Lydia McCarthy-Keen is a luxury, ethical jeweller and purveyor of the world’s finest lab-created diamonds.
Operating from her office in London, Lydia is helping to change the way smart people buy luxury diamonds so we can move towards sustainability in the luxury space in a truly meaningful way.
Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role
I’m Lydia McCarthy-Keen. I’m a wholesale diamond broker and a bespoke jeweller based in London; I typically save my clients up to 30% on the retail price of high-quality diamonds. I’m also the UK’s leading expert on lab-grown diamonds.
If you are not familiar with lab-grown diamonds, they are very real diamonds, but created using 21st century technology, so when created effectively, they are cleaner, clearer and cheaper than their mined counterparts.
The best way to understand how we grow diamonds is to imagine water crystallising into ice; we can wait for that to happen on a lake, or we can build a freezer, add water, and then let nature take its course. Under the right conditions, water will crystallise, and it’s the same for diamonds.
My current role is all about transforming the way smart people buy diamonds, because I am profoundly passionate about uniting true luxury with absolute sustainability.
My background is in mining, and most people aren’t aware that diamond mining causes carbon emissions – it’s 57,000 grams of emissions per one carat mined, compared to 0.028 grams for one carat of lab-grown. We have a decade to transform our carbon emissions, but we will not make it if we can only inspire a handful of people to be perfect – we need a critical mass making an impact in their own personal sphere of influence.
My sphere of influence is in luxury jewellery; what I do puts pressure on an industry that doesn’t want to change, and offers diamond-lovers a luxurious way to live up to their values.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
Not at all, and also all the time! When I’m dedicated to a project, I plan it meticulously – otherwise there’s nothing to measure and improve upon. But I didn’t plan on becoming a diamond dealer or a jeweller from childhood, although it’s so easy to see the synergies now, with hindsight.
When I was nine, my father took me to a jeweller to help choose a surprise gift for my mother. It was the first time I experienced the magic of diamonds and I was totally captivated – I’ve held a private obsession with them ever since.
Years later, whilst working in mining and growing weary of managing the inevitable deaths, I came across Mohammed – he was born in the same year as me, and at nine years old, he lost a limb as part of the blood diamond civil war in Sierra Leone. I just couldn’t get my head around knowing that my world was transformed so positively by diamonds when I was nine, and yet here was this guy who paid such a high price for their sourcing.
Today, I am the UK’s most ethical diamond dealer, and every sale I make provides a prosthetic limb to an amputee blood diamond victim, of which there are an estimated 27,000. I work with the charity, Legs4Africa, who take prosthetic limbs which would otherwise end up in landfill, break them down, and send them to West Africa where they can be re-made to fit amputees.
Have you faced any challenges along the way?
Transitioning from mining into jewellery design was one of the easier tasks – I’m naturally creative and have a strong aesthetic, and I have an incredible design and manufacturing team, who have all held contracts at De Beers, Cartier and Boodles.
However, there are ongoing challenges with being an advocate for lab-grown diamonds. We have to remember that the diamond industry is old and rich and doesn’t want to change. It relies on the consumer having faith that only a mined diamond is a real diamond, so to be able to grow identical diamonds above-ground is a direct challenge to that perception.
There are also challenges with communicating to the consumer – lab-grown diamonds are new, disruptive and exciting, which is branding better-suited to tech companies and food rather than a luxury product which has traditionally relied on history, trust and prestige for its marketing. It’s an exciting challenge though, and fun to look for new ways to talk to consumers who love luxury and prestige, but also have deeper values.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
Creating lab-grown diamond jewellery for some high net worth and higher profile individuals who I wouldn’t typically have associated with the product.
When I first started promoting lab-grown diamonds over mined, I thought about talking to younger couples looking to make a more conscious choice and who were keen to get more value from their purchase. I didn’t think that a slightly older, wealthier clientele who regularly shopped at premium brands would be the target market, but I was wrong, and that gave me so much hope for the future.
If these men and women, who can buy any jewellery they want from any brand, prefer to buy from me, then I think we have a real shot at transforming the sector for the better.
And of course, those days when photos of a Sierra Leonian amputee now up on their feet drops into my inbox – I might just have had an appointment that didn’t lead to a sale, or an argument with a naysayer, and then this image comes in, and reminds me that I’m doing the right thing with my life.
What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?
Being willing to say, F-it.
All women are subject to particular societal pressures and norms not always conducive to helping us develop self-esteem and the backbone needed to cope with the inevitable failures that come from trying to build something new, and I think this applies just as much to corporate women building teams as it does to entrepreneurs.
We can all read the newspaper and the statistics on women in business. The best thing I have ever done is put the newspaper down and focussed on what I want to create and what I stand for, and I have had a lot of people tell me I’m doing it all wrong. I’m willing to say F-it and I’m willing to feel emotionally uncomfortable so I can do what I now know I was born to do.
How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?
I’ve just been brought on as a mentor as CASS Business School, where I hope I can guide young, aspiring entrepreneurs who want to set up for-profit ethical businesses. I think entrepreneurs can get a little caught up with the idea of getting a mentor however.
I think the most important thing is to surround ourselves with inspiring people whom we admire and are making an impact in the world. Sometimes we just need someone who is a little bit ahead of us in one particular area for us to make progress. Don’t get me wrong, mentors are excellent, but it’s a relationship which has to develop naturally in my opinion.
If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Parity, what would it be?
We’ve all read the statistics and the evidence on gender parity, and most women have some sort of life experience to back it up, but really, I’m all about taking personal responsibility and I feel that the statistics haven’t been written about me yet.
True stats on me will only be possible once I’m dead, and by then, I won’t care anyway, so I personally believe that the best way to accelerate the pace of change for myself is to focus on myself and what I am up to in the workplace, rather than focussing on the broader issue, which I feel is outside of my personal remit.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?
You are a good person – don’t worry so much.
What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
My next challenge is to go public with the fact that I am the UK’s leading expert on lab-grown diamonds, and become more visible online.
Working wholesale kept me out of the public eye, but now that consumers are ready to do something as cool and as radical as really questioning the origin of their diamonds to the point where they are willing to make a different choice, I know I need to be more prominent if I want to use my business to support that desire and effect real, positive change.
I want to be part of the generation that accelerates the creation of a world without fossil fuels and without mining, which is really where we are all headed.
How can we work with you?
The best way is to email [email protected] to arrange a call for a quick, initial exploration of your idea.
I also have lots of downloadable advice on choosing, pricing, and buying jewellery for yourself or for gifts, straight from the broker’s mouth. They’re free, so drop us a line and we will send them out – I promise not to spam you.