Jewelry often holds sentimental value. But a Swiss startup is taking this notion to a whole new extreme. For a starting price of $5,000, Algordanza will forge a sparkling diamond from the ashes of someone who has passed away.
The concept of turning people into gemstones is not only plausible, but surprisingly straightforward. It's somewhat common knowledge that all living organisms are made of the same residual dust from stars that exploded long ago. In the case of diamonds, these same carbon remnants are baked and compressed beneath the earth's mantle under extreme temperatures through the course of several million—sometimes billion—years. Algordanza founder and CEO Rinaldo Willy's idea was simply to develop a technology capable of artificially mimicking this process using the charred, granular remains of the deceased.
A similar method has been used since the 1990s to create lab-grown synthetic diamonds. In terms of composition and monetary value, Gary Roskin, a former professor at the Gemological Institute of America and editor of Gem News Magazine, rates human-derived diamonds (for lack of a better term) as comparable in quality to synthetic diamonds. The process involves treating the cremated samples with special chemicals to extract usable carbon elements. But before the substance can be made into a diamond, it's first heated and transformed into a pure crystalline state known as graphite, the same stuff used in pencils. The graphite is then placed in a machine and subjected to a high pressure, high temperature (HPHT) environment, similar to the conditions in the Earth's mantle. There, heat as high as 2,500 degrees Celsius combined with a force of over 870,000 pounds per square inch (PSI) causes the carbon atoms to bond. In a matter of weeks, a diamond (roughly one carat) is ready to be cut.
“They [labs] these days can take any carbon material, whether it is the remains from cremation, charcoal, graphite, peanut butter, what have you, and retrieve elemental carbon,” says Roskin. “And it is this carbon that they then use to create a gem-quality diamond."
While naturally-occurring mined diamonds are generally worth more than those burnished in a lab, any distinction between them, he explains, exists as more of a social construct than anything. “Whether created by Mother Nature or by a human in a factory, a diamond is a diamond," he emphasizes. “In fact, most of your created diamonds are of better quality than a lot of the mined diamonds you might find in the jewelry stores of those large big box retailers that sell the $99 tennis bracelet.”
What makes Algordanza's memorial diamonds somewhat peculiar, though, is that the stones tend to retain characteristics entirely unique to the individual. In an interview with Vice Magazine, Willy points out, for example, that the ashes of those who wore dentures or prostheses typically form diamonds of less purity. Also, while stones usually come out blue, hues can range from clear to black due to varying levels of boron, a trace mineral absorbed through certain foods.
Although Roskin thinks memorial diamonds can be a compelling option, his only worry, as is often the case with new technologies, is the lack of oversight. There is no way for customers to scientifically verify that the stones are made from their loved ones' ashes. While Algordanza provides a certificate documenting the process, ultimately "it's up to the consumers to make themselves comfortable enough with the company to feel certain that they're getting what they pay for," he adds.
Despite being fairly novel, the idea of memorializing a family member in the form of a crystal accessory is gaining popularity, particularly among certain cultures. Each year, the company's processing facility in Spring, Texas, receives between 800 and 900 orders. Of those, a quarter of the requests come from Japan, where nearly all the dead are cremated. And though the company’s service seems geared toward the affluent, Willy touts the procedure as a practical alternative to burials, which can be more costly and burdensome in the long run.
"One of the reasons they [customers] give us is economic—they want to avoid the costs of burial in a cemetery," Willy tells Vice. "In other cases, they’re people living alone and very far from the place where they were born, who are afraid that nobody would properly care for their grave if they were buried."