Helena is the lead investor and strategic partner of Aether. Together, we’re working to scale a proprietary first-in-kind use case for sequestered carbon: premium-grade diamonds.
Indistinguishable from the highest quality mined diamonds on Earth, Aether is ethically intervening in a product category steeped in environmental and human rights exploitation – and meeting the demand of a new age of conscious consumerism.
Supporting direct air carbon capture has been central to Helena’s climate goals since our inaugural project. Since then, we have been searching for ways to create meaningful market demand for the industry.
Anointed by industry insiders and in-demand among consumers, we believe Aether answers this call.
In 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the first part of its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) on climate change. The Report paints a bleak but unsurprising picture: human greenhouse gas emissions have caused around 1.1℃ of warming since 1850-1900; to keep warming at or below 1.5℃, the world must significantly roll back carbon emissions and become net-zero by midcentury at the latest; but, at its current pace, we will emit enough CO2 to blow through our carbon budget in the next eight years.
In the report, the IPCC also makes clear that in order to limit warming to 1.5℃, we will need to not just limit the CO2 we emit, but actually remove existing CO2. Every single projection that the IPCC examined that successfully limits heating to 1.5℃ requires some degree of carbon dioxide removal.
Currently, we have the technology to pull and sequester carbon dioxide directly from locations where CO2 is being emitted (called Point Source Carbon Capture, or PSC), as well as from ambient air (Direct Air Carbon Capture, or DAC).
Climeworks, which Helena supported in its first project, Factory in the Sky, recently launched the largest DAC facility of its kind. Orca captures roughly 4000 tons of CO2 annually, which is about .00001% of global emissions.
To reach “Net Zero” this technology will need to scale – but capturing and sequestering carbon is expensive. In the absence of significant government regulations or incentives, Helena believes the most impactful path forward is to establish legitimately profitable use cases for captured carbon.
Currently, captured carbon goes to one of three places: injected underground, into the ocean, or in materials (called “carbon-to-value”). There is little market for underground injection, and the ocean – already the world’s largest and best carbon sink – is overwhelmed and acidifying from the CO2 it is already absorbing.
The carbon-to-value market has a number of possible players, including cement and concrete; oil and gas production, chemicals; and consumer products like soda, shoes, watches, yoga mats, alcohol, and perfume.
Ultimately, the ones that have the best chance of significant and enduring impact are those that have higher profit margins to weather possible carbon price fluctuations, and those that sequester the carbon in goods that maintain their integrity, in order to store that carbon permanently. Diamonds tick both boxes.
Few industries are more in need of revolution than the diamond trade. From 1960 to 2005, global annual rough diamond production increased almost 500%, from about 30 million carats to 177 million.
Mines opened worldwide, but roughly 65% of gem-quality diamonds come from mines in Africa, particularly in the Southern, Central, and Western areas. The value of diamonds relative to GDP in these regions is extraordinary. For local actors, the incentives to extract diamonds exceed the often lethal consequences, and competition to control mines has fueled decades of insurgencies and coups and led to devastating widespread human rights violations.
The environmental impact is also significant.
Although some countries, like Canada, have very strict environmental regulations, in less developed areas, environmental oversight has been practically nonexistent. Beyond the depletion of rare earth minerals, extraction leads to soil erosion and deforestation, rock displacement and water contamination.
Rivers are rerouted and dammed; entire communities are relocated. Open-pit mining is especially dangerous. Not only does it destroy the land, but it leaves behind artificial pits of stagnant water. A 2013 resurgence of malaria in Venezuela is attributed to the proliferation of open-pit mining.
To complicate matters, production of mined-diamonds has likely peaked.
According to Bain’s most recent report, rough diamond production has decreased about 5% per year since 2017, a trend that will likely continue as some of the world’s most prolific mines reach depletion.
Demand, on the other hand, remains strong. In that same report, Bain projects demand to continue to grow 1-3% annually. This combination of high demand and depleting supply could be dangerous, as the pressure on producers could spur even more harmful practices.
But it can also inspire valuable, much-needed change: diamonds that have all the benefits and characteristics of their mined relatives but that are created sustainably–even beneficially.
We at Helena think we have found the best one.
The diamond consumer is changing – and the market is following suit.
Sustainability, transparency, and social welfare play an increasingly important role in consumer decision-making, particularly for younger generations, and the percentage of people that would consider a lab-grown diamond engagement ring has increased by more than 20% since 2009.
The lab-grown diamond industry saw double-digit growth in 2020, with total lab-grown carats sold reaching 6 to 7mm. Pandora, the world’s largest jeweler, announced in Spring 2021 that it was moving exclusively to lab-grown diamonds.
Historically, there are two ways to produce a lab-grown diamond. Neither are perfect.
The first is the high-pressure, high temperature (HPHT) process, which requires a diamond seed to be placed in pure carbon, then subjected to intense pressure (north of 70,000 atmospheres) and heat (more than 2000℃) for a long enough time that the carbon melts and new diamond is created around the seed.
The second is the chemical vapor deposition (CVD) process, In CVD, a diamond seed is also placed in a high temperature chamber (though only about half as hot as HPHT). The chamber is flooded with hydrocarbon gases (i.e. fossil fuels), which are then ionized, isolating the pure carbon, which collects and crystallizes atom by atom on the diamond seed.
Statistics differ on the exact energy requirement for both the HPHT and CVD processes, but it’s not insignificant, with alarms raised about both the quantity of energy required and the potential for that energy–as well as the carbon and hydrocarbon in CVD–to be sourced from fossil fuels. According to Forbes, even the Lighthouse (De Beers’s lab-grown diamond arm) CMO Sally Morrison admitted in 2019 that their lab-grown diamonds were not yet sustainable due to energy sources and consumption.
Aether diamonds are an entirely new product category.
Aether uses CVD, but instead of employing fossil fuels to create its hydrocarbon, Aether’s proprietary process uses pure CO2 directly sequestered from the air.
Aether has no detrimental effect on the environment through outsized fossil fuel consumption, and the diamonds it produces can be compared to the highest quality mined diamonds in quality, clarity, strength, and color.
The result is the inception of a new luxury category, defined by a beautiful product that not only mitigates the consequences of diamond mining but also creates a viable commercial pipeline for direct air carbon capture.
Aether’s diamonds are set in responsibly-sourced metal, and every diamond is environmentally net-negative: the company has pledged to remove 20 tons of CO2 for every carat they sell. They are priced competitively with luxury mined diamonds, which means their margins allow them to be agnostic regarding carbon price, and their product is atomically identical to mined diamonds, which means each piece of diamond jewelry is a practically permanent carbon sink.
In addition to leading Aether’s $18mm Series A equity round, Helena is also partnering with the company to support its commercial expansion.
Aether’s proprietary technology has implications for industries that use diamonds for saws, drills, blades, bevels, etc.–and those industries are vast: the USGS, for example, estimated that the United States’ automotive industry consumed 1.5 carats of industrial diamond for every car produced. Between its superior quality and its extensive commercial applications, we believe Aether offers a meaningful vehicle to drive the evolution of the direct air capture sector necessary to achieving Net Zero targets.
On February 17th, 2022, Aether became the first and only diamond producer in the world to receive a B Corp Certification.
A B Corp Certification is awarded to a company based on its social and environmental impact, and it is one of the most prestigious and esteemed accreditations a company can receive in the sustainability space.
The certification process is rigorous. To earn B Corp Certification, a company is evaluated by B Lab, a third party non-profit, on the company’s “entire social and environmental impact.”
This includes its social and environmental performance, its accountability to all stakeholders (not just shareholders), and its transparency in making public its social and environmental impact and performance. Over the last ten years, more than 100,000 companies have applied for B Corp Certification; Aether is one of fewer than 5,000 to have received it.
This was just the latest in a string of awards and recognition that Aether has recently received. Inc. magazine named Aether one of its “Best in Business” for 2021 in the “Environmental Issues” category. Fast Company awarded it a 2021 Innovation by Design Award, and the Accessories Council gave it the Member’s Choice Sustainability Award. In March 2022, Aether was named to one of the “World’s Most Innovative Companies” by Fast Company and highlighted as No. 7 within the Consumer Goods category.
On August 1st, 2022, Aether unveiled its first fine jewelry collection, prompting industry authorities to signal the brand’s widening presence in the luxury diamond market.
Distinguished by its directional point of view, the statement-making line solidifies the brand’s offering as a wholly unique product category. Noting that “we wanted to do something different with our product,” Chief Design Officer and Stephen Webster alum Jenna Housby explains, “everything [in the lab-grown space] was quite generic and we wanted strong design that created a handwriting for our product to tell a story.”
The article is just one indicator that Aether is making waves in both fashion and sustainability circles. Named a Best for the World B Corp, Aether’s luxury bona fides are underscored by the addition of Alain Bernard to the board. Previously, Bernard served as President and CEO of both Richemont North America and Van Cleef & Arpels.
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Sometimes, we believe that the most effective method to implement a project is through for-profit action, including investment and/or the founding and operation of businesses.
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