-mined diamonds, but green, as in eco-friendly, for many reasons. To create these diamonds in a laboratory, the amount of energy expended is minimal and therefore the impact on the eco-system is negligible. Created diamonds do not harm humans, animals, or the precious environment. No unethical or illegal labor or trade practices are employed and the laboratory grown diamond is as peaceful as the gems themselves.
Intrigued, we started researching how to find light blue lab diamonds. We wasted a lot of time on Diamond Nexus Labs, only to discover after more research that while they claim to create “diamond simulants,” they’re simply CZ’s. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with CZ’s and I don’t think couples should be ashamed of making that decision. It’s a cost effective way to get a beautiful stone and to most people there’s no way to tell the difference between a CZ and a diamond. I’ve heard that people are really happy with their DNL jewelry; as long as you know it’s not the same as a diamond and you want it, then go for it! However, CZ’s are VERY inexpensive, so DNL stones are just overpriced CZ’s. A CZ was not what I wanted for a ring I would wear every day for the rest of my life, so we kept looking.
We’d also read a lot about Moissanite, a man-made stone that isn’t the same as a diamond but looks almost identical. From what I found online, it was still quite expensive and I’d read customer reviews that their colorless stones can have a grey tint to them. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any in light blue, only colorless, so we kept looking.
Here’s something we learned very quickly about lab diamonds: they’re rare. Mined diamonds enter the market in the millions each year, whereas lab stones enter in the thousands. If you want a large colorless white lab diamond, you may have to wait a little while as they’re not readily produced easily. The idea that a machine can just churn out a D flawless 5 ct diamond is not true. The largest size I’ve seen for a colorless diamond is 1.25ct with several in the .4-.6ct range. Yellow diamonds I’ve seen a little big bitter, as large as 2.25ct. But for the most part the technology is still new. If you’re looking for a 5ct whopper of a diamond, it may be available in lab form in the future, but not for now. Colored diamonds usually come out in blue, yellow, or pink.
If you’re interested in a colored diamond, you’ll have better luck. Colored diamonds are much easier to make because certain elements contribute to the color of diamonds (nitrogen, boron, etc). Controlling those element levels produces color. However, removing those elements for a white diamond is very difficult, although the technology is advancing rapidly.
Options for Lab Diamonds
Finally after enough Internet researching and reading diamond forums, we figured out there were really 3 options for colored lab-made diamonds: Chatham, Gemesis, and D.NEA. Gemesis’ web site hadn’t launched yet (it just said “coming soon”) and we couldn’t find any information about their diamonds being on the market. Today, Gemesis does sell stones through their web site and they look beautiful! They sell colorless and yellow diamonds only (no blue, no pink). Their stones seem to be very similar in price to D.NEA. Because they hadn’t launched their business when we started, we never were in contact with them.
We tried Chatham since we’d heard good things about them from some bay area jewelers (Chatham is based in San Francisco) and had read information on their web site. We found a small jeweler in Los Altos that was listed as a Chatham retailer and contacted them to order some Chatham stones for us. Derco was not a Chatham retailer at the time. This was a great way to see the stones before committing to buying them.
Chatham advertised 4 shades of blue but when we went to look at them, they were only able to provide a “light true blue.” The blue wasn’t very light. When we put them next to my sapphire they clashed horribly. Plus, the boutique jeweler we went to charged a fortune for the stones (about $6000 for a half carat stone and $250 per .08ct small side stones). Finally, Chatham didn’t offer any diamonds for smaller than 2.8mm rounds, and we preferred around 2.3mm for the side stones. The jeweler in Los Altos also wouldn’t let us return the stones if we didn’t like them, so we were basically forced to make a final decision right then and there in the boutique. We didn’t end up buying those stones.
We visited Derco and asked for their advice. Simply put: that jeweler was ripping us off! So we called Chatham directly but they would not sell us the stones directly, insisting we go through the Los Altos jeweler. Frustrated with the price and color, Chatham was out.
I found D.NEA from a forum on lab diamonds. The owner, Eric Franklin, had posted some information about their light blue diamonds. I’m a small business owner with a product sold on the Internet so I was fascinated by the transparency and information. They offer the diamonds right from their web site and the prices were much more reasonable, often around $1200/ct and their small side stones were about $60 each. Plus they had 5 shades of blue to choose from and they looked beautiful. But I was obviously hesitant; I couldn’t find a lot of customer D.NEA reviews and didn’t feel comfortable spending thousands of dollars on diamonds I had never seen.
D.NEA has a 30 day return policy. So I figured if I saw the stones and didn’t like them, I would just send them back. I filled out the contact form for the stones that we wanted and Eric got back to me immediately. Unfortunately they didn’t have a matching pair of light blue rounds in the sizes we wanted, but he told me he would let me know based on when they got their future batches. This was in December. I checked in with him every few weeks, but still nothing. I was patient: I knew I wanted to design this ring only once and I was willing to wait for the right stones. Plus, Eric assured me that eventually a batch would produce what I wanted, but they are beholden to what is naturally created in the lab and can only control it to a point. It took until April but D.NEA finally came through! D.NEA’s inventory had exactly what we were looking for.
Eric took care of everything over the phone and overnighted the stones to us. We filled out an online form to give our credit card information. I got the diamonds the next day and was ecstatic. They were beautiful! We had ordered two of their 5 colors: light blue and fancy light blue. The light blue stones were perfect to compliment my existing sapphire; in the shade and indoors, the stones looked colorless, but in the sun they were a beautiful light blue. It was blue enough to look intentional, but not too blue to overpower the sapphire. The fancy light blue were also beautiful and would work perfectly as earrings or stand alone stones. Needless to say it was a tough decision and we would have been happy with either color but ultimately decided on the light blue.
The stones come with grading and proof of certification. D.NEA uses the High Pressure High Temperature (HPHT) method and they do not treat their stones. Their stones are cut in Antwerp, Belgium. The certificates that come with the stones look identical as those for mined diamonds. We mailed back the fancy light blue stones we didn’t use (insured) via UPS. D.NEA honored the 30-day return policy and only charged us for the stones that we used.
Back to Derco
We took the light blue stones to Derco a few days later. Derco was very impressed with the diamonds. They used a little trick to see if they were genuine diamonds or CZ’s. You blow hot air on the stones. If the fog from the hot breath stays on the stone, it’s a CZ, but if it fades immediately it’s a diamond (that’s because diamonds and CZ’s have different surface temperatures*). So if you ever need to know, that’s a quick trick. *Note: Since writing this article, I have been contacted by a diamond specialist who informed me that this is not “surface temperature” but rather “thermal conductivity.”
We sifted through dozens of settings before we found one that perfectly emulated what we were looking for. Pete was so patient with us, letting us sit there for hours mulling over every little detail. He introduced us to their designer who drew out some potential designs for us. Everyone was so incredibly nice and patient, even though we were there on a busy Saturday. We handed over the stones to Derco and then began patiently waiting. Only a week later, Derco sent us the computer generated designs for the ring and I LOVED them. They even included a proposed wedding band that used the same light blue diamonds. It was exactly what I wanted.
I contacted Eric to get the stones for my wedding band and he overnighted those the next day.
I drove up to Derco and dropped the stones off the day after and was presented with a wax mark up of my ring. It’s a little hard to tell what your ring will look like from the wax, but it is perfectly to scale. I was so excited to get my rings, but knew I would have to wait.
Nearly two months later, I received an email from our Derco rep, Pete, that my rings were ready. I drove up to San Francisco, and when I saw them, they were even more beautiful than I had imagined! The craftsmanship of the rings is spectacular and the light blue diamonds are cut so beautifully that they sparkle in every light. These pictures don’t do them justice, but here are some of my ring and wedding band. They’re perfect!
If you are in the market for a lab diamond engagement ring or would just like to use lab diamonds in any form of jewelry, I strongly recommend D.NEA. I wrote this review of D.NEA and Derco largely because it would have been so helpful for me to have found something like this before I started my process. Of all the lab diamond providers, D.NEA was the easiest to work with, most cost effective, and most transparent of the companies. Plus, their diamonds are breathtakingly beautiful. If I could do it all over again, I’d still work with D.NEA. When I look down at my hand, I know that this ring represents the love my fiance and I share, absent human rights atrocities, environmental degradation, and exorbitant cost. I won’t say exactly how much we spent, but let’s just say it was about 1/4 the cost of the similar looking ring we’d seen at a jeweler in Palo Alto, and it’s higher quality!
Derco is in a class of their own. They are so kind and patient while you pick your design, plus they produce such incredibly high quality work. They work with any budget and provide honest, fair pricing for both the stones and the settings. You know when you work with them you are getting the star treatment. If you’re debating whether or not to work with them, trust me, you won’t regret it!
Check out this video I took of my ring in the sun and indoors (so you can really see it sparkle!):