When her business mentor, Tracey Kaufman, died in 2015 after a battle with pancreatic cancer, Adelle Archer wanted to honor her legacy.
"She'd had such a huge impact on me," Archer says. "I wanted to do something for her that felt as special as she was."
Archer explored her options for what to do with the share of her mentor's ashes she'd been given by Kaufman's family, but she didn't find any of them particularly inspiring. At the time, she was working with a diamond-growing lab in South Carolina. One day she and one of the company's technicians discussed the possibility of creating diamonds from ashes, made possible by the fact that they contain carbon--the key ingredient to processing the precious stones.
"That's when it all came together," Archer says. Today, she is co-founder of Eterneva, a startup that creates diamonds from cremated remains. During an eight-month process, the company turns ashes into a stone of the customer's chosen weight, color, and cut, and mounts it onto a piece of jewelry, like a ring or necklace.
The concept might sound a bit strange--and even creepy. But to hear Archer explain it, it actually makes sense.
"A diamond lasts more than a single generation, the way an urn of ashes won't," says the 27-year-old entrepreneur. "Nobody wants to inherit that, but they of course want to inherit their great-grandfather's diamond."
Archer is trying to capitalize on a growing market. Three decades after accounting for only 10 percent of the death care industry in the U.S., the number of cremations surpassed the number of burials in 2015, according to the Cremation Association of North America. In all, the U.S. death care industry generated $14.2 billion in revenue in 2016, according to the Department of Commerce.
To create its diamonds, Eterneva requires one cup of ashes, generally less than an eighth of what a typical cremation produces. Some of those are stored as a backup, while the rest are sent to a diamond-growing lab in Amsterdam, which applies hundreds of thousands of pounds per square inch of pressure over time. (The startup is opening its own lab in Austin later this year.) Once a rough diamond is formed, it's sent to one of several cutters the startup works with in Antwerp.
Eterneva keeps its customers updated throughout, with each client being assigned one contact person to see the process through from start to finish. When the time comes to deliver the finished product, the startup hires a courier service to hand deliver it. If the customer is in Texas, the company will send an employee to bring it to the customer's door.
"We work to make sure we have an insanely tight process," Archer says. "For these people, we're literally handling the most important thing in the world."
Changing your relationship with loss.
To memorialize her mentor, Archer chose to create a yellow diamond--Kaufman's favorite color--which she then gave it to Kaufman's family. Other customers follow similar routes, often choosing a color their loved ones would have liked. The diamonds come in a traditional colorless design, as well as red, blue, green, pink, yellow, and black.
The diamonds are pricier than natural ones: A 0.5 carat diamond runs about $7,000 on average. But that's on par with the startup's handful of competitors, which include LifeGem, Lonité, and Heart in Diamond. Archer says Eterneva's personalized process gives it a competitive advantage: The startup is in touch with clients at least once a month with texts, photos, or videos until the diamond is ready.
In fall 2017, a few months after launching the startup, Archer and her business partners quit their jobs and turned to Eterneva full time. The company did $280,000 in sales last year, and Archer projects $2 million for 2018.
The company finds itself in an expanding market: Cremations are now so common that, while families once had to use crematoriums, many funeral homes today offer the service themselves. One such business is Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Nie Family Funeral Home & Cremation Service, which added the option in the late 1990s. Company president and National Funeral Directors Association member Dutch Nie says that while many families still opt for traditional memorial services, what they do with their loved ones' ashes varies greatly.
"They're commemorating special places where they've been by spreading the ashes, or they're burying the urn in a cemetery plot, or they're creating keepsakes--having a small portion of the cremated remains in a necklace so that it's close to their heart and they've got that person with them," he says. "You hear from families that it's important to have them around and remember them."
That's a sentiment Archer has heard often. The majority of Eterneva's customers have recently gone through tragedies, which puts her in a unique position to provide comfort, but also to grow personally.
"I've learned so much from my customers about death and grief and love," she says. One woman who lost her 19-year-old daughter in a car accident chose to have her ashes turned into a blue diamond ring. "She told me that she wants people to comment on it," Archer says. "It gives her an opportunity to talk about her daughter. People don't want their loved one to be forgotten--they want to talk about them. They want them to be remembered and celebrated."
While those types of stories are typical of Eterneva's customers, the company isn't limited to human remains as a starting point. Some customers have had their pets' ashes turned into diamonds, while others have created engagement rings from locks of hair. Another customer recently reached out about having the ashes from his home, which burned down during the wildfires in Ventura County, California, earlier this year, put into a ring--which Archer says the company will be able to execute, thanks to wood's high carbon content.
But the main clientele remains those who have lost a person dear to them. In those cases, Archer's startup is helping memorialize a loved one. That comes with enormous responsibility--an idea that isn't lost on Archer.
"I genuinely know I'm changing a person's relationship with loss," she says, "and that means the world to me."