From Ashes To Ashes To Diamonds: A Way To Treasure The Dead

Jan 19, 2014
Originally published on January 19, 2014 11:59 am

Diamonds are supposed to be a girl's best friend. Now, they might also be her mother, father or grandmother.

Swiss company Algordanza takes cremated human remains and — under high heat and pressure that mimic conditions deep within the Earth — compresses them into diamonds.

Rinaldo Willy, the company's founder and CEO, says he came up with the idea a decade ago. Since then, his customer base has expanded to 24 countries.

Each year, the remains of between 800 and 900 people enter the facility. About three months later, they exit as diamonds, to be kept in a box or turned into jewelry.

Most of the stones come out blue, Willy says, because the human body contains trace amounts of boron, an element that may be involved in bone formation. Occasionally, though, a diamond pops out white, yellow or close to black – Willy's not sure why. Regardless, he says, "every diamond from each person is slightly different. It's always a unique diamond."

Most of the orders Algordanza receives come from relatives of the recently deceased, though some people make arrangements for themselves to become diamonds once they've died. Willy says about 25 percent of his customers are from Japan.

At between $5,000 and $22,000, the process costs as much as some funerals. The process and machinery involved are about the same as in a lab that makes synthetic diamonds from other carbon materials.

The basic process reduces the ash to carbon, then slides it into a machine that applies intense heat and pressure — for weeks. That's at least several hundred million years faster than diamonds are made in nature.

"The more time you give this process, the bigger the rough diamond starts to grow," Willy says. After the new diamond cools off, the crystal is ground and cut to shape, and sometimes engraved with a laser.

It only takes about a pound of ashes to make a single diamond, Willy says. His company has created up to nine diamonds from one individual's ashes.

Algordanza isn't the only company blinging out the afterlife, either. An American company called LifeGem offers the same services, and there are a number of U.S. patents for similar procedures.

Most of the time, Willy says, people take the diamonds to a jeweler to be made into rings or pendants.

"I don't know why, but if the diamond is blue, and the deceased also had blue eyes, I hear almost every time that the diamond had the same color as the eyes of the deceased," says Willy, who personally delivers the diamonds to his Swiss customers.

Each time, he says, the family is happy that their loved one has, in a sense, returned home. And in sparkling form to boot.

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Ten years ago, Rinaldo Willy was reading about how to make synthetic diamonds from ashes when he realized any kind of ashes might work, even those of a human. Today, his company turns people into diamonds, or rather they take cremation ashes and compress them at very high heat, turning them into these precious gems. Rinaldo Willy joins us from Switzerland, where his company, Algordanza Memorial Diamonds, is based. Welcome to the show, Mr. Willy.


MARTIN: Can you break it down for us? How does this work?

WILLY: Well, the process is in two parts. The chemical part is to gain the carbon out of the cremation ashes. And the physical part is to imitate nature by using a machine, which is able to build up a lot of pressure and heat. The more time you give this process, the bigger the rough diamond starts to grow.

MARTIN: And I understand that the diamonds you're making don't all come out the same color.

WILLY: Yeah. We were also surprised at the beginning when every diamond got blue. And we figured out by analysis that it's the element boron who gives the diamond the bluish diamond. But one time the diamonds turned white and we were a bit irritated, not secure if we had done any mistake or if we got any impurity during the process. So, we repeat it and it turned again white. And after we have got information that this person died of cancer and was treated very aggressive with chemo...

MARTIN: Um-hum. Chemotherapy.

WILLY: ...and the chemistry was telling us, well, chemo has an influence on the amount of boron. So, we assumed that was the reason why the diamonds got white. But what we have is every diamond from each person, it's slightly different. So, it's always a unique diamond.

MARTIN: So, what do people do with these diamonds?

WILLY: What we know from Europe, the very favorite is to produce jewelry out of it. We know from Asia culture that they prefer a lot of pendants. So, it's always depending from culture.

MARTIN: Have you reached out or have you communicated at all from families who have received these diamonds?

WILLY: The most reaction, astonishing, is happiness. I don't know why. But say if the diamond is blue and the deceased had also blue eyes, I hear almost every time the diamond had the same color of the eyes. And they were happy that a family member comes back home.

MARTIN: Rinaldo Willy is the founder and CEO of Algordanza, a company that makes diamonds out of human remains. He joined us from Switzerland. Mr. Willy, thanks so much for talking with us.

WILLY: Was my pleasure.


MARTIN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.