Diamond are not forever

Alan Blom has found a way to artificially produce diamonds. Alicia Buller finds out if he’s fake, or sitting on an untapped fortune.

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By  Alicia Buller Published  July 30, 2006

|~|42_NIK8343-200.jpg|~|Rock art: Blom has made waves in the industry by artificially producing diamonds.|~|Alan Blom has found a way to artificially produce diamonds. Alicia Buller finds out if he’s fake, or sitting on an untapped fortune. Just after 7am, he revved-up his Volvo Turbo ready for the drive from Johannesburg to the local diamond mines. It was an ordinary morning for Alan J. Blom, a South African gem specialist from the world’s oldest mining family. At the time, he was probably dreaming of new ways to make his diamonds extra special − as he often does. But first; there was a swooshing sound. And then; a bullet, only centimetres from his skull. Blom lived to tell the tale. “I survived the robbery because of a force from above,” he says. And then he shows the photos of the bullet holes in the car neatly stored on his i-mate Jam. “See how close it was to my head?” This is, understandably, one of the many reasons that the entrepreneur wants to make a new home in Dubai. “I want to be in a safe environment,” he says, hands shaking just slightly. For a man who escaped death’s clutches only eight weeks ago − Blom exudes a curious stillness. He tells of his long association with the diamond industry; proud of his work with the mineral that the world calls a ‘girl’s best friend’. But for a man who places such value on heritage, it seems odd that he should also want to turn the industry on its head. Blom, you see, is pushing an initiative to make diamonds in much the same way that "stem-cell scientists cloned Dolly the sheep in 1996." He is the brains behind Ideal Cultured Diamonds − a company that has perfected a way to grow real diamonds from scratch in a laboratory environment. But what many people find hard to believe is that the physical composition of lab-grown and earth-grown diamonds are exactly the same. And equally, the lab diamonds, or ‘cultured’ diamonds, as Blom likes to call them, are just as hard as mined diamonds. Blom holds up a ‘cultured’ diamond. It glints unflinchingly under the light. It really does look like a diamond. It feels like a diamond. “That’s because it is a diamond," he says. “In every conceivable way, it is a diamond,” he repeats. “I love diamonds, all of them − the mined and the cultured. They are nature’s perfection because the diamond contains within it every element of the earth.” The processes, however, differ. It can take billions of years for a mined diamond to come of age from carbon being heated and pressurised by the earth. But cultured diamonds are ready-to-go in just under 48 hours after being chemically cultivated in the laboratory. 20 years ago we got fast food, and today we’ve got fast gems. But, no, don’t tell Blom that they’re junk. He hates it. “Beauty is beauty, no matter how it’s made,” he says, pointing again at the smiling gem. “It’s my job to make this beauty accessible to everyone.” It’s not new, this idea of making diamonds out of nothing. The technology was discovered in the 1950s by Soviet scientists and used to produce synthetic diamonds for industrial purposes. And in his 1867 book, Das Kapital, Karl Marx remarked, “if we could succeed, at a small expenditure of labour, in converting carbon into diamonds, their value might fall below that of bricks.” But Blom says he wouldn’t go quite that far. “You see this here,” he says, showing off a yellowish one-carat diamond that sinks into the folds of his palm, “that’s worth US$3500 to US$4000. Whereas a mined diamond of the same size and quality could cost around US$30,000. Our cultured diamonds cost around 10-15% of the retail price of mined diamonds. It’s not cheap stuff. But it just makes high-quality diamonds more accessible to more people.” Blom says he wants to capture around 7% of the US$68 billion diamond industry within the next ten years. And with these less expensive prices, it’s not inconceivable that Blom, along with his US-based synthetic gem competitors, could get a sizeable grip on the market. But one firm that has its claws out for Blom, and isn’t going to give up just yet is De Beers. The world’s biggest rough diamond company has already braved and controlled a number of factors: African insurrection, American antitrust litigation and Australian, Siberian and Canadian diamond discoveries. But keeping Mr. Blom and friends away might just prove a little more difficult. In every respect − optically, physically, chemically - cultured diamonds are identical to their mined counterparts. The only difference is that lab-made diamonds are grown using a sophisticated high pressure, high temperature process, rather than being the product of large scale, expensive mining activities, says Blom. Nevertheless, several years ago, De Beers launched the Gem Defensive Programme − a campaign to warn jewellers and the public about the arrival of manufactured diamonds. At no charge, the company supplies gem labs with sophisticated machines designed to help distinguish man-made from mined stones. “But what’s the point, they’re the same thing,” says Blom. “Hello? Hello De Beers? It’s the same thing,” he repeats, the blood rising to his face. “In the court of law, they have equal physical properties. I’m actually trying to protect the consumer by educating them about what cultured diamonds are and how we make them. We laser-stamp our gems, so that our customers know that they are the real thing − equal in physical properties to a mined diamond.” Continuing the blistering attack, he rallies: “And you know what? Because I can make dimaonds from scratch, I can make them look and feel perfect. For eight years now I’ve been pursuing perfection. This is the beauty of cultured diamonds − you really can make them perfect. Out of all the 150 million carats of diamonds mined each year, only 2% are gem-quality.” He claims to have sold around 600 stones to date, from four offices across America, South Africa and the UAE. With a turnover of US$120 million a year presently coming in from Roughnet, Blom’s separate rough diamond company, he is about to roll out a multi-million dollar marketing campaign for Perfect Cultured Diamonds − starting off with Dubai. “The city is mind-blowing. Dubai is becoming the place where people perfect things,” he says − stroking a new stone − this time, pink − in his thumbs. “If they build perfect plans for bridges, roads and buildings; then why not build perfect diamonds? Dubai loves everything new and is less concerned with the constraints of tradition. I see a massive opportunity because we’ve already had talks with many of the major jewellers here. No wonder the diamond industry is freaking out.” Blom says that he may decide to either sell the jewels to manufacturers themselves, or his firm may set up their own shops in the coming months − starting with the UAE. But while the diamond guru is clearly excited by the opportunities the Middle East represents, it doesn’t take long for the De Beers onslaught to rear its head again. “They say that we’re synthetic. I say we’re cultured. Synthetic means that you add chemicals to the process − and we don’t do that. For years De Beers controlled the industry, but you should have heard the so-called experts when we unveiled our gems at the Jo Bury Cultured Diamond Event this year. You could have heard a pin drop,” he laughs. Then he opens the box. It’s a beautiful box, bustling with about 30 man-made diamonds − blue, pink and yellow. Each jewel comes with a certificate, says Blom, adding that the slip includes details of each stone’s shape, weight, colour, clarity, cut and authenticity. “We’ve been transparent,” he says. “I’m not hurting the earth with my cultured stones and I’m not contributing to small arms proceeds like some other rough diamond manufacturers have been accused of.” He looks hurt when asked whether people think he’s out to rip them off. “We don’t have an agenda,” Blom says, adding that he is a figurehead behind the Cultured Diamond Foundation (CDF), an international body that was created in 2006 to ensure that the highest ethical standards prevail in the cultured diamond industry. The CDF includes within its membership representatives of different elements of the supply chain: manufacturers, master diamond cutters, diamond polishers, dealers and retailers. He closes the diamond box, as if it is a Pandora’s Box. “This is the 21st century. You can only go for so long believing that the world is flat. De Beers at some stage will be forced to tell the truth about the way they strangulated the diamond industry and led the world to believe that there was a shortage when this absolutely isn’t true. The magic of a diamond is in its quality and its beauty, and not the way it’s made.” It’s also about the way the diamond is given, says Blom − as a way of explaining that phenomenon we call love. “A diamond represents the ultimate power, because it’s the hardest matter on earth. They also create the most powerful radiation of light. I learned to feel things at a young age and I realised that things don’t just happen. Mozart and his music didn’t just happen: he was gifted. In this field, we’re also artists.” He looks up, remembering the morning − not so long ago − when his life was in danger. “When I was younger I lived in LA and I enjoyed the high life; the women and the cars,” he admits. “But today I am humble. I believe that you should respect every human being on this earth. I have a job to educate people about diamonds, and De Beers have to be very careful how they approach us. It’s called the art of war. You can’t kill me. You can only keep me away for so long,” he grins.||**||

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