Shopping for diamonds remains one of the biggest hustles in the world today, despite their beauty. More than ever, consumers understand these precious stones aren’t actually all that rare, and come at a (social, and fiscally inflated) price.
But it’s the holidays!
Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, 33 percent of all proposals take place in America. And thanks to one particularly successful marketing campaign by De Beers back in 1948, most of Western culture believes a diamond comes with the deal.
Enter: Lightbox, a year-old London-based company whose specialty is lab-grown diamonds sold directly to consumers for a fraction of the price of their naturally occurring counterparts. It’s hard to miss Lightbox from their pop-up inside MOA's rotunda, where they're encamped through December 20.
They come packing a fashion-forward, inclusive ad campaign styled by beams from a giant screen, featuring bubbly models styled by the iconic Karla Welch, and graphics fit for Everlane.
They’re also owned by De Beers.
At face value, this fact alone reads as a mighty heel turn for one of the world’s most condemned companies (or cartels), which held a monopoly on the diamond market beginning in the 19th century through 2011, and left well-documented social ruin in the wake of its century-plus of extractive business practices.
Changing tacks to include a separate brand of manufactured diamonds doesn’t quite mean De Beers’ old ways have died out, though. Sally Morrison, chief marketing officer of Lightbox, says their lab-grown diamonds are “considered additive, due to the relative rarity of natural diamonds.”
This is where fashion comes into play, at least in part. Market researchers specializing in luxury goods realized there’s a gap in fine jewelry in the sub-$1,000 space. Shoppers have no problem dropping that much cash (and more) on big-ticket treats for themselves like a nice pair of shoes, or a couture handbag.
When it comes to diamonds, though, the proposition becomes more emotionally and socially loaded. Psychologically, there’s an unbroachable barrier when it comes to buying oneself very expensive jewels.
(Treatises have been written documenting why this is the case, and they’re worth tucking into on a Sunday afternoon.)
Lightbox is meant to short-circuit these notions, not by offering an alternative to “the real thing”—because lab-grown diamonds are chemically, physically, and optically identical to natural diamonds—but by introducing a whole new source of bling.
Disentangling the bloody human cost of mining natural stones, and side-stepping their parent company’s century of fleecing consumers by artificially inflating prices… all while circumventing Mother Nature’s billion-year timeline in favor of a two-week turnaround? That’s not Lightbox's brand, per se, but it’s probably a bonus.
Lightbox emphasizes that quick, reliable production in a lab setting translates to quality and options for consumers. There’s no attempt to out-compete the natural diamond market’s old guard—simply expand the possibilities (and accessibility) of glimmering.
Prices begin at $200 for a quarter carat and range up to $800 for a one-carat stone, plus the cost of the setting. Unlike their competitors, “our diamonds are priced based on production rather than discounted on the natural diamond curve,” says Morrison. She’s upfront about the fact that their diamonds cost so little because, “We can just make more.”
Their lab-grown diamond jewelry includes traditional white stones, but what really tantalizes jewel-hoarders are their blush pink and pale blue options—colors that when found in nature are not only incredibly rare but outrageously expensive.
A year in business reveals an equal split in Lightbox’s demographics. Older buyers love that they can finally get their hands on a pair of pink studs “like J.Lo!” and fill in that gap in their collection, while the younger crowd uses Lightbox as an entry point to gems or a rare, self-indulgent treat (when they once may have purchased something else, like those aforementioned shoes).
In short: No one thinks Lightbox is a substitute for legacy jewels, even the people buying from them.
Though Lightbox is based in London and testing the waters here in the States with pop-ups like this one at MOA and previous installations in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, they’re building a diamond factory outside Portland, Oregon. Upon its completion, they’ll be cranking out 200,000 carats each year.
When asked if this influx of lab-manufactured gems will dilute the already precarious, super-saturated diamond market, Morrison fancied a more brilliant future, not one filled with competition and fear. Hers involved one of jewelry designers working with a larger color palette at their disposal than ever before, less tethered to earthly constraints.
As we spoke about gleaming esoterics and rainbow-hued statement pieces birthed by machines, a woman pushed her baby stroller into Lightbox’s kiosk, where she held these rocks in the air, admiring them with her wide, deer eyes for a long time.
It’s a devilish sensation—to hold something precious in your hand that's been spun from absolutely nothing.
Try it yourself before December 20 at MOA in the rotunda.