It takes perhaps a billion years to make a diamond, and just 87 minutes to shatter so many of the misconceptions audiences have about them in “Nothing Lasts Forever.” Make that eight minutes. That’s roughly the point at which jewelry designer (and “Stone” author) Aja Raden — the only woman interviewed in Jason Kohn’s wild, decade-long delve into the secretive world of the diamond industry — offers up this gem: “The truth about diamonds is: They’re all exactly the same, and none of them are really worth anything.”
For some, that revelation could hit with the force of being told there’s no Santa Claus, even though it’s been an open secret for ages. Most audiences probably already have some inkling of how the De Beers diamond cartel took a not-particularly-rare stone and infused it with value by cornering the market, stockpiling most of the world’s supply and controlling the release at such a rate as to set the price. (This phenomenon is hardly limited to gems.) None of this would matter if the demand weren’t there, but it is, thanks to one of the most successful marketing campaigns of all time: the infamous “A diamond is forever” tagline, whereby De Beers convinced the world that only a diamond would do for wedding engagement purposes.
All of this context is entertainingly woven throughout “Nothing Lasts Forever,” though the core of Kohn’s inquiry concerns the emergence of synthetic diamonds and how these lab-grown alternatives are affecting the market — a market that was human-made to begin with, somewhere between tulip bulbs and NFTs in the loony history of mass delusions. We’re talking about “carbon copies,” in the most literal sense, and how there’s now almost no limit on the quantity that can be produced.
At a molecular level, there’s practically no meaningful difference between natural and synthetic stones, insists the film’s Cassandra-like protagonist, a pitiful Serbian gemologist named Dusan Simic. He once specialized in distinguishing between the two, but his services became obsolete once De Beers released a machine that could do the same. Simic claims the device isn’t very effective at actually catching synthetics. By not identifying impostors, the machine was designed to assure the market that there is no problem of mixing, Simic suggests, whereas he estimates that somewhere in the order of 5% of the diamonds being sold as natural are in fact artificial (which is not the same thing as “fake,” mind you).
Does it matter? To the industry it does. After all, prices are essentially invented, and the so-called value of a diamond exists largely in the head of the person who receives it. Kohn opens the film by sampling vintage VHS marketing videos — the kind in which sophisticated Elizabeth Taylor-looking women pronounce the word “dah-monds” and men are told that a worthy engagement ring should cost three months’ salary. Early on, diamond pricing authority Martin Rapaport reiterates the idea that keeps this inherently silly industry in operation: A woman subconsciously projects the value of whatever rock she’s given onto herself. Color me skeptical, though I understand how status symbols work and recognize that we’ve been conditioned to judge others by the size of the stones on their fingers.
Much later in the film, Kohn includes a clip of Rapaport presenting at a Las Vegas trade show, where he speaks the line that sums up the big-picture diamond drama: “If we lose the engagement ring market, we’re all out of business.” Keno! Fittingly enough, the market — rather than the underlying resource — serves as the focus of Kohn’s multifaceted film, the raw stone he slices and examines from so many intriguing angles.
Like Rapaport, many of the experts Kohn interviews took some serious convincing to participate. His big get is De Beers CEO Stephen Lussier, who married into the Oppenheimer family but still recalls his humble origins, shoveling snow from childhood neighbor Tracy Hall’s driveway (Hall was a pioneer in the field of synthetic diamonds for General Electric). An affable enough fellow, Lussier toes the party line on what he aptly calls “the diamond dream.” But you don’t need a gemologist’s loupe to spot the flaws in his logic. Apart from the endlessly quotable Raden, practically all the talking heads are self-serving — as when synthetic-producing physicist John Janik admits he stands to “make money by destroying the gem industry.”
On the surface, “Nothing Lasts Forever” is a solid, investigative documentary, shot and scored like a tight art-house thriller: Kohn travels to Orapa, Botswana, where shots of a huge open-pit mine echo the beginning of the Safdie brothers’ “Uncut Gems” (the rest of the film is every bit as tense and potentially mind-blowing as that movie). He takes us inside the Indian “diamond city” of Surat, where he interviews a “mixer” exploiting the fact that once the stones are cut and polished, they cannot be differentiated. He even follows Simic to several Chinese factories where synthetics are manufactured.
Over the course of his research, Kohn effectively cracks the case of where the synthetic gems have been coming from, since diamonds that were once being manufactured strictly for industrial purposes started leaking into jewelers’ hands. (De Beers responded by introducing its Lightbox line — which Raden amusingly refers to as “a lie about a lie.”) Reduced to working as a ride-share driver at one point, Simic develops a synthetic-labeling process he tries to sell to the industry. But his idea never would have worked, since it relies on the honor system — not unlike the GIA certification racket. By the end, Simic has adopted an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach, manufacturing his own synthetics with nitrogen bonds that are even closer to those of natural diamonds.
That’s all rich. But it’s delving into the film’s myriad economic and philosophical dimensions that proves most rewarding. What do diamonds represent to us? Where did our romantic associations with them originate? Why do jewelers insist on downplaying the ethical advantages of synthetics? And how does overpaying for an engagement ring affect the prices of the diamonds used in optics, medicine and electronics? Kohn has created the rare documentary that transforms the way we understand the world, questioning so many of our core beliefs, including the very notion of what is “real.” Through it all, diamonds won’t lose one iota of their sparkle, but you’ll never look at them the same way again.