When Sarah Buchner thought about her future engagement ring, she knew she wanted it to be ethically sourced and environmentally friendly.
So after getting over initial hesitation, a lab-grown diamond from Madison’s Soha Diamond Co., owned by husband and wife diamond-selling duo Soha and Aubree Javaherian, seemed the perfect choice.
“It really just made sense,” Buchner said. “Why would I want something that is so marked up in cost and encourages people to continue to mine diamonds in poor labor conditions when I could get the same thing lab grown?”
Lab-grown diamonds are created through one of two processes that harness the same conditions needed to form diamonds in the earth: carbon, pressure and heat.
In one process, graphite is melted through intense heat and pressured into liquid carbon, then cooled to form a diamond.
The other process involves injecting hydrocarbon gas into vacuum plasma reactors. The carbon atoms are separated by high-power microwaves and then compressed into diamonds by extreme pressure.
The Javaherians are capitalizing on a growing preference among some millennials like Buchner for the man-made diamonds over traditionally mined stones.
The two started selling their jewelry, designed by them using only lab-grown diamonds and gems, online in the fall of 2017 and moved into an office space on Madison’s Near East Side this summer.
First grown in the 1950s for industrial purposes, diamonds produced in a lab have evolved to become a cheaper option for the same quality diamond.
The lab-grown diamonds are chemically and physically the same as diamonds mined from the earth, Soha Javaherian said.
“No one can tell the difference,” he said. “If they do imply that there’s a difference ... they’re lying to you.”
Jerry Ehrenwald, president and CEO of the International Gemological Institute, which grades and evaluates diamonds and fine jewelry, concurred, saying differences can’t be detected by sight.
The big difference is in how they’re obtained. The traditional diamond market has been buffeted by stories of human rights abuses and environmental damage.
“A laboratory-grown diamond is sustainable and ethical in nature compared to a stone that is mined from the ground,” Ehrenwald said.
Customers can also count on spending 30 to 40 percent less on a lab-grown diamond compared to one that’s been mined, Soha Javaherian said.
While lab-grown diamond sales only make up about 1 percent of the global rough diamond market, they could make up 7.5 percent to 15 percent of the market by 2020, according to a 2016 Morgan Stanley report on the diamond industry.
In a 2018 survey by MVI Marketing, nearly 70 percent of those between 21 and 41 said they would consider a lab-grown diamond, a 13 percent increase from a similar study in 2017.
The 1,010 people surveyed said they’d consider the diamonds over a mined diamond because lab-grown diamonds are better for the environment, less expensive and use more ethical labor practices.
A family history
Raised mostly in Eau Claire, Soha Javaherian, a first generation Iranian-American, is the 10th generation of jewelers in his family. His grandfather and uncles run a jewelry store in Tehran, he said.
“It’s kind of in our family DNA in some sense,” he said.
While Aubree Johaverian — who was also raised in Eau Claire — doesn’t have generations of family experience in the jewelry business, she does have experience in the wedding industry, she said.
Before she started designing jewelry with her husband, she worked at a bridal shop and operated a photo booth at weddings, she said.
The couple’s business isn’t like most jewelers in the Madison area.
Aubree and Soha have what they call a “click and mortar” approach of selling and designing their jewelry online instead of operating out of a brick-and-mortar storefront that carries a large selection of premade jewelry.
The approach means they have little overhead other than a few sample pieces, allowing customers to completely customize their ring or other pieces of jewelry.
“the customization aspect ... I think that’s definitely more of a millennial thing,” Aubree Javaherian said. “Older generations, I think expected to just go in, see what jewelers have and only buy what they have.”
Though they do sell pieces like earrings and necklaces, the majority of their sales are engagement rings and wedding bands.
Millennials themselves, Soha Javaherian, a UW-Madison graduate and his wife, who designs the pieces, said their approach appeals to the tech-savvy, younger generation that wants to know their purchases aren’t causing harm.
“It’s almost like an ethical and moral dilemma jewelers have and also customers have,” Soha Javaherian said.
One hurdle remains convincing potential customers that the lab-grown stones have effectively the same quality as naturally produced stones.
For local customers or those who want to meet in person, they offer design consultations in their small office, where their small dog, Honey, accompanies them every day, in the StartingBlock space in the Spark Building on the Near East Side.
Buchner, who expects her ring to arrive soon, said she — like some friends and family who know about the ring — initially had misconceptions about diamonds from a lab.
But after being educated about the diamonds from Aubree, a friend from college, she knew she wanted one. The lower cost also allowed her and her future fiance to afford a bigger diamond.
“Then I had it in my mind that it would obviously be what I wanted,” she said. “It’s just grown in a lab.”