Posts in February

Disruptive Diamonds

February 9th, 2016   •   no comments   

For most of the twenty-first century the jewellery industry has agonised over the moral, ethical, and environmental damage done by the exploitation of diamonds. Be that in terms of child labour, the blighted lives of miners, the spoil left by the extraction process, the financing of civil wars, or the propping up of repressive regimes. The Kimberley Process, and subsequent legislation, attempted to bring forth order out of chaos.  But in 2006, the Hollywood blockbuster movie ‘Blood Diamond’, starring Leonardo Di Caprio, pricked the conscience of the industry and brought the subject back into public focus. The actor’s name has been linked with low-level anti diamond activism to this day.

Disruptive Diamonds V2

Industry insiders don’t need reminding of all the arguments that have ricocheted to and fro ever since. Initiative has piled upon initiative in an attempt to improve the situation – or create a thicker smoke screen – depending on your point of view, and the depth of your cynicism.  At the same time the hunt has been on for verification systems that could guarantee the provenance of natural diamonds, or for diamond substitutes that provided glitz without guilt. Cubic Zirconium was a passable diamond simulant, but lacked the cache of the real thing and, whilst man-made synthetic diamonds were theoretically possible, it wasn’t until the barriers came down across Russia that the technology to manufacture them became readily available.

So, imagine the kudos attaching to a company that not only claims to be able to manufacture quantities of large synthetic diamonds relatively quickly and economically, but also secures an investment and an endorsement from Di Caprio! Not only will his money come in handy, his publicity value is enormous! But Diamond Foundry isn’t actually too short of money, having secured the financial backing of six billionaires in making products that they claim are “ethically and morally pure”, and selling them – already set in jewellery – direct to consumers.

Naturally enough, there has been a backlash, with an open letter to Di Caprio, from Bob Bates of JCK Online, questioning the basis of the company’s environmental claims, highlighting the social and economic impact on mining communities in Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, and Sierra Leone and raising fears about the effect of commodification on prices. So, the argument over who benefits most from diamonds – the miners the middle-men or the financiers – and who will suffer most from the proliferation of synthetics rumbles on.

However, regardless of the arguments or judgements about who is morally or ethically right, the underlying theme of this debate is one that we will return to regularly over the next decade. For here is a classic example of a disruptive innovation. One that has the potential to create a new market and value network – disrupt existing ones – and displace established market leaders and alliances. Think Alibaba, Amazon, and Uber!

As we plunge into Industrial Revolution 4.0 it becomes easier to make money than even twenty-five years ago. Setting up and running a mine is expensive and requires a lot of manual workers. A company that makes its money out of a smart app needs less capital, doesn’t incur the same infrastructure costs, and virtually no extra outlay as the number of users rise. In other words, the marginal costs per unit of output tend towards zero. That’s why tech entrepreneurs get very rich very young!

Oxfam recently highlighted that the sixty-two richest billionaires own as much wealth as the poorer half of the world’s population put together. The world is becoming polarised between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.  Against this backdrop, regardless of ethical, or environmental concerns, the initial losers will be those at the bottom of the heap.

What if the ‘direct-to-consumer’ model proliferates – undermining established practice and traditions, atomising existing supply chains, shedding jobs, and vaporising careers? As wealth passes from old style mine owning corporations to billionaire technology pioneers and venture capitalists – concentrating it in fewer hands – who will be the winners and losers? Regardless of the short-term disruption, where are innovations like these taking us, and what will be the effect on society in years to come?

Bavaria 1

Michael Hoare FIAM

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