We have certain expectations of how diamonds should look: as clear and colourless as distilled water, or in colours such as canary yellow, bubblegum pink and even deep blue. Diamond grading systems such as the GIA (Gemological Institute of America) International Diamond Grading System and GIA Colored Diamonds Color Reference Charts reinforce these as desirable qualities by instituting values for diamonds that measure how close they are to colourlessness and how free of inclusions or blemishes they are, and evaluating coloured diamonds based on their hue, tone and saturation.
Auction results show how it is a system that is like a self‑fulfilling prophecy: gemstones that are graded at the highest levels have sold for massive sums, such as the 101.4‑carat D colour, internally flawless “Claire G Diamond” that Sotheby’s auctioned for US$13 million (about S$17.75 million) last June, and the 29.6‑carat fancy intense yellow, very slightly included diamond that Christie’s auctioned for €529,200 (about S$764,937) this June. Some of the most renowned diamonds—the Koh‑i‑Noor, Tiffany Yellow, Pink Star, Oppenheimer Blue, and so on—fall into those archetypes too.
For diamonds that do not fulfil those stringent criteria, however, their fate could be a lot less spectacular. Diamonds that are not precisely colourless or in a desirable colour typically fall in the space of looking off‑white or in various shades of yellow and brown. Add in the perceptible presence of inclusions or imperfections, and these stones tend to get channelled towards industrial purposes, such as computer chip production, machinery manufacturing, and stone cutting and polishing.
But just as #bodypositivity has made consumers more aware that there is no one ideal physique, diamonds in earthy colours are getting their turn in the spotlight and experiencing an uptick in visibility. Described (and marketed) in more appetising terms, such as champagne, cognac, caramel and even salt‑and‑pepper diamonds, these stones are emerging from the shadows of their more conventionally attractive siblings and experiencing a renaissance at the hands of skilled jewellers with contrarian vision.
As far back as 2000, New York‑based jewellery company Le Vian went to the extent of trademarking the name Chocolate Diamonds for its fancy dark brown gems. More recently, actress Scarlett Johansson appeared at the 2019 Comic‑Con International wearing an engagement ring, believed to be made by Taffin, featuring an oval 11‑carat pale brown diamond supported by a curved black ceramic band. And in 2022, the Earth Star, a 111.59‑carat fancy deep orange‑brown diamond set into an azurmalachite pendant by jewellery brand David Webb, was auctioned by Sotheby’s for US$693,000—lower than its presale estimate of between US$1.5 million and US$2.5 million, but a significant sum nonetheless.
The desire for jewellery set with coloured gemstones has always been around, because people look to colour and design to express emotions, memories and sentiment, says Shanya Amarasuriya, creative director of BP de Silva Jewellers. “[But] consumers now are more aware of the choices available. In the past, a lot more traditional marketing went into colourless diamonds, but now, with social media creating conversations across the globe at the click of a button, coloured gemstones, as well as less conventional diamond colours and cuts, are also capturing hearts and have become more than an alternative; they’re desired in their own right. At some point in jewellery history, even yellow diamonds were not desirable, but they’re so beloved now, so I always [tell] my team to stay curious and open.”
Simone Ng, founder of Simone Jewels, also credits digital media with promoting awareness of diamonds in less sought‑after colours. “Consumers learnt that there are alternative diamond options without breaking the bank; these don’t necessarily need to be for investment [purposes],” she says. “For decades, they’ve been used for less expensive jewellery and even decorative ornaments. Such uses are possible because the supply of these diamonds is larger compared to that of the high‑clarity white and fancy‑coloured diamonds.”
And for Evelyn Chung, founder of Twomorrow, a jewellery brand born late last year to showcase the beauty of salt‑and‑pepper diamonds, the appeal and potential of earthy‑coloured diamonds is so strong that the brand is launching its Champagne Diamond Collection this November. “The ability of these colours to stand out yet blend in makes them an exquisite choice that never gets old,” Chung says. “Although some may say that white diamonds are classic, coloured diamonds have a flair of their own. We see many clients coming in asking for unique pieces that capture their personality and style, and they love unconventional diamonds for [their distinctive qualities].”
The value of diamonds is broadly determined by factors such as their colour intensity, clarity, cut, carat weight and, of course, rarity, explains Ng. For brown as well as salt‑and‑pepper diamonds, their vast supply—at the now‑shuttered Argyle mine in Western Australia, a significant source of fancy pink diamonds, brown diamonds made up about 80 per cent of the total output—and lower colour and clarity grades make them much more accessible.
It helps that the appearance of such gems can be enhanced through their cut and setting. For example, salt‑and‑pepper diamonds are more commonly rose cut, which presents a subtler glimmer compared to the scintillation of a brilliant cut and allows the diamonds’ inclusions to become the main attraction, says Amarasuriya, adding that a minimal setting such as a prong setting could show that off better. “At BP de Silva Jewellers, we believe there are charms to all natural gemstones when it comes to jewellery design. It’s really about what speaks to the wearer,” she says.
While Simone Jewels mainly works with high‑quality and rare gemstones and diamonds, Ng says that through its bespoke service, the brand has remodelled jewellery using cognac, champagne and salt‑and‑pepper diamonds. She suggests setting them in one of two ways: going for a muted or even monotone look, or combining the main stone with other gems in colours that complement it.
And at Twomorrow, Chung recommends pairings that bring bold contrast or pleasing harmony: white metal set with darker brown diamonds creates “warmth against starker backgrounds for an edgier expression”; rose gold with champagne diamonds for more drama and depth; and salt‑and‑pepper diamonds next to colourless accent diamonds to bring out the uniqueness of each stone.
So what is the outlook for earthy‑coloured diamonds: are they a flash in the pan or are they here to stay? “I think it’s definitely a trend to watch, and as a jewellery lover myself, I’m quite heartened to see more people being so invested in the type of jewellery they wear to represent a part of themselves,” Amarasuriya says. “When clients come to us with less conventional ideas, it really humbles me because they trust us with their vision. They’re looking for something one of a kind to tell their story through a precious keepsake.”
While cognac and champagne diamonds are becoming increasingly popular due to their affordability and the variety of shades available, making them accessible to a broader range of consumers, demand for such diamonds can still fluctuate over time, influenced by fashion trends, marketing efforts and consumer preferences, Ng explains. “The most common comment from customers,” she adds, “is that it’s fun and exciting to own a larger diamond that’s less expensive and has an interesting colour. With time, when customers learn more about diamonds, they may also want to collect the rarer ones.”
To Chung, with more people looking for something different from traditional white diamonds, what initially began as a somewhat niche market has now inspired change by showing that beauty comes in all shapes and shades. She says: “I feel that unconventional diamonds represent so much more than mere trendiness: They represent a cultural shift in how we view beauty and perfection.”