Ashes to Ashes, Dust to … Diamonds?

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A border collie dog with a diamond ring balanced on its nose.

Iuliia Zavalishina / Getty Images

Think taxidermy is the only way to memorialize a deceased pet? Think again. A Chicago-based company can literally turn Fido into a prized jewel.

Started as a way to memorialize human family members, LifeGem made national headlines when it announced it could extract carbon from cremated remains and produce a lab-created diamond keepsake.

It’s a four-step process: The cremated remains are heated to 5,000 degrees Celsius, which reduces them to purified carbon. The carbon then goes into a diamond press, where heat and pressure are applied at the same time to create the gem. The entire process can take up to nine months.

While the company was started with humans in mind, it soon discovered an untapped market. “Immediately, from day one, we had plenty of pet owners calling us,” Greg Herro, the CEO of LifeGem, tells MNN. “That appealed to me as well. I’m a big pet lover.”

Herro practices what he preaches. He turned his own dog — a 150-pound bull mastiff named Root — into two diamonds. One ended up in a ring for his wife. The other is in a bracelet he wears. “It was a comfort to me, and that’s how I knew it was a comfort to everyone else.”

The company produces between 700 and 1,000 diamonds per year, about 20 percent of which are for pet owners. A doggy diamond can cost between $2,500 and $25,000 depending on its size and color. According to the American Pet Products Association, U.S. pet owners are expected to spend more than $55 billion on their pets in 2013.

LifeGem has now expanded beyond pet memorials and into conservation education. London's Royal Academy of Arts, as part of an exhibit on polar bears and global warming, had Herro’s company produce a diamond from a deceased polar bear’s arm. The finished product ended up in the museum. And Herro is quick to point out: “No polar bears were harmed during this process.”

Polar bears aren't the only unconventional LifeGem clients. Working with a collector of celebrity hair (yes, they do exist), the company turned a lock of hair from Ludwig van Beethoven into a diamond (pictured at right). It was auctioned for charity on eBay. The winning bid went to an international buyer who paid more than $200,000. And now LifeGem is incubating a lock of hair from Michael Jackson. “We’d like to make three small diamonds out of it, and offer them to his three children,” Herro says.

What does the future hold for LifeGem? While it started as a memorial company, it's now moving into the world of the living. A dad has turned locks from his daughters’ hair into a diamond gift for Mother’s Day. Engaged couples are combining their hair and creating unity diamonds.

“It’s becoming more of a mainstream diamond with ultimate significance as opposed to just a rare rock,” Herro says, adding: “Although ours are rare, that I know.”