The real pink panthers

Liam Woodcock

The sale of a pink diamond last year for US$83 million broke all records. But for the majority of the diamond industry business is tough, thanks to the introduction of synthetic stones that can be produced in a lab

Sotheby’s Geneva jewellery and fine art auctions are among the most prized events in the entire luxury goods calendar, especially when a pink diamond comes to town. Yet even the most experienced of auctioneers were surprised when the diamond known as ‘the Pink Star’ (formerly known as the Steinmetz Pink) was sold to New York diamond cutter Isaac Wolf for a record-breaking US$83 million (£52 million) in November 2013. Renamed again as the Pink Dream, the internally flawless gemstone broke the world auction record for a diamond or jewel after spending more than ten years in museum exhibitions around the globe. 

David Bennett, chairman of Sotheby’s Jewellery Division in Europe and the Middle East, says: “I have had the privilege of examining some of the greatest gemstones in the world over the past 35 years, and I can say, without hesitation, that the Pink Star diamond is of immense importance. Its exceptional richness of colour – graded as ‘vivid pink’ by the Gemological Institute of America – combined with its extraordinary size, are characteristics that surpass those of any known pink diamond in state, royal, or private collections.” 

Weighing 59.60 carats in its finished state, the diamond is among some of the largest and rarest specimens ever discovered, with most pink diamonds weighing less than five carats. The sale surpassed the previous record held by the Graff Pink diamond, which sold for $46.2 million in 2010. 

The colour grade of the diamond, ‘fancy vivid pink’, is one of the most sought-after categories of diamond in the world and people are queuing to get their hands on one. Famous examples include the mammoth 180-carat Darya-i-Nur (translated as the Sea of Light), which makes up part of the Iranian crown jewels, and the Williamson Pink – a brooch owned by Queen Elizabeth II. When it comes to other colours, wealthy buyers are making investments there too. The day before the Pink Dream sale, Christie’s sold a 14.82-carat ‘fancy vivid orange’ diamond for $35.5 million. 

So where has this new found love for coloured diamonds come from, and why? According to the Gemological Institute of America: “The most well-known historical and current sources of fancy colour diamonds are India, South Africa and Australia. Other diamond mine locations, including Brazil, Venezuela, Guyana and Indonesia, also produce fancy colour diamonds.” 

Today, Rio Tinto’s Argyle Diamond Mine in the western Kimberley region of Australia produces more than 90 per cent of the world’s pink diamonds, and their popularity has been growing ever since the 1980s. However, the firm suggests its supply of the pink specimens will run out within a decade, making them even more valuable in investors’ eyes. Historically, India was the original home of coloured diamonds, having developed a grading system linking the colour and value of each coloured stone to a specific societal rank in the sixth century. 

However, while prices soar for these rare specimens, the rest of the diamond trade has struggled to cope since the advent of laboratory produced synthetic diamonds. They can be produced in a matter of hours and are virtually identical to their natural counterparts to the naked eye. De Beers in South Africa and the Okavango Diamond Company in Botswana have both reported low profits as a result of this new competition in the industry. 

In addition, firms in India and China – which are responsible for most of the world’s diamond cutting and polishing – are under scrutiny after selling parcels of synthetic diamonds mixed with natural ones. As a counter measure, De Beers and other companies have developed synthetic diamond detection machines in order to exclude any unnatural jewels from their collection. In early December, the Gemological Institute of India and the Gems and Jewellery Export Promotion Council inaugurated the Diamond Detection and Resource Centre at Bharat Diamond Bourse in Mumbai. While India’s reputation in the diamond industry is most at stake following the rise in fraudsters passing off synthetically produced diamonds as ‘natural’, these measures seek to differentiate the natural stones through showing their provenance. 

Martin Rapaport, chairman of the Rapaport Group and founder of the Rapaport Diamond Report, says: “Synthetic diamonds are a good thing. They are good for the diamond industry because they will force our trade to be more honest. They will force us to control our supply chain and finally take responsibility for the products we buy and sell.” 

Importantly, those who pass off synthetic diamonds as natural will inevitably be put under pressure by retailers, which in an ideal world might lead to a more transparent industry. Rapaport adds: “Diamond miners will now be forced to aggressively differentiate natural diamonds from synthetics through innovative marketing, promotion and advertising campaigns.” 

As such, a more open diamond trade could inadvertently help campaigns against the collection of diamonds by unethical or illegal means, which are then known as blood diamonds. Blood diamonds, which help rebel groups fund wars and violent movements against legitimate governments, have plagued the diamond trade for many years, tarnishing its image and plunging it into a dark, corrupt and dangerous world. Particularly prevalent in war-ravaged African countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Central African Republic (CAR) and Sierra Leone, the number of blood diamonds could potentially decrease if efforts are made to authenticate the source of diamonds as both natural and ethical. 

Known as the Kimberley Process, these kinds of efforts began in South Africa in 2003. While significant progress has been made, the nail in the coffin has yet to be delivered – violence continues in the CAR and DRC over control of minerals. 

Consequently, delegates from 81 countries met in Johannesburg in November as part of the Kimberley Process Certificate Scheme to discuss the possibility of more efficient action against the blood diamond market. In his opening speech, Shamiso Mtisi, a representative of the Kimberly Process Civil Society Coalition, called for mandatory registration of mines. He argued for “control over, and licensing of, diamond mines… and ensuring the routing of cash purchases through official banking channels supported by verifiable documentation”. 

He also pressed for diamond buyers to be registered and licensed, along with “sellers, exporters, agents and courier companies involved in carrying rough diamonds”. 

If anything comes out of the emergence of synthetic diamonds, then maybe it will be the solidification of the Kimberley Process and perhaps a move towards stopping conflict diamonds from damaging emerging economies, and their citizens, around the world. 

On the one hand then, the luxurious top end of the diamond industry is booming, with rare and coloured natural diamonds selling for millions of dollars. 

Yet on the other hand, synthetically produced diamonds threaten the longevity of the industry altogether. This polarisation of the trade is fascinating, not only because it revolutionises the way people will buy diamonds, but also because it may make the industry much safer and far more ethical in the process.


Injecting a little colour

Ironically, the reason for a diamond being coloured, as opposed to clear, stems from imperfections in its formation process. In the production of colourless, or ‘white’, diamonds, carbon-bearing rocks deep beneath the Earth’s surface are subjected to immense pressure and heat, rearranging the carbon atoms as a result. These carbon molecules should form perfect diamond bonds during the cooling process. Yet sometimes traces of other elements are present, which, in turn, can produce the extremely rare coloured stones. For example, yellow diamonds are caused by traces of nitrogen while blue means there was boron present. When it comes to the most treasured and rare of coloured diamonds, pink and red, scientists are not yet certain what deformation causes them. In many ways, this seems to make the rarity of these specimens even more precious – they truly are a mystery.


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