Synthetic diamonds vs natural diamonds: Why are people buying lab-grown diamonds?
‘‘Diamonds are a girl's best friend.’’
When Marilyn Monroe first sang this classic in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, we’re pretty sure the idea of wearing a lab-grown diamond would have never crossed her mind. And why would it? After all, the first artificial diamond was only announced in 1955, two years after the iconic movie was released.
Fast forward to the present day and we can’t even think of diamonds without both the natural and synthetic types coming to mind, especially when high profile celebrities like Meghan Markle are spotted wearing the latter.
What are man-made diamonds?
Synthetic diamonds are not imitations, like zirconia or moissanite; they have identical physical and chemical properties to mined diamonds. The only difference is that one is produced in a lab-controlled environment, and the other is the result of a geological process.
We examined the growing interest for this gem stone and the consumer discourse around both types of diamonds, using our A.I to extract over 280 reviews on Amazon, 165 reddit posts and over 600 YouTube comments. To get closer to the needs of the consumer, a thousand unique search terms from November 2019 to December 2020 were analyzed to better understand their thoughts.
(Read more about our thoughts on search data representing unspoken truths in research here.)
Key motivators behind the demand for gemstones
Luxury and status:
Opulent goods give people a sense of elevated status and belonging to an exclusive in-group community. Predictably, new product entrants into this scene are greeted with hesitance.
We observed that some women were doubtful about how they should feel about receiving an artificial diamond engagement ring. “Should I be offended or am I being overly dramatic?” read one Reddit forum post. Price then acts as a yardstick for quality (and levels of commitment and affection) regardless of the fact that existing cheaper options are objectively as good.
It’s clear that these types of customers don’t want to be seen as skimping on price, especially when the product is supposed to make them look luxurious and sophisticated. Lab diamonds' reasonable prices are a great deal for most people, yet may turn off some, putting a question mark on their quality and lowering the barriers to entry into the exclusive club.
Mined vs Lab-grown Diamonds: What the data shows us
All about being ethical
Several Reddit users pointed out their frustration with the natural diamond industry. It’s no secret that diamond mining is associated with environmental devastation (soil erosion, deforestation), violence and labor exploitation. But that’s not all: the profit from mining diamonds might support foreign conflicts (unbeknownst to the buyer during the product purchase).
Recently, searches for ‘‘sustainably created diamonds’’ increased by 170%. It’s a good time for brands to ramp up on sustainability discourse: perhaps weaving the eco-friendly narrative more strongly into brand communications, or, for natural diamond brands, innovate by introducing more sustainable practices in terms of packaging, and maybe exploring carbon offset initiatives too.
Open-minded users crave information
Among all the search categories, one stood out for its growth: the category of searches comprising comparisons between mined and lab-grown diamonds had an overall category increase of 28%.
This indicates a consumer market willing to have their minds changed. People may still have doubts and stereotypes about lab-grown diamonds, but are now more interested in learning more. People want to know about differences in prices, how their features differ in comparison to natural ones, as well as the main differences between man-made diamonds and other gemstones (like moissanite and cubic zirconia).
With everyone forced to hurtle rather unceremoniously into the new normal in 2020, we think that with newfound routines and habits, people are now more open to being open minded, and more open to considering alternatives as a result.
Whether a response to economic pressures or a change in their priorities, this desire to educate themselves and newfound openness may also have implications for brand loyalty down the road.
In the meantime, there is an opportunity for artificial diamond brands to assume an educator role. This could mean producing more informational content across channels to establish topical authority and build trust in order to target early-stage, prospective consumers keen to learn more.
The affordability appeal
Beyond the feel-good appeal of being kinder on the earth when choosing lab-grown diamonds, what draws people to these human-made gems is also their affordability.
Searches around “How much cheaper are lab-grown diamonds” increased by 65%. In the middle of a pandemic, finances are at the top of people's concerns. Life still goes on: people are still getting married, and anniversaries and graduations keep coming. The need for occasion-appropriate gifts remains, but with an even bigger need for thrift.
While mined diamonds continue to attract customers, consumers are willing to give artificial diamonds a chance, especially when they can be significantly cheaper and almost identical to natural ones. This makes a golden moment for brands to bring people over to their side of the fence by fronting price differences and similar features.
The urge to save money is also reflected in the type of jewellery people are looking for. We saw an uptick in interest in smaller stones:
Searches for ‘1 carat lab grown diamond cost’ increased by 240%
Searches for ‘2.5 carat lab grown diamond’ increased by 45%
Searches for ‘3 carat lab diamond’ increased by 25%
An interesting finding is a decrease of 26% in brand-related searches at the overall category level. What makes the deal is no longer the big name--it’s also the price and overall reviews. It is becoming a challenge for diamond manufacturers to ensure customer loyalty when consumers are growing increasingly detached from brands.
Some brands are gaining interest though: searches for social media star Brilliant Earth and online engagement ring retailer, James Allen, grew by 44% and 29% respectively.
It’s important for brands to establish a personal connection with their customers, even more so for diamond brands. The nature of their product is such that they are present in the most special, private moments of their consumers’ lives: weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, etc., and have a key, best-man role.
In a pandemic-stricken world, people appreciate, more than ever, brands that show awareness of current difficulties and stand by their customers. Brands need to convey the feeling that they will do the utmost to be with their customers in their emotional moments.
How can brands meet the needs of consumers, and what strategies should they consider?
Here are some things we think should be kept in mind:
Less suffering for everyone: earth and people
The ethical, environmental-friendliness of synthetic diamonds may well be growing to be as worthy a status marker as the classic prestige of mined diamonds.
Open-mindedness is diversifying the jewelry industry
Customer purchase decisions are based on the information they find, and not intangible assumptions or prejudices, which benefits lab-grown brands as more people seem to be joining the mined vs. artificial diamond debate.
The economy comes first
In times of economic recession, the pocket-friendliness of lab-grown diamonds plays to their advantage. The deal is further sweetened by the moral bonuses: they are also seen as more eco-friendly and less exploitative of people.
A tricky barrier to tackle: Retelling the story of what it means to be ‘Man-made’
As we acknowledged at the very beginning of the article, lab-grown diamonds still have to overcome many challenges to win people’s hearts.
There still remains immense resistance to the idea of “man-made” being prestigious. Culturally, we have been trained to view with suspicion anything that comes with the word "artificial" attached. Brand communication must cleverly reframe this negative connotation.
For more thoughts on this or other research questions we tackle, email [email protected].