Over the past 18 months fashion-minded shoppers have proven two things certain: that they have placed an even bigger emphasis on sustainability, and that jewelry now tops their investment purchase wish lists. Recycled diamonds — or diamonds that are either antique, pre-owned or a family heirloom — fit both of those bills and are becoming increasingly important for jewelers as the global diamond mining yield continues to diminish. Experts say that their popularity has increased dramatically during the pandemic, with many engagement ring shoppers directly requesting recycled stones.
The trend is manifesting itself amid a background of debates in the diamond and jewelry industries. In the past two years the diamond mining industry and the growing lab-grown diamond industry have been sparring over which stone has higher intrinsic value and a lower carbon footprint. It is recycled diamonds, however, that observers say guarantees the lowest ecological impact. And the supply, it seems, could be larger than what today’s diamond mines have to offer.
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“I see tremendous opportunity to continue to source this way. The U.S. has been the largest jewelry consumer market for last 150 years. It’s why I tell people that the next big [diamond] mine is in the drawers of American consumers,” said Jay Moncada, owner of Perpetuum Jewels — a gemstone dealing firm that exclusively works with upcycled and antique stones. He estimated that before the pandemic, about four out of every 10 engagement ring shoppers would inquire about recycled stones. Now he thinks that number is closer to seven — representing a large majority.
While the clothing and accessories resale market may have helped initiate the wider cultural change that has contributed to this rise in recycled diamonds, the two categories are vastly different. Unlike clothing or handbags, which typically decline in value upon resale, recycled diamonds are graded and priced on the same scale as newly mined stones — judged for color, clarity and size. Also unlike clothes, which degrade with time, diamonds are the hardest natural material known — they can be cycled through the market for hundreds, maybe thousands of years without showing any signs of wear.
“These diamonds are being reset over and over. It’s nice to work with what already exists — it also goes to show why diamonds are so special. If a material like a diamond can retain its value for hundreds of years, to me that is true luxury. That’s what you want in a product,” said jeweler Jean Prounis, who said that 100 percent of her custom engagement ring clients have requested recycled stones.
Photo Courtesy of Catbird
For Prounis, antique cuts, like old mine diamonds, feel incredibly modern. “You don’t see that kind of cutting these days because these pieces were hand cut. Now things are done with technology and everything is very precise. With antiques it’s more romantic, the facets are a bit wonky and they are more understated than [modern] brilliant cuts. It plays into my jewelry philosophy about daily wear and not being too flashy,” she said.
Even the Natural Diamond Council, an entity formed by the world’s largest diamond mining companies to help promote the value of natural diamonds — particularly among young shoppers — is endorsing the recycled diamond trend. For them, it reinforces the value of buying a naturally sourced diamond over lab-grown stones or other stone options.
“We focus on the forever value of diamonds — both financially and emotionally. I think this will bring that back to the forefront of consumer awareness and prove diamond’s unique value proposition. People are looking for things that are sustainable and not disposable,” said the council’s chief executive officer David Kellie.
“The idea of recycled diamonds has been prevalent for some time, but now that younger consumers have appreciation for customization, uniqueness and are more educated, brands that cater to them — the Millennial jewelry brands — are putting a focus on it,” said Kristina Buckley Kayel, the NDC’s managing director for North America.
For Kellie, supporting recycled diamonds also plays to the long-term viability of the diamond proposition. “Ultimately all the projections for how many diamonds produced from earth over the next 25 to 40 years will decline. So the number produced is relatively small in the grand scheme of things [compared to how many diamonds are in the larger market]. Everything comes down to the economic viability of discovering diamonds. That is predicted to decline more and more, and it will become more difficult to find diamonds and access them beneath the earth’s core. There comes a time where it will be too difficult,” he said.
In the shorter term, the global supply of newly mined diamonds also took a hit during the pandemic when mines and cutting or polishing facilities saw limited output given lockdowns and social distancing guidelines — also leading many jewelers to turn to recycled diamonds.
While some designers, like Prounis, prefer the older diamonds cuts, there are diamond industry players that have developed programs to remodel antique stones and bring them up to today’s brilliant cut standards. Mike Nekta, owner of Diamond Exchange NYC in the city’s diamond district, has developed a blueprint that “revamps diamonds according to today’s look.”
Nekta says that his blueprint re-envisions old stones, which he calls “grandma diamonds,” by prioritizing light-reflecting facet work. “Years ago people didn’t care too much about a certain brilliance, they cared about a higher carat weight. It might be a more impressive number on the scale but it’s not performing to its maximum potential. So a lot of older diamonds are now being recut,” he said of his process, which only shaves off about 15 percent of a diamond’s weight at maximum.
“I think it’s important for every business today to offer the option [of recycled diamonds]. Some people are into it and some people are not. I think it will grow more and more, it won’t go away,” he added.
At this point, Nekta sees recycled stones’ popularity surging. The shoppers still sticking to newly mined stones voice concerns about “bad juju or someone’s bad luck or someone went through a divorce. Some people love the idea of something old and others want something completely fresh.”
Kellie said that the U.S. is the “most advanced” when it comes to the recycled diamond trend, with Europe and the U.K. trailing closely behind. In Asia, however — particularly in China where diamond engagement rings are a relatively recent phenomenon — he expects the trend to be delayed, “for cultural reasons.”
But how can this trend scale? Currently, it’s seeing the biggest impact at the small designer and studio jewelry level. Companies like Catbird and Brilliant Earth, which produce larger quantities of jewelry aimed at the Millennial consumer, are already offering recycled stones in their own ways — but the supply has yet to infiltrate larger companies like Tiffany & Co., Cartier or even Zales.
Catbird, which introduced recycled diamonds to its assortment in 2015, now almost entirely uses upcycled stones and prides itself on the ability to offer this sustainability aspect to its consumer. “My impression is that people just want to feel good about what they’re purchasing, whether that’s recycled or for some people lab-grown. There’s an assurance about what’s in front of them, that it’s something you can stand behind. It’s about letting people know that you’re working in the best way possible and working to push the industry forward,” said Leigh Plessner, Catbird’s creative director.
At Brilliant Earth, recycled diamonds are offered as part of the company’s custom engagement ring program. “It’s a minority [of sales] buts it’s growing and I think that trend will continue in the future. I can see placing more emphasis on our side providing more education to the consumer; maybe in 2022 we will,” said cofounder Beth Gerstein.
Ceremony, an engagement ring company for Millennial brides, also exclusively uses recycled stones. For cofounder Chelsea Nicholson, the stones have only proved positive for the company’s business. But it’s not like using new stones — where cookie-cutter diamonds can simply be plopped into a standard ring setting.
Courtesy of Prounis
“They’re certainly not scarce, there is a lot of jewelry in world. But it’s not like you find 100 of the same thing. Stones over ¾ of a carat require that we use a concierge to figure out what’s important to our shopper and then we source three different options to present them with,” she said of the company’s approach to sourcing.
At Catbird, founder Rony Vardi said “I think when it becomes more challenging is when we work with the larger stones just to get exactly the right specifications. So we have a wider range that we’ve established for our customer to maintain some level of consistency. Customers seem to be quite understanding that we are working with what the marketplace offers.”
How the larger industry catches on and formats its offerings is yet to be seen. But what will become of diamond mining communities if an even larger shift toward recycled stones takes place? As the NDC has often pointed out in its marketing of sustainably mined diamonds, the mining industry — as seen in countries like Botswana — has helped improve the quality of life for residents in remote, and often impoverished, regions where diamonds are extracted. The organization says that 25 percent of Botswana’s GDP comes from the diamond mining industry, which has contributed to the building of critical infrastructure across the country.
For Moncada, grading and pricing recycled stones on the same scale as newly mined ones could be a crucial error. Moncada said that he donates a portion of his annual profits to infrastructure-related charities in these diamond mining regions, which help provide schooling and medical services there. The NDC said there is no effort yet to create a new industry standard for pricing recycled diamonds.
According to Moncada: “There is a lot of discussion inside the responsible jewelry movement asking, ‘Is it possible to tag a premium on these recycled stones if they are benefiting additional players?’ It’s the issue of — what happens to these artisanal mining communities? By supporting recycling you are demoting the practice of multigenerational mining activities — you want to create a balance.”