A Swiss company wants to change the way people mourn by transforming the remains of their loved ones into gems.
|Rinaldo Willy displays one of his diamonds.|
“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.”
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?”
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