PARIS — The address is not by chance. Courbet, a jewelry designer that sells synthetic diamonds, has decided to open at the world's most prestigious location for any jeweler: the Place Vendôme in Paris. Setting up shop at No. 7, becoming neighbor to establishments like Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels, is a daring move, especially for a brand that does not sell "real" diamonds, but stones grown in four weeks inside a Silicon Valley laboratory. Their product shares the composition of natural diamonds, but is 30 to 40% cheaper.
This is a growing market in the United States, and in France Courbet, which touts itself as an ethical and green brand, is the second firm after Innocent Stone to explore this niche. "If you want to shake the market and make the world of jewelry evolve, you have to be at its heart," says Courbet's French founder Manuel Mallen who has partnered with the Swedish designer Marie-Ann Wachtmeister.
Mallen knows what he's talking about: for 25 years he was head of the watchmakers Piaget, then Baume and Mercier in France. Along with partners, he then bought the firm Poiray, before he sold his stake.
"Lab diamonds are the diamonds of the future," he said. Beyond the issue of mining's environmental impact, Mallen sees in synthetic diamonds "an alternative when the natural ones are dwindling." According to consultants Bain and Company, the volume of rough diamonds will peak in 2019, before declining between 1.5 and 2% a year.
A trend that is disrupting the sector.
Courbet (named for the "disruptive" 19th century painter who had an affinity for Place Vendôme) wants to present its collections in similar conditions as the great jewelry houses of the chic Parisian square. In fact, more traditional jewelers are closely monitoring the rise of a trend that is disrupting the sector.
Courbet's diamonds include 0.3 carats, and are thus certified as natural. The start-up firm has four suppliers, two of them wholesalers, in the United States and Antwerp. The lab stones are then cut by artisans in Lyon, Paris and other locations in Italy. Courbet goes further, also using recycled gold. While the engagement ring is at the heart of its collections, Wachtmeister has come with other, clever ideas like earrings that double as finger rings. Items range in price from 300 to 30,000 euros. Wachtmeister says all the manufacturers behind these grown diamonds "are children of diamond dealers. For this new generation this is an innovative concept, and they treat them like they would" natural diamonds.
For distribution, the young brand has settled into an elegant showroom and appointments for visits can be made online. Its website will begin sales in June, targeting millennials "nurtured on ecology," and "concerned" women (yoga, organic foods, etc...) for whom buying from Courbet "makes sense."
The start-up's primary challenge for now is to become known. Its capital is shared between the founders and angel and institutional investors, and will devote a major chunk of an initial five million euro investment on communication. "Our aim is a turnover of 50 million euros within 5 to 6 years, and to balance the books by 2020," says Mallen. Like a pioneer, Courbet is hoping to strike gold.