Continental Jewelers on Connecticut Avenue has a glass case displaying a pretty engagement ring. Its white-gold setting is studded with three pale, glittering jewels. You'd never guess it, but those little rocks aren't diamonds. They're moissanite, says store owner Jim Gianforte -- man-made stones from a North Carolina company called Charles & Colvard. Because they're not the Real Thing, the ring costs $1,150 rather than $8,500.
It's not selling well.
Would Marilyn Monroe have sung "Moissanite is a Girl's Best Friend"? Does "Moissanite Is Forever" strike an emotional chord?
"It's not even 1 percent of my business," Gianforte admits, with a shrug.
Charles & Colvard developed the process for turning a mineral called silicon carbide into crystals (it involves a combination of high pressure, gases and chemicals) in the late 1980s. The company patented the sparkly substance as moissanite, and introduced a jewelry-ready version of the stuff to the market in 1998. CEO Robert Thomas promotes the jewel not as "a simulation of a diamond," but "as a unique stone that's better than a diamond."
It's almost as hard as a diamond, Thomas says, and it's actually more brilliant and lustrous than a diamond; its structure makes it refract and disperse light even more dazzlingly. It's one-tenth the price of a diamond.
But it's not a diamond.
"She wants her diamond," says Gianforte of the typical bride-to-be. "If it's not a diamond, then it's not really an engagement in her mind."
A diamond alternative like moissanite faces a potentially insurmountable marketing challenge. It's competing as a lower-priced version of something that has a fantastic psychological appeal: With the help of some effective advertising, diamonds have come to represent love, eternity, preciousness, purity, glamour, and, of course, affluence.
Which is why diamond jewelry is a $30 billion industry in the United States and why the stone's allure has hardly been lessened by reports that its profits have funded bloody wars in Africa and maybe even Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist group.
And it's certainly no secret that one company, DeBeers, controls two-thirds of the world's diamond supply.
No matter. A diamond engagement ring is "hugely symbolic," says Millie Bratten, editor in chief of Bride's Magazine. "It says to their friends that they're adored."
"My mother wouldn't recognize our engagement until she saw the ring," says Nancy Anderson, 28, who's planning an Annapolis wedding for October. She's been sporting an eye-catchingly large diamond ring that she helped her fiance pick out.
The diamond ring is "a cultural imperative," explains Brandee Dallow, spokesperson for the Diamond Information Center. And especially since Sept. 11, she says, "people have been looking for a way to express their emotions. What better way than with a diamond?"
Michelle Ormond adds that diamonds are "natural." Ormond, who works for the Jewelry Information Center, gets deep and cosmic when she talks about it: "A diamond is born out of Mother Earth, creating itself for thousands of years before it makes its way to your finger."
(And you thought it was just crushed coal!)
In case a guy is confused about the appropriate amount to spend on his loved one's rock, the people from the diamond industry suggest that his purchase be worth two months' salary. DeBeers'sWeb site, www.adiamondisforever.com, provides a little "2 months' salary guideline calculator" to help out the mathematically challenged. People use it.
But Charles & Colvard hasn't given up. It's forging ahead, and, to its credit, it has at least figured out that it needs descriptive lingo a bit more romantic than "a proprietary, colorless, lab-created gemstone." It now markets moissanite as a unique jewel "born from a star, now available on Earth."
And it's been a while since the company changed its name from C3Inc. -- which sounds more like an Internet start-up than a maker of expensive-looking love tokens -- to the more appropriate one (rich-and-proper and Britishy) that they have today.
Thomas explains that his company is hopes to attract the pragmatic women out there, "the sophisticated people who understand what jewelry is, who are starting to think, "Wait a minute. I can have a beautiful engagement ring and spend $2,000 rather than $20,000, and we can spend that $18,000 on a down payment for a house.' " Or on a new car, a few weeks in Tuscany, a favorite charity and a trip around the world.
It may not be forever, but it's something.
-- Christina Ianzito