The idea of his own mortality always made Rusty VandenBiesen nervous. He didn’t want to spend eternity in a pine box or an urn, where he felt he’d surely be forgotten by the living. He longed for an alternative that would make him feel better about his own passing — something that would allow him to live on, in a sense, and remain with those he loved.
In 1999, he conceived of a way for the living to memorialize the deceased and keep them close. Super close — as close as a wedding ring or a ballpoint pen in your breast pocket. For some, perhaps, too close.
“He started doing research on the makeup of the human body, and one of the things he found was carbon, which is the building block of all living things,” says Dean VandenBiesen, Rusty’s older brother. “Diamonds are made of carbon, so he just kind of put two and two together.”
Turning your loved ones into the quintessential girl’s best friend might sound unorthodox at first, but according to Dean, it’s just a reconstitution of the carbon contained in a lock of hair or cremains. Dean, a geologist and technical writer, helped Rusty’s dream become reality when they founded LifeGem along with Greg and Mike Herro in 2001.
Almost immediately, the fledgling company got calls from pet owners who wanted diamonds commemorating their four-legged family members.
“We were getting literally hundreds of emails from pet owners within days of releasing this,” Dean says. “We rolled that out pretty quickly because the demand was there right away.”
One of LifeGem’s first kitty clients was a couple from New York who wanted a diamond to commemorate their orange tabby. They even had a 200-character poem laser-engraved on the girdle of the diamond in honor of their beloved cat.
"It was an orange cat, so they wanted a yellow diamond, as big as they could get," Dean says. "At the time we were offering a 1-karat diamond, and the 1 karats tend to be a little bit orangey, just like the cat. It tells you the significance of that cat in this couple’s life."
Another client wanted to bejewel herself with her deceased Siamese so badly that she unearthed the cat, whom she had buried in her yard, and had his remains cremated.
"There was sort of a sense of regret with her that she had buried the cat, and she always felt funny about it," Dean says. "Then she found out about this, and it sort of solved her dilemma."
The process for turning a cat into diamond is rather complex. After the carbon is isolated from hair or ashes, it is subjected to high temperature and pressure, causing it to crystallize into a diamond. The rock is then cut and polished based on each client’s preferences. The technology used by LifeGem is not new — it was developed by General Electric in the 1950s — but it uses its own patented process to extract the carbon from remains.
According to Dean, this has allowed the company to create one-of-a-kind “memorial diamonds.”
“Most people are really surprised by the novelty of it and the uniqueness of it,” he adds. “Some people don’t like it just because it’s so nontraditional, but a lot of people who have initially reacted negatively, if you give them a few days, will come back and say that it makes sense.”
It makes so much sense to LifeGem’s founders, in fact, that two of them have created diamonds from their own pets. But LifeGem isn’t in the business of changing anyone’s mind, and Dean readily acknowledges that not everyone is going to be comfortable with the service.
"We don’t really want to persuade anyone from their beliefs," he says. "We respect people’s opinions and accept the fact that not everyone is going to want to do this. If people feel that way about it, that’s fine with us."
It’s also something that not everyone can afford. Prices on the LifeGem website start around $2,500 and increase to almost $25,000.
Enough people are into it, though, that LifeGem fills 500 to 700 orders a year. And the diamonds are legit: Each rock is certified by the Gemological Institute of America. Another question Dean hears frequently: "How do I know this diamond is actually made from my pet?"
LifeGem addresses this particular concern by assigning each order "a unique identification number that is used to track it throughout the process from start to finish," Dean says. The company also updates clients via email as each phase of production, which can take from six to nine months. According to Dean, this helps people feel included in the process.
"It’s a major accomplishment if we can just provide a small amount of comfort to someone who’s grieving and brighten up their day just a little bit," he says. "We’ve really accomplished something big."