The Man Who Would Save Our Diamonds
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the world’s most beloved gems might exist in a new form soon.
By Sonali Kokra
If diamonds are a girl’s best friend, said girl would do well to make friends with 34-year-old Vishal Mehta. Not that he seems like he’d make you swoon with grand gestures and a bevy of carats. But the soft-spoken, slightly chubby-faced executive is who you might have to thank for your future engagement ring — because he’s on a mission to save the diamonds. The poor, poor diamonds.
That’s right, they’re in danger. Of the top 10 diamond mines operating in the world today, only one — in Russia — is expected to be operational in 30 years, according to a 2014 report by research organization Frost & Sullivan. Even as supply plummets, the rich are getting hungrier for the stones: The same report predicts a potential supply gap of some 278 million carats by 2050. Which is why Mehta’s company has decided to say, Screw the mining, the blood diamonds, the wild rush to outpace the environment — let’s just make them in a lab. Mehta, the CEO of Singapore-based IIa Technologies, runs an operation that has developed and patented a formula to “grow” so-called IIa, or Golconda diamonds, so named after the Indian mines that gave the world some of the first colorless diamonds in the 16th and 17th centuries. “I definitely see a niche market for lab-created diamonds,” especially with younger, socially conscious types, says Paul Zimnisky, a New York-based independent diamond-industry analyst.
It’s a controversial strategy, capable of raising the hackles of traditionalists, and Mehta himself concedes that lab diamonds are a “big gamble.” But IIas are some of the most precious diamonds in existence — pure carbon with negligible amounts of nitrogen, making them almost colorless and thoroughly desirable. For those who know their famous gems, the Kohinoor, the 33.19-carat Elizabeth Taylor Diamond, the Winston Legacy and the Archduke Joseph were all IIa diamonds. The way Mehta explains it, the engineering process sounds simple, “like greenhouses,” he says. Diamond “seeds” (tiny fragments of carbon from existing diamonds) are planted in a growth chamber. The heat, pressure and elements in the chamber are carefully engineered to reproduce the conditions that make diamonds grow in the wild. Tend to them, wait 12 weeks and voilà — a diamond that would otherwise require centuries emerges.
The basic idea has been around since the 1950s, says Zimnisky, but growing the method took considerably longer than growing the diamonds. Mehta’s business has already passed through two generations, eight years of research and $30 million in expenses. Mehta’s mother, Sonia, started the company 10 years ago with 22 researchers in a 30,000-square-foot research facility; her son was practically bred to take over the family biz. As an undergrad, Mehta apprenticed at Mumbai’s Star Gems. At 22, he left for a graduate course at the Gemological Institute of America, in California, and followed that up with an MBA from Thunderbird in Arizona.
Mehta went to high school in Mumbai at the prestigious Cathedral and John Connon School, which also produced Ratan Tata, head of the industrial Tata group; novelists Salman Rushdie and Kiran Desai and a fair number of Bollywood stars. He’s a globe-trotter, constantly traveling and hard to pin down, but in some ways he remains traditional. We were curious: How does a diamond magnate shower his wife with jewelry? But that’s a bit of a Western question. Mehta’s marriage was arranged, sans fancy proposals; he met his wife for just a few hours before the wedding was fixed. Today, he works with his brother on the biz. Mehta is extremely polite, but also very, very reticent; he prefers to drop statistics and give mini science lectures than speak about himself.
IIa Technologies recorded respectable sales of $70 million in 2014, much lower than Tiffany & Co.’s $4.25 billion net sales in the same year and a mere drop in the ocean compared to the $80 billion global diamond sales in 2014, according to a De Beers report. There were days when the family came close to shutting shop and cutting their losses. They “were seriously contemplating shutting down” when a minor research breakthrough happened, keeping enough cash flow in the bank and energy in the leaders’ systems, Mehta says. (He won’t say more about the research due to patent concerns.)
A pro tip, though, if you’re going into the diamond business: Don’t expect to make all your sales by way of engagement and anniversary gifts. As with mined diamonds, 70 percent of IIa’s gems are used for industrial purposes. Jewelry, in comparison, comprises only 30 percent. That doesn’t mean Mehta and company don’t enjoy the glitz of the romance, though: He brags to me of a proposal at the Super Bowl this year, where the man flashed a 2.62-carat IIa diamond. Quite the free PR.
As is the case with every innovation, there are skeptics. Jon King, the executive vice president of competitor Tiffany & Co., is one. He figures (naturally) that people want the “story and identity of a diamond,” its formation over millions of years. “It is about the permanence — the long history of what it takes for a diamond to form, the conditions of the Earth and the gravitas involved in that.” History, though? From where Mehta is sitting in rising Asia, in futuristic Singapore, and from his mother’s point of view in nouveau-riche Dubai, provenance matters far less. It’s all about the bling, and who cares how you got there.
- Sonali Kokra Contact Sonali Kokra