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The Man Trying to ‘Democratize’ Diamond Cutting

Interview with Bernold Richerzhagen, founder and CEO of Swiss technology company Synova.

May 2, 2022 2:43 PM   By Joshua Freedman
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RAPAPORT... Automation is already having an effect on the diamond industry, whether in the fields of mining, grading or sorting. But the artificial intelligence (AI) that could transform the industry is in the manufacturing sector, where the trade is bracing for a wave of technological solutions that will likely reduce the need for human polishers.

At the center of this is Synova, a Swiss company in which De Beers holds a stake of roughly a third. Synova produces laser technology for cutting hard materials, including diamonds. In 2020, it launched the DaVinci system, which can cut all 57 facets of a round brilliant diamond in one operation.

In February of this year, the company signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Sarine Technologies, enabling manufacturers to use planning files from Sarine’s Advisor software when processing stones with DaVinci.

Rapaport News caught up with Synova founder and CEO Bernold Richerzhagen on the sidelines of the February Dubai Diamond Conference. Richerzhagen claimed the system could produce around 12,000 carats per year at half the cost of the cheapest manual cutter in India, offering a return on the initial investment over two to three years.

The technology could take jobs away from manual workers, he acknowledges. But, the executive argues, the overall benefit to the industry will be significant.

People are saying this essentially enables diamond manufacturing to take place anywhere. Where do you see that going?

You will probably see the machine everywhere in the world at various locations, and not only geographically, but also [across] the whole manufacturing chain. It can be at the miners. We have one customer in Canada [who] purchases Canadian diamonds [and wants to] have a fully Canadian-made diamond.

[At the moment,] everybody has to send the diamonds to India, and then it takes time, it costs money and you lose traceability. With DaVinci, all this changes. You can make a diamond very quickly. The full process from rough to polished you can do in a day. That changes the whole equation. Triple Ex is standard. The machine is more precise than any manual process. The precision is plus or minus three microns and nobody can do this by hand.

Is there a danger that the value of top-quality diamonds will diminish if every diamond is triple Ex?

That’s a good question, and I can’t really predict what will happen in this regard. I understand because there will be only one class, more or less, of cut quality. You can also imagine that the value will remain where today the triple Ex is.

Is the technology less likely to cause breakages?

Yes. [A customer said] that since he had [been using] the Laser MicroJet [an existing Synova machine using the same technology], in five years, he has not lost one single diamond due to breakage. And he’s cutting all the stress stones with our machines, so the machine is very soft and gentle to the stones, even to stress stones.

If I were a diamond manufacturer, I’d be concerned, because this really gives an opportunity for anyone to cut out the middleman. Could that happen?

Yes. I would even say that somehow we democratize diamond manufacturing. Everyone can do it. You don’t need a [lot of] training. In a week, you can learn to run the machine. Maybe to become perfect you need, like, a month.

Isn’t that going to kill the diamond trade?

For sure it will have an impact. I would not say today [it will] kill [the trade]. But I think it will make superfluous some of the intermediates. It’s a kind of disintermediation process that will happen with DaVinci.

So could this help large miners get into manufacturing at relatively low cost?

It’s open to everyone, so it is, of course, open to the miners. At the moment, we talk [more] to the smaller miners. [It would also be beneficial to manufacturers in] Botswana, in Angola, in Namibia. [Some goods] have to be polished locally, and it’s always difficult for these countries to establish polishing because they don’t have the expertise. But with DaVinci, it’s getting very easy, and they can run the machines even overnight.

By how much could a company reduce its workforce?

We haven’t yet quantified this. One operator can run...up to five machines. The throughput of a machine is up to 12,000 carats per year at 100% usage, which means six days a week, 24 hours. Of course, you need far fewer polishers. For the final step, it’s about one and a half hours for a 1-carat polished stone. And there’s still polishing needed, but much less. Maybe seven to eight times fewer polishers than today.

One of the good things that’s said about the diamond trade is that it supports whole communities. Is there a danger that these people will be out of work?

Over time, of course, the effect will be that the number of polishers will decrease. That is unavoidable. But still, there’s planning needed. Planning could be done offline.

We think about the impact of our technology. And I think it’s important that, for example, local government is informed about it and might take decisions to support changes to education so people learn more computer work — for planning — than polishing. It will take time, a couple of years.

How much technical background do you need to operate the machine?

The intelligence is done in the plan. So we shift all the human intelligence that is needed into the plan. The machine executes the plan precisely. The plan has to be perfect, because you can’t change the plan anymore during the cutting. This [planning] can be done in India, because they are also good planners with a lot of experience, but it’s a [job that requires a high level of education].

It seems like it creates jobs in the highly skilled, highly educated domain, but potentially at the expense of manual workers.

Of course, [demand for manual workers] will be reduced. But the Indians will then move their facilities partly to Africa and do the job there, because [some] of the stones have to be polished locally [in accordance with some miners’ beneficiation rules].

Does Africa have the necessary expertise?

[Indians] will have to transfer the knowledge from Surat to these African countries.

You mentioned that you could have automated manufacturing at the miner. What about at the retailer?

We think in the future the retailer might purchase rough material, either lab-grown diamonds or natural stones, and get it shaped locally, maybe in a kind of service center. Maybe even big retailers can do it themselves. The planning can be outsourced. The customer could get customized diamonds, even [a customized] shape.

Have you done any market research into whether consumers care whether the diamond was cut by a person or a machine?

The laser-shaped diamond still needs the final polishing step made by man. So you can always argue that the surface you touch has been made by a human. Most of the material has been removed by a machine. Why not even show a video to the customer?

How do you sell the machines? Do you sell them as capital equipment?

Yes, but we are now talking about different business models. One is the service center. We have already been doing it on a small scale at Synova for many years, but for industrial applications and, for diamonds, already in Surat for a while. So the idea is to expand that business model.

You recently signed an MoU with Sarine Technologies. Is there a potential that customers could get a one-stop shop, where the diamond is cut and graded together by you and Sarine?

Yes, that’s one of the potential future expansions of our cooperation. We are really complementary, both companies, and I think we both can offer the best technologies to the market.

Image: Bernold Richerzhagen. (Bernold Richerzhagen/LinkedIn)
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Tags: Bernold Richerzhagen, Joshua Freedman, Manufacturing, Rapaport News, synova, technology
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