This innovation makes Stofenmacher a disruptor in a powerful heritage industry. She has partnered with Diamond Foundry, the Silicon Valley tech company backed by high-profile investors, including Blood Diamond star Leonardo DiCaprio. Diamond Foundry uses science to mimic the natural conditions that create diamonds and grow them in a lab in San Francisco. As soon as she entered the jewelry business, Stofenmacher struggled with the ethical implications of using diamonds. At Vrai & Oro, a business founded on the principles of sustainability and supply chain transparency, she used only very small stones, with the understanding that these tiny diamonds were not usually mined in conflict areas.
But as she prepared to enter the engagement space with VOW, she knew she had to address her own moral concerns head-on. Although the international Kimberley Process, which has been in place since 2003, provides a series of strict requirements that trace the paths of rough diamonds, Stofenmacher still felt uncomfortable with its limitations. “We could have launched with a different stone, but diamonds have such a connection to engagements,” she says. “For me, diamonds are special. Every diamond has unique flaws, which is the best part to me because no marriage is perfect and it’s a beautiful symbol of that.”
Then, by chance, Stofenmacher saw a friend’s engagement announcement on Instagram, a picture of a ring with the caption, “This diamond was grown in California.” She started chasing down the source of the stone, Diamond Foundry, with the frenzy of a superfan. “I emailed them over and over,” she recalls. Finally, she got a call from the company’s Senior Vice President of Sales, Ritu Raj, while she was at her best friend’s wedding in Hawaii. They talked for hours. “We realized we had so much more in common than just a jewelry designer and supplier relationship,” she says. “We were looking at jewelry from the same direction, with startup mentalities, and online focused.”
After meeting with Diamond Foundry’s CEO, R. Martin Roscheisen, he surprised her with an offer to “join forces.” In November, two days before Thanksgiving, Diamond Foundry officially acquired Vrai & Oro, with Stofenmacher remaining President of her company and named Creative Director of Diamond Foundry as well. Although she had rejected offers of investment capital in the past because the partnerships didn’t feel right, Stofenmacher says she had no second thoughts about teaming up with Diamond Foundry. “I’m not worried about growing to a billion-dollar company,” she says. “With Diamond Foundry, the opportunity was to create actual change.”’
The feeling is mutual. “We're psyched to team up with Vanessa and her team at Vrai & Oro!” R. Martin Roscheisen says. “As we change this industry from mine to finger, Vanessa is the creative force behind what's effectively the West Coast answer to Tiffany & Co. for the modern generation.”
The mined diamond industry is robust, with global demand for the stones at $79 billion in 2015, according to De Beers’s 2016 Insight Report. While the market for lab-grown stones is still nascent (the De Beers report describes consumer demand for them as “negligible”) their very existence has posed an existential threat to the traditional diamond world. Sellers of mined diamonds worry that lab-grown stones threaten the value of diamonds in a number of ways, from the possibility that unscrupulous retailers won’t label them properly, to the sense that the science of an aboveground mine is crucially less romantic than the processes that happen deep in the earth.
But for Stofenmacher, the latter concern especially is just old-fashioned thinking. Among women in their twenties–the age when they’re likely to get engaged–she finds almost no resistance to the idea of wearing a lab-grown diamond. “The industry is being very defensive,” she says. “They’re trying to connect to millennials, but they’re not a millennial brand.”
A millennial herself, Stofenmacher not only has strong ideas about diamonds, but she also has a unique perspective about how to sell engagement rings. Unlike traditional jewelers, VOW is positioned to appeal to women, not men. Inspired by her best friend, who did extensive research about rings before her now-husband proposed, Stofenmacher wanted to create a service for women to discreetly try on wedding jewelry before settling on the ring. To that end, VOW customers can order a “mock box,” with three sample rings, to arrive at their homes, and then simply send it back within a week, once they’ve picked one.
The settings of the mock rings are inexpensive brass, plated in gold. The stones are cubic zirconia, a simulant diamond, which, as Stofenmacher and her partners at Diamond Foundry would have you know, is not at all the same thing as a lab-grown gemstone.