Where the Dead Become Diamonds

A Swiss company wants to change the way people mourn by transforming the remains of their loved ones into gems.

Luke MacGregor / Reuters

“When a man of 80 kilos is cremated, he becomes 2.5 kilos of ashes,” Rinaldo Willy explained. “With these ashes, we make a diamond of 0.2 grams, smaller than a button on your shirt. How heavy is the soul—if we have a soul?”

In its coupling of the tangible and intangible, it is a question that epitomizes Willy’s work. Every year, Algordanza, the company he founded in 2004, receives more than 800 urns filled with human ashes. For between $5,000 and $20,000, the contents of each parcel are transformed into a diamond.

It is also more than a diamond. “Maybe ‘soul’ is too strong of a word,” Willy continued, still struggling to define the essence of his product. “Our process is purely physical—but if the deceased had blue eyes, and the diamond turns out blue, you can be sure that the family will say, ‘Oh, it’s exactly the color of his eyes.’”

We were sitting on the cool leather couches of Algordanza’s simple reception room in the sleepy town of Chur, Switzerland. Tucked away high in the Alps, the town seems isolated, and yet events as diverse as the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Chilean earthquake, the Fukushima meltdown, and the terror bombings in Madrid have all sent ripples through Algordanza’s halls. Within weeks of a major incident the parcels begin to arrive. “We had a British soldier from Afghanistan recently,” Willy mentioned. “He came home and then he came to us. His body—not him, of course.”

The route from the train station in Chur to the company’s facility passes through medieval cobblestone streets, a golf course, and wildflower fields. It is a journey that many grieving clients make. “We ask that the family either brings the ashes or picks up the diamond in person,” explained Willy, 34. “For us, it’s important that they see who the people taking care of their loved ones are.” The pilgrimage to Chur is just one part of a choreography that Willy has designed around the six-month gem-making process. As one of the first companies to enter the memorial diamond business a decade ago, Algordanza, whose name means “remembrance” in the local Romansh language, has developed a tradition all its own.

“I told my staff that they are not allowed to make condolences at the beginning,” Willy said. “You don’t know the people. You don’t know their story. It’s not honest. During this process, however, we inform the clients every time we do something—for example, when the chemical analysis is done, or when we start the growing process. So, if you start to form a certain relationship—if you make chitchat, and you start to learn who the deceased was, how he died, and who the relatives are—if you feel that you want to make a condolence then, you may, because it’s honest.”

Rinaldo Willy displays one of his diamonds. (Roc Morin)

Other protocols include standing outside as the family departs until they are out of view, and delivering the finished diamond by hand inside of a polished wooden box like the one on the table before me. I watched as Willy slowly donned white cotton gloves and in a series of precise gestures unfolded the box without a sound. It opened like a flower to reveal the diamond inside on a little pyramid. “It is special to me when I am able to deliver a diamond in person,” he confided. “We do it in the living room or the kitchen with everyone around the table. It’s a very emotional moment when you are returning a family member who was away for six months. The diamonds always bring back beautiful memories. If there are tears, they are tears of happiness.”

In the laboratory down the hall, the gloves came out again. “We never touch the ashes or the diamonds with our hands,” Willy explained. “It’s too intimate for us.” He gestured towards a row of white canvas covers. “During the process when we’re waiting for the next step, we always cover the remains so that they’re not naked. We do this because we believe that’s how we would like to be treated—not as a material.”

Each set of remains is assigned a reference number, both for discretion and for the emotional health of the employees. “It helps the people working with the ashes to have a certain distance,” Willy said. “For me, the French are the most difficult. They have this philosophy to send a photograph of the deceased along with the urn. It’s difficult to see a girl of nine years. What has she seen of this life?”

In accordance with Willy’s principles of dignity, Algordanza refrains from accepting pets, adding extra carbon if there is not enough to make a diamond (except in the case of infants), and artificially coloring their gems. “Technically, we could make diamonds that are yellow, green, blue, or red, like our competitors do,” Willy insisted, “but we believe in no manipulations. As soon as you have additives, there’s something in the diamond that doesn’t belong.”

Instead of being predetermined, the color of each Algordanza diamond results from the specific combination of trace elements present in an individual’s body. Fake teeth, titanium hips, or the remnants of chemotherapy can all impact color. Nitrogen lends a yellow hue. Traces of phosphorescent chemicals can produce diamonds that glow in the dark. The blue cast that so often reminds families of the eyes of the deceased is the result of boron in the ashes, though an excess will turn a diamond black, as it did in one recent order. “I had an older gentleman calling me in tears,” Willy confessed. “He said, ‘I don’t understand. My wife was not a bad person.’ People always associate the color of the diamond with the characteristics of the person—black diamond, black soul. Go ahead, try to explain to a man in that situation that his wife is not a bad person.”

Despite the occasional disappointment, Willy said, most clients are grateful for the service his company provides. “Memorial diamonds are changing the way we mourn,” he explained. “When you bury someone, you always have a bad conscience. You have to visit him at the cemetery. Nobody likes to go to the cemetery. It’s a negative association. You start to imagine him under the earth with worms in his body. If you cremate somebody, it’s black and it’s dirty. Diamonds though, have always had a positive association. We turn dirty ashes and bones into something beautiful. Instead of feeling loss, you can remember that person’s life.”

Willy stands next to Algordanza's diamond presses. (Roc Morin)

Most of Algordanza’s diamonds are eventually crafted into jewelry, worn by clients who want to be able to carry the presence of their loved ones with them at all times. “Many people talk to their diamonds,” Willy remarked. “If a wife wears her husband’s diamond in a necklace, there are the usual jokes: ‘He was always wishing to be between my breasts,’ or ‘He wanted to be close to my heart.’”

Some customers bury their diamonds in meaningful places. One widower threw his gem into the lake where he likes to fish. “There was another older man, a farmer who was dying of cancer,” Willy recalled. “He said, ‘When you make me into a diamond, just bury it in the backyard. One day when somebody finds me—can you imagine how happy that person will be?’ I said, ‘Lutzi, you’re crazy.’ But I thought it was beautiful to be confronted with death and still think about the happiness of others.”

As we talked, the director led us out a back door. We strolled through the mountain fog towards a soft humming sound. The hum intensified as we entered the building that houses Algordanza’s three diamond presses. Day and night they buzz with the quiet violence of the forces they replicate—transcendental cataclysms deep inside the earth. It is here, at temperatures reaching 2,500°F and pressures of nearly 800,000 pounds per square inch, that the carbon extracted from human ashes is transfigured into diamonds. We paused to listen. There was a cadence to the droning that sounded almost like chanting. The 18-ton machines looked like enormous idols. Willy laughed when I compared them to Aztec gods.

“This could be a kind of temple,” he considered. “We hope that in five years we can construct a new building here, maybe a cathedral for the machines.”

We talked about how jewels are used as spiritual metaphors in so many of the world’s religions. I mentioned the Buddhist belief that pearl-like objects called śarīra can be found in the cremated ashes of spiritual masters.

“Yes,” Willy smiled. “We had a party of South Koreans visiting who offered us some of those gems to analyze. It was clear to us that someone must have slipped them into the mouth of the corpse, or maybe the person swallowed them before he died. We can prove chemically where gems come from, and these were clearly from a mine. They were not organic. It was interesting to us though, because it helps us understand the way people think—if you are a good person, then in your ashes, you leave a gem.”