Manuel Mallen believes that lab-grown diamonds are the future. A veteran of the high jewelry market, having managed Baume & Mercier and Piaget, the Founder and President of French maison Courbet talks about the brand’s ecological and technological positioning, ambitions for the China market, the belief that digital sales are the way forward and his plans to launch made-in-France diamonds.
You have been at the head of several French jewelry houses. Why found your own brand?
I've always had projects on the side with varying degrees of success and I come from a family of entrepreneurs. The buyout of Poiray (I was part of the operation to acquire the house), was a big step for me, but Courbet is another story, as it was an ex-nihilo creation in 2018. I would not have done it on my own, but the arrival of Marie-Ann Wachtmeister, my associate who creates all of our collections, sealed the deal!
What was the driving idea behind the creation of Courbet?
It was relatively simple: to create beautiful pieces of jewelry that were also virtuous; this translated for us into pieces made exclusively with recycled gold and diamonds created in a laboratory.
You say that technology has been essential in building the brand.
Yes, because technology has allowed us to be environmentally friendly. A diamond created in a lab is much more sustainable than its mined counterpart and the recycling process for materials is also thanks to technology.
Where do you source your recycled gold?
A portion comes from "traditional" recycled material, from jewelry for example, but most of our gold is sourced in urban mines - where computers, mobile phones and graphic cards are recovered. For this we work with Umicore, a specialist in recovered metals.
And your diamonds?
It depends on the size of the diamond, but we try to purchase them in labs where the energy is cleanest as it's a very energy-intensive process to make a diamond. Indeed, this is the only aspect where our ecological claims could be challenged. Today we work mainly with labs in Russia and the US, but we’re looking to go local.
Lab diamonds are extremely rare and very few large stones are produced using this process. When a mine is opened, if you find twenty 30-carat diamonds you collect every single one. Creating a large diamond in a lab is complicated, it takes time and the result is very uncertain as you can ‘grow’ it for three months and it could be unusable in the end. The more time goes into it, the more uncertain the outcome as even the slightest malfunction will impact the stone.
Courbet sold the largest diamond ever created, a 9-carat and it took an entire year to make; we went through three failures for one success!
The rarity of lab diamonds impacts price, yet they retail for less than mined diamonds. Why is that?
A lab diamond is three times more expensive to create than a mined diamond, but as we have greatly reduced the number of intermediaries — one or two for a lab diamond, compared to between 10 and 14 for a mined diamond — they are sold 30% cheaper.
Does your ecological approach extend to the packaging?
Yes of course, but finding the right packaging was incredibly complicated for us! We wanted to stay in the realm of le bon et le beau (good, in the sense of virtuous, and beautiful). We finally found the right solution thanks to a French company, Atelier Virginie Wiertz that now designs and manufactures all of our boxes. They are in recycled leather, are dyed with organic inks and folded using the origami technique in order to avoid having to use glue.
We are currently working on a new generation of packaging, but always with the same ecological and aesthetic priorities. The basis of the brief is to give the boxes a second life all the while meeting the constraints of protection, as most of our sales are done online.
How are you financing the company’s growth?
We raised an initial round of €3.6m in 2017, and in March 2020 raised another €8.5m, which, together with the debt, amounts to around €12m. Marie-Ann and I are the majority shareholders as it is essential for us to hold the reins.
Today our turnover stands at a little over €2m. When we started out we wanted the first two years to be a "test and learn" period for the brand, the name, the communication, the collections and our approach to retail — our long-term vision being that 75% of our sales will be digital. At the end of these two years, we decided the time had come to go abroad. Our most recent round of financing should allow us to do so.
Our customer base is about 65% French, with the rest in the US and Europe. We are starting to have Chinese clients.
What is your target export market?
Today it is China. Initially we would have liked to expand a bit more, but given the current context, we are focusing on France and China. We are fortunate to have a new investor in the form of Chinese digital communication company Hylink; this is the "smart money" we were seeking.
What is your strategy for developing in the China market?
We’re taking a digital-only approach and since January have been in a “teasing” phase. It's a lengthy and complicated process, but we firmly believe that it's the right strategy; there are 600 million Gen Z and millenials in China for whom sustainability makes sense and who are starting to open up to new brands.
Courbet is opening an office in Shanghai in April and hopefully a showroom (not a boutique) late 2021 or early 2022. We are very fond of the showroom and appointment model, rather than a retail store as it allows us to take time with our customers. They appreciate the ‘intimacy’ and they have a lot of questions; for us it's a way of cultivating loyalty, which has no price!
Your latest round of financing is also going towards R&D?
Yes, to create made-in-France diamonds. Today there are no diamond labs in France, so we’ve invested in Diam Concept, a company headed up by a researcher at the CNRS to create the first diamond lab in the country. Courbet is a small investor, but above all I want to secure sourcing. When the perfect diamond comes out of the lab, we aim to have priority!
You are the first brand to have integrated GoodsID technology into your products.
Yes, this solution is part of our digital strategy, as is the fact that we accept crypto-currency and that our site features a 3D configurator to create jewelry with an exceptional rendering. We were tempted by the potential of blockchain and with GoodsID’s technology we were able to add an insurance service. When a customer buys from Courbet, we give them all of the physical documents of course, but also in dematerialized form via the blockchain, which includes the two-year insurance policy that stipulates that we will replace a piece of jewelry if it’s stolen. This is an integrated service at no extra cost to the consumer, we didn’t raise our retail prices when it launched.
In addition to your plans for export, what else is on the cards for Courbet?
We are working on creating the biggest jewelry parure ever set with the largest lab diamond ever created, a 15-carat.
See the upcoming issue of Formes de Luxe for the full interview with Manuel Mallen.