Lab-Grown Diamonds Backed by Leonardo DiCaprio

SLIDESHOW: “Diamonds are probably the only luxury product where provenance does not play a crucial role,” says Martin Roscheisen, CEO and founder of Diamond Foundry.

A solar-power engineer is disrupting the diamond industry, with a start-up backed by Leonardo DiCaprio and a handful of tech billionaires.

“Diamonds are probably the only luxury product where provenance does not play a crucial role,” says Martin Roscheisen, CEO and founder of Diamond Foundry, a California-based start-up that has developed a way to hot-forge diamonds using the identical process that produces natural diamonds. He says that human-rights abuses, child labour, ecological destruction, lack of traceability and cartel pricing continue to plague the mining industry. The Kimberley Process, touted as a tracker to eliminate the potential for conflict, is widely considered inadequate. In short, there is still no guarantee of origin in the diamond industry today.

“Corruption is pervasive in the key diamond channels. Conflict diamonds are flown in small aircraft from one place to another in Africa and mixed into supply of declared legitimate origin. One can tell it is ‘from Africa’ — but that’s like a bottle of red wine where ‘from Europe’ is all one knows about it,” explains Roscheisen. For a US$30 billion industry, that is an incredible thought.

He wanted a career where he could “uniquely make a difference”. Inspired by his previous work in solar technology, in 2012 he and his co-founders, Jeremy Scholz, and Kyle Gazay, dreamed up a way to hot-forge diamonds under a ‘sun on Earth’. In nature, diamonds are made from carbon that undergoes intense pressure and heat in the Earth’s mantle over millions of years. But Diamond Foundry has discovered a way to do this in a week.

By atomising greenhouse gases in a plasma that reaches 8,000˚C — hotter than the sun’s surface — it adds, atom by atom, to the crystal lattice of the substrate of a natural diamond (this is what sets Diamond Foundry apart from other synthetic diamond producers). It can create diamonds of up to 12 carats rough, and three carats polished, indistinguishable from mined diamonds to the expert eye. After the gems are made, some are turned into handcrafted jewellery by independent designers including Baxter Moerman, Madhuri Parson and Christine Guibara, sold through Diamond Foundry’s website. Prices are about the same as mined diamonds, even slightly cheaper because there are no intermediaries, dealers or traders involved. “Conventional diamonds go through two-dozen traders and dealers before a consumer gets it,” adds Roscheisen.

Already the company has raised around US$100 million from a group of investors as multi-faceted as the product they are backing. Initial backers include: Zynga co-founders Mark and Alison Pincus; Italian businessman Jean Pigozzi; former Twitter CEO Evan Williams; Sun Microsystems co-founder Andreas Bechtolsheim; Andy Yung; Suntech Power founder Shi Zhengrong; Facebook co-founder Andrew McCollum; media executive Owen Van Natta; Russian tycoon Ziyavudin Magomedov; tech entrepreneur Jeff Skoll; Ironport co-founder Scott Banister; talent manager Guy Oseary; Obvious Ventures; Vast Ventures; and actor Leonardo DiCaprio. “People love new ideas and profound technology. It’s not just yet another app,” says Roscheisen.

Currently Diamond Foundry produces only around 100 diamonds a week, but the idea is to scale the business and increase the size of the gems. It is also in the process of trying to create coloured stones — Bono has already requested some red ones. “We are building more tools because there is so much demand,” says Roscheisen. “We have a waiting list for the larger stones, which don’t even ever make it onto our website because they are pre-sold. But our diamonds will remain very rare. It is very hard to grow gem-sized diamonds of pristine white quality.”

The result is “a constructive step towards [ending conflict diamond trade], in Silicon Valley style”, says Roscheisen. “There are still conflict diamonds involving child labour and slavery on the shelves of retailers throughout America. That’s in part of course because simply there was no choice in the marketplace. Now there is. We are offering diamonds of impeccable provenance.”

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