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Making diamonds might sound like the hard part of Scott Shaffer's work at Infinity Diamond, his Andover company that turns customer-provided mementos into certified, laboratory-made diamonds.
The challenge, instead, has been figuring out how to sell what Shaffer refers to as "personal carbon" synthetic diamonds.
"The idea ... is we're making the diamonds but we're not making diamonds for people, we're connecting the things that we love" with those diamonds, Shaffer said.
As an Andover High School physics teacher, Shaffer has taught the science of diamond making -- carbon plus high pressure and high temperature -- for 10 years.
He launched Infinity Diamond in 2009, investing money from a separate precious metals venture. He opened a shop at Rosedale Center but closed it after a few months and moved to a Maple Grove office, where sales picked up.
He's got the production end down, delivering a synthetic diamond in just three months. Converting the carbon from customers' objects into a diamond occurs in high-end machinery at a plant in the Russian city of St. Petersburg. Customers have taken locks of hair from family or pets, petals from a bridal bouquet or even a slice of wedding cake, and Shaffer has turned them into synthetic diamonds. Customers can choose the color (amber, red, yellow, blue or white), cut and size of their synthetic stones.
Business has taken off this year as Shaffer began partnering with jewelers, who educate consumers about Infinity Diamond, take orders and sell settings.
Infinity Diamond displays, featuring samples and iPads with product information, are in seven jewelry stores in the Twin Cities and Wisconsin. Shaffer has a similar display at the company's new Andover headquarters.
The partnerships have paid off. Infinity Diamond, which has four employees, is projecting sales of $253,000 this year, up from $67,000 last year. Shaffer hopes to partner with jewelers in other major cities to drive growth. Imaging technology, used to etch a photo or text onto a synthetic or natural diamond, could generate additional revenue.
Each Infinity synthetic diamond is certified and graded by the nonprofit Gemological Institute of America (GIA), Shaffer said. The institute provides education, laboratory and other services needed to determine gemstone quality.
Synthetic diamonds are indeed diamonds, just produced differently from natural ones, said Russell Shor, a senior industry analyst at the California-based institute. Synthetic and natural diamonds alike are made up of crystalized carbon, distinguishing them from simulated diamonds such as synthetic cubic zirconia.
"A synthetic [diamond] is chemically, optically and everything diamond except that it's not natural, it's produced in a lab," Shor said. "The assurance that the GIA [grading] report gives is that you are getting a diamond.''
Price comparisons with natural diamonds get complicated, Shaffer said. White synthetic diamonds are more expensive than natural ones, which are most common in jewelry stores, because of the added expense of removing impurities to produce a white synthetic stone.
A 1-carat white natural diamond likely would cost $7,000 or more, Shaffer said. A white synthetic diamond from Shaffer costs $8,000 to $23,000.
Infinity Diamond specializes in colored synthetic diamonds, which Shaffer said are less expensive to produce and cost less than the rare, expensive colored natural diamonds.
A 1-carat amber diamond from Infinity Diamond costs $8,300, Shaffer said, pointing out that a natural one listed for $28,000 at www.fancydiamonds.net.
Customer Ben Olson of Maple Grove secretly collected hair from his and his two young sons' haircuts and from his wife's hairbrush to surprise her with an amber Infinity diamond on Mother's Day. She keeps it in a heart-shaped white gold locket.
"It's absolutely beautiful," Olson said. "It's kind of yellow with a lot of fire and brilliance to it. She thinks it's super awesome. It's a diamond, it's valuable and it's even cooler that it's made from your carbon than just carbon from the Earth. She gets compliments on it all the time."
Linda Wolf, a veterinarian, had an amber diamond made from the fur of a dog, now 14, that she adopted as a puppy rescued from an abusive home.
"She's very special to me," Wolf said. "To have this diamond made out of her fur, while she's still alive, still with me, it will always remind me of her being alive and vibrant."
The expert says: Russell Shor, GIA senior industry analyst, said Shaffer's strategy is an interesting approach to the synthetic diamond market. Shor said he's seen some funeral homes offer synthetic diamonds made from cremated remains of loved ones.
"To get something that people love and turn it into a diamond ... it's an interesting marketing strategy," Shor said. "What natural diamonds do is connect people to the Earth. That's one of the reasons they're revered. Since synthetics don't come from the ground, to repeat that connection in some way is probably a good marketing strategy."