Memorial diamonds are forever, even if questions linger

As she lay semi-conscious in a Honduran hospital, Madam Dona Lee struggled to absorb the news that her husband was dead.

Her beloved spouse had been gunned down as an innocent bystander in a street shooting, which also left her injured.

Amid her grief, the 42-year-old Singaporean's thoughts wandered to a magazine article she had read a year earlier - about "memorial diamonds" made from human ashes. At the time, she had thought nothing of it. But now, it seemed the perfect way to preserve her husband's memory - by turning him into a precious stone that she could keep close at all times. The businesswoman, who was based in Honduras, flew home from the Central American nation last year and approached a company that does this: Algordanza Singapore.

Madam Lee's memorial diamond is among a growing number being commissioned by customers of the firm.

But some of the firm's claims are disputed by gemologists and chemists, who say questions remain about the stones' production and authenticity. These concern their source, monetary value and the science behind the ash-to-diamonds process.

The business is a subsidiary of the Switzerland- based Algordanza International, which operates in Europe, Asia and the Americas. Its chief executive, Mr Ang Ziqian, is also director of one of Singapore's largest funeral companies, Ang Chin Moh Casket.

More than 20 memorial diamonds were commissioned last year by customers of Algordanza, which began business in March 2010. It had fewer than 10 orders in its first year. Mr Ang, 31, attributed the growth to an increasing number of people buying into the idea of a memorial diamond as a beautiful way to remember someone.

"People are less sceptical and more open to new ways to hold on to the memory of their loved ones now," he said.

Three clients of Algordanza told The Straits Times they believed the company to be reliable and found the explanation of the process reasonable.

To create a memorial diamond, about 500g of a dead person's cremated remains are collected. Carbon is extracted from the ashes and subjected to high heat and pressure to transform it into graphite, the raw material for making a diamond. Synthetic diamonds are created through a similar process. Algordanza's clients are given a certificate guaranteeing the origin of their diamond as the cremation ashes, as well as a chemical analysis of the gem.

But Mr Russell Shor, senior industry analyst at the Gemological Institute of America - one of the world's foremost authorities on diamonds - told The Straits Times it is not possible to know, after the fact, what the diamond was made from.

Another point of contention is the cost. Algordanza Singapore charges between $4,588 for an uncut and unpolished 0.25 carat memorial diamond, and $33,999 for a one-carat cut and polished gem.

Natural diamonds are priced at between $2,000 and $40,000 for one-carat stones, said Singapore Jewellers' Association president Ho Nai Chuen - with the upper limit charged for "flawless cuts". Synthetic diamonds with the same cut and carat size cost "much less" and their best quality cannot match that of natural diamonds, he added.

International boutique brand gordonMax is one of the few retailers in Singapore that sell synthetic diamonds. Its website and salesman confirmed that it sells a one-carat, hand-cut, colourless, synthetic diamond at US$280 (S$347).

Mr Ang said prices are high for Algordanza diamonds primarily because of their "unique blue-ish colour", which he says comes from the mineral boron present in the ashes. They are also priced for their emotional value, he said.

Another controversy is over whether there is enough carbon in human ashes to produce a diamond. Experts appear divided over this, with some saying cremated remains are made up of mainly calcium phosphates and minerals such as potassium and sodium, and there is not enough carbon left to make even a small diamond.

But Dr Ong Chin Choon, a senior lecturer of forensic chemistry at Singapore Polytechnic's School of Chemical and Life Sciences, said it was theoretically possible to produce more than 30 one-carat diamonds from a wholly cremated adult body of average weight.

When told of the various views held by experts, Mr Ang wrote in a statement that "gemologists are entitled to their opinions but we expect these opinions to be based on fact and not hearsay or without having actually viewed the creation process of the Algordanza memorial diamond".

He added that the firm "stands by its guarantee that the Algordanza memorial diamond is produced through a thorough laboratory process where carbon is extricated from the cremated ashes of a deceased person".

There have been no complaints against Algordanza Singapore. But one client, 41-year-old artist Wang Fei, said he might query the authorities when told about the doubts expressed by some experts.

Madam Lee, however, said she has gone through enough with her husband's death. "It doesn't bother me at all that I may not be able to verify if this was indeed from my husband's ashes. It's enough to have something beautiful to remember him by," she said.