What Freshwater Can Teach Us About Lab Grown
As lab grown diamonds continue to grow in popularity, I can’t help but think back to the emergence of freshwater pearls. I was fortunate to have a front-row seat as our family business, Honora, helped introduce a new pearl offering in a category that hadn’t evolved much over the previous 100 years.
Freshwater introduced a high-quality alternative to a premium and well-established fine jewelry offering. It disrupted the traditional industry notion of what fine pearl jewelry is and should be to our customers. Does this sound at all familiar to what’s happening right now in diamonds?
There’s little doubt that freshwater had an impact on the industry, on our businesses, and on our customers. All of a sudden, people who were never able to choose a quality product had an accessible option. And beyond simply offering cost-effective alternatives to traditional pearl jewelry, the lower cost, wider range of shapes, and the new, natural colors encouraged us to play. We took chances with pearls that we would never have otherwise with far more costly akoya pearls.
There was a lot to be excited about back then, and there was also a lot of concern. What about people’s existing pearl purchases? What about the average selling price of pearl jewelry? If pearls aren’t exclusive, will they lose their luster? (Sorry… pearl puns are still a professional reflex…)
Did Mikimoto go out of business? No. Did quality akoya lose its value? No (in fact, due to scarcity, prices are continuing to shoot up recently). There’s still a meaningful premium on akoya, both financial and cultural (sorry, that pun was actually unintentional). What was impacted most was poor quality pearls, products our industry should have questioned selling in the first place but chose to sell in order to hit a price. The biggest change was this: no matter if you had a few hundred or several thousand dollars to spend, you could choose quality.
Over time the market settled and split. Most quality jewelers can usually tell higher-end akoya customers from more affordable freshwater buyers. When unsure, they can start high and then move to low if akoya is out of the customer’s budget. Best of all, regardless of what the customer chooses, that same jeweler can sell a quality product. The same is now true for diamonds.
Just like akoya, natural diamonds don’t have to “lose” for lab grown to win. In fact, it’s likely natural diamonds will become more exclusive, with a healthy market and a loyal customer base. Natural diamonds will remain precious as lab grown begins to be treated more as a semi-precious identical cousin. And those who had to choose poor quality natural diamonds… well, they now have an affordable offering that makes quality diamonds accessible and collectible. If there’s one thing I saw firsthand at Honora, freshwater took people who could not afford cultured pearls at all and turned them into loyal collectors. This is an opportunity we tend to ignore when talking about lab grown.
The mass availability of affordable quality diamonds will change the industry in ways we can’t begin to anticipate. Take it from someone who never expected to see pearls in headbands, sweaters and shoes. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Pearls are more popular, more important, and more “on trend” than ever. And frankly, they’re a lot more fun than they used to be.
I want to be clear that I’m not saying you have to sell lab grown. Just as there are retailers who still will not sell freshwater, the same will be true for lab grown. There’s nothing wrong with this. There’s nothing wrong in believing in one product strongly enough that you forgo selling another. In fact, that’s exactly what we did at Honora when we stopped selling akoya in the late ‘90s.
The difference, however, is this: we never had an issue with akoya. We never spoke ill of our friends at companies like Mikimoto, Mastoloni, or Pearl Paradise. They all sold drop-dead gorgeous pearls, and so did we. And when we had customers or friends who wanted the “real cultured pearls,” we told them one last time why we loved freshwater before sending them their way.
The industry spent a lot of time and energy fighting about how bad freshwater was for the jewelry industry. I’ve always wished we had focused all that energy outward and talked about the obvious growing excitement for quality pearls instead. We missed a larger opportunity to build on that momentum. And to an extent, I feel like I’m watching history repeat itself on a larger scale.
There are going to be some rough times ahead. Far too many growers jumped head-first into the market. And many will point to this to prove their concerns about the dangers of lab grown were warranted. But I remember what happened when overexcitement led to freshwater farming outpacing demand. It was nerve-wracking for a while as prices dropped (and settled lower than many had hoped), but just as it did with freshwater, the lab grown diamond market will settle. And just as freshwater continues to be a thriving category within pearl jewelry, lab grown will continue to be a meaningful, cost effective alternative for those who want a quality diamond.