For someone who was once enough of a chocoholic to actually create a ‘chocolate garden’ planting bed – but who can sadly no longer eat chocolate – the notion of having chocolate-themed jewelry seemed tailor-made. It’s clear that the jewelry industry has also jumped on the chocolate bandwagon in a big way, and the first and most successful marketing instance was the introduction of “chocolate” diamonds in the late 1990s. The descriptive term itself has since been registered by LeVian, although its widespread general use is similar to that of an earlier marketing trend elsewhere: “shabby chic” (which is also trademarked.)
What Color Are Chocolate Diamonds?
In reality, so-called “chocolate” diamonds are simply brown diamonds. However, “brown” covers a lot of ground ranging from (in food-related examples) a glass of watered-down champagne to a 99% Extra Dark Lindt bar.
All three of these are considered to be brown diamonds. Their GIA color descriptions are, from left to right: fancy light yellow brown, fancy yellow brown, fancy dark yellowish brown.
Brown diamonds that exhibit a noticeable orange tint are called “cognac” in the trade, although the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) uses the more prosaic but also more accurate color classification terms such as fancy orange brown, fancy deep orange brown, and fancy dark orange brown.
These are all examples of various fancy orange brown (a/k/a/ cognac) diamonds. Elizabeth Taylor’s 32-carat cognac (described by the GIA as “fancy deep brownish orangey yellow”) diamond ring sold for $2,322,500 at a Christies auction in 2011. Now that is a lot of cognac!
The GIA does not recognize either “chocolate” or “cognac” as a diamond color and does not even have an official color scale for brown diamonds, as they do for other diamonds. Retailers sometimes do include a color scale when selling brown diamonds but do not explain that the color scale is not from the GIA; it comes from an Australian diamond mining group called Rio Tinto. Australia is the largest producer of brown diamonds in the world.
The Rio Tinto color scale goes from C1 to C7, with C7 being the darkest brown. (In the first trio of brown diamonds above, the one at left is a C1 and the one at right is a C6-7.) But those color grades have nothing to do with the GIA. According to the Rio Tinto scale, “chocolate” means any diamond that meets or exceeds their C4 color level.
In the commercial marketplace, “chocolate” has come to mean what most people think of as milk or dark chocolate, with little (if any) of the orange or yellow tones that are generally associated with cognac or some champagne colored stones.
Brown Diamonds: A Cinderella Story?
Until about a decade ago, brown diamonds were the equivalent of Cinderella in her hearth-sweeping days: hardworking but generally ignored. They are actually the most common form of diamonds on the planet, and as such were (and still are) the diamond of choice for industrial purposes. Those diamond-coated saws and drill bits that masons use on bricks and pavers? Brown diamonds. Swiss Diamond brand cookware? Brown diamonds. Diamond-coated nail files? Brown diamonds. Because of their abundance they are only worth half as much as even average quality white diamonds.
Now, almost all diamonds have some degree of color (truly colorless diamonds, i.e., D on the GIA scale, are relatively rare) and that color is normally yellow. The yellow comes from nitrogen particles which are trapped inside the diamond as it was formed: more nitrogen results in more yellow because the nitrogen particles absorb blue light and thus reflect yellow light back to our eyes. The more nitrogen that a diamond contains, the more blue is absorbed and the more yellow we see when we look at the stone. A diamond is brown not only of the structure and siting of nitrogen particles within the stone but also due to some level of deformation in the structural lattice of the crystal itself.
Brown diamonds were essentially unknown (and undesirable) in the jewelry trade until the LeVian company, in partnership with the Rio Tinto mining group, decided to rebrand them as “chocolate.” Rio Tinto owns the Argyle Mine which was producing about 1/3 of the entire world’s brown diamond supply; a good 80% of the stones that have come from Argyle are brown (I used “have come” because the Argyle mine will be closed at the end of this year.) LeVian launched a massive marketing campaign that worked and, suddenly, brown – excuse me, chocolate – diamonds were the latest trend, and LeVian trademarked the name Chocolate Diamond® in 2000. LeVian claims that they select their brown diamonds according to their own standard of cut and clarity but that does not mean that brown diamonds coming from a source other than LeVian could not match or exceed those company-internal benchmarks.
LeVian has since trademarked other colors for their jewelry pieces, including Vanilla Diamonds®, Chocolate Quartz®, Vanilla Gold® and Strawberry Gold® (for 14k white gold and rose 14k gold settings.)
Even though the retail market price of brown diamonds is now higher – thanks to effective marketing and celebrity adopters – than it was before, they are still more affordable than any white diamond of comparable clarity, cut, and weight… usually about 50% less expensive if it is not a “designer” stone from LeVian, or about 35% less expensive if it is.
I should mention that all of the above information applies only to natural color diamonds. There are, of course, brown diamonds that are either treated or synthetic (completely manmade.) A poor-quality white diamond can be first irradiated and then heated to more than 600 °C in order to turn it brown. Synthetic brown diamonds are created in a lab from graphite (yes, the same stuff that’s in your lead pencil) that has been combined with nitrogen and nickel, then compressed and superheated.
In an ironic turnabout, brown diamonds can also be compressed and superheated in order to transform them into light yellow ones! This technique was developed in the late 1990s in Europe and the resulting stones are supposed to be identified within the industry as “processed diamonds.” In the USA such diamonds are marketed as Bellataire Diamonds, among others.
Examples of Chocolate®/Brown Diamonds
The first six rings below are all LeVian items.
Described as a combination of Chocolate Diamonds® and Vanilla Diamonds® in a 14K Vanilla Gold® setting, with a total diamond weight of 1 1/3 carats. Notice that they have plated the prongs of the stone settings with black rhodium so that the dark diamonds will not look smaller by contrasting with the lighter color gold.
The center stone in this ring is described as their Chocolatier® Chocolate Quartz® weighing 1.25 carats. The rose gold’s curving central bands are set with small Chocolate Diamonds® and the outer bands with Vanilla Diamonds®, for 1/2 carat combined total weight in the bands (and a total of about 2 c.w. in the ring itself.)
LeVian also uses some “foodie” names for other stones, although they don’t seem to have trademarked them as yet. This ring has a 1.5 carat Blueberry Blue Topaz accented with 0.38 carat total weight of Chocolate® and Vanilla Diamonds®.
In their 14k Strawberry Gold® setting, this ring with a 3 carat Raspberry Rhodolite Garnet also utilizes 1.5 carats of Chocolate® and Vanilla Diamonds®.
Here’s the exact same setting but with a Peach Morganite as the central stone instead of the garnet.
LeVian produced this 2 1/3 carat white opal ring exclusively for Macy’s. The total weight of the Chocolate® and Vanilla® accent diamonds is one-half carat. (approx. retail $3400)
The following examples are not LeVian products.
Major retailers are very careful not to step on LeVian’s chocolate-diamond copyrighted toes. Ross Simons advertises this ring simply as “a 1.70 carat round brilliant-cut brown diamond … surrounded by a halo and encrusted band of .65 ct. t.w. round brilliant-cut white diamonds.” The setting is 18k white gold, and the ring currently sells for $2100.
This simple ring with a 3/4 carat brown diamond (C7 on the Rio Tinto scale) from Manak is flanked by two white diamonds in a 14k white gold setting for a total weight of about 1 carat. A ring like this would sell for about $1500 from an independent (non-franchise) jeweler.
Like Zales, the majority of brown-diamond offerings from Jared come from LeVian but here is one that does not. They do not specify the carat weight of the central stone but only describe it as “a round natural brown diamond encircled by round white diamonds, with a layer of round natural brown diamonds… Additional round brown diamonds form a line on each side of the 14K rose gold band. The ring has a total diamond weight of 5/8 carat.” It is currently priced at $1300. The color of these diamonds is closer to a champagne than to brown.
Helzberg Jewelers has largely stayed away from brown diamonds, probably because they are not a LeVian dealer; the closest to a brown diamond ring in their current stock is this dome ring by Effy, whose color they advertise as “champagne.” The stones vary in size but most appear to be between 1 and 2.5 points (0.01 and 0.025 carat) although the total weight of the ring is 2 3/8 carat. The setting is 14k rose gold, and the ring currently sells for $3300.
The only other brown diamond ring Helzberg offers is this one which is described as having brown diamonds and a total weight of merely 1/8 carat. That, plus the bands which are only 10k rose gold and sterling silver, is why it sells for only $250. This is a good example of macro photography making a jewelry item look much more impressive than it does in reality!
By the way, a search of Tiffany’s web site for “brown diamond” brings up just one item: This multi-color ring designed by Paloma Picasso. One of the five bands – you can just barely glimpse it in the depths of the interior – is composed of brown diamonds. (The other bands are purple amethysts, green tsavorites, yellow citrines, and red rubellites.) The ring sells for $22,000.