Family Jewels

You can't take it with you, but you can have it made into a sparkly hat pin and Scottsdale businessman Bill Sefton can prove it. After his 27-year-old daughter Valerie died last September of Hodgkin's disease, Sefton had her ashes converted into diamonds by a Chicago-based company called LifeGem, which can convert the carbon contained in the human body into 100 different manmade diamonds.

Sefton, who had Valerie's diamond set into his wedding ring, is the first person in the world to have diamonds made from human remains which he says makes Valerie's legacy all the more shiny.

New Times: Where'd you get the idea?

Bill Sefton: My wife saw an article in the newspaper. At that point, Valerie was in intensive care, and her health was deteriorating. We quickly found a funeral home that would accommodate this process.

NT: How does this work? I read that they have to sort of stop the cremation process halfway through to, uh . . .

Sefton: It's true. Normally, in a cremation, carbon is burned off as carbon dioxide. But in order to have diamonds made from your ashes, they have to harvest the carbon during the cremation. So they stop it at one point and harvest carbon, and then they continue the cremation. You know, you end up getting the same amount of cremains you would have had in a normal cremation. We also received those.

NT: Can we have gems made from old ashes? I mean, if I wanted to have my grandmother made into an anklet or a paste brooch, could I do that?

Sefton: Evidently, yes. It's not as easy, and you can't get as much carbon from existing ashes, but it's there, and you can get enough carbon from old ashes to do what you need to do, jewelry-wise.

NT: So instead of a large stone, one might end up with several smaller ones?

Sefton: In the normal process, they can extract enough carbon to get about a hundred stones. We've only had six diamonds made so far.

NT: So far?

Sefton: LifeGem will store the carbon forever, so if, for some reason, I lose my diamond made from Valerie's ashes, I can call and order another. Or if another family member wants one, we could order one.

NT: Really. I mean, you can just call and order a pair of earrings made from your daughter's remains?

Sefton: Yeah. It's a pretty important thing to be able to do that. We can get more stones. It's not, you know, an endless supply. You can get about a hundred stones from a normal-sized person. That's a lot of diamonds.

NT: So if a famous or well-regarded person gets hit by a car . . .

Sefton: That's what we've been thinking. If this process had been available when Elvis died, how much would an Elvis stone be worth?

NT: Your Elvis sightings would be very different: "I just saw Elvis on a tennis bracelet!"

Sefton: Absolutely.

NT: Someone is going to make pots of money on this process. I wish I had thought of it.

Sefton: It's going to be enormous. There's nothing pleasant about spreading someone's ashes, but this is something pretty beautiful. I look at the stone I had made from Valerie, and it makes me feel good in spite of everything I had to deal with in losing her.

NT: How does having diamonds made from a dead person compare to the cost of a funeral?

Sefton: It depends on how many stones you get. Compared to a funeral, this could actually be cheaper. If you get a quarter-carat stone, it's about $2,300. But caskets run around $5,000 to $12,000. Then you have to buy a plot, and there's nothing tangible. Once you buy a casket, they bury it, and it's gone. You'll never see it again, hopefully. You have nothing to show for your expense.

NT: The deceased-people diamonds are sort of blue in color.

Sefton (extending hand with ring on it): There's a light blue cast to this one, but the stone that went to Valerie's mother is a deeper blue. That blue there is caused by boron, one of a bunch of different elements in the human body. LifeGem is talking about coming out with different colors down the road, which they'll get by radiating the stones.

NT: Some people might say this is ghoulish. Or cheesy!

Sefton: I haven't had any negative response. Everyone who knew Valerie has said, "Wow, what a wonderful idea!" I think the perception of this process is going to change as more people become aware of it.

NT: Well, it beats being buried. A diamond takes up a lot less room than a cemetery plot.

Sefton: This is a much more positive thing. Valerie fought Hodgkin's disease for years. We knew we were up against some pretty long odds. She left us a letter that told us that she didn't want to be buried, and she asked that we break up her ashes and distribute them among friends and family. She wanted to be remembered in a positive way.

NT: Did she know she was going to end up on your finger?

Sefton: No. By the time we found out we could do this, she was too far gone to have understood what we were talking about. The decision to do this was instantaneous, and everyone in the family has ordered a stone. Valerie is very special, because she's the first diamonds ever made out of a human. That's really a wonderful thing.

NT: How do you know the gems were made from Valerie's ashes?

Sefton: They're very careful about the whole process and how everything gets labeled, so you're sure to get the right ashes. The process is too new to be overseen by a government agency. But you know, they're doing this from pets, too.

NT: I know. And I worry that my niece might have her Doberman made into a nose ring. So, how do you go about insuring a ring like yours?

Sefton: I don't know. How do you put a value on something like this? I suppose you'd base its value on the cost to make a new one. But value-wise, it doesn't compare to a regular diamond. If I wanted to buy a flawless diamond, I'll go buy one. But if I want a piece of my daughter, I only have one choice.

NT: What are you going to have done with your ashes?

Sefton: I think that's up to my survivors. If it were up to me, I'd have myself made into a diamond and put into a piece of jewelry with my daughter.

NT: I want to do this! I want to be made into a diamond!

Sefton: It's a wonderful thing, isn't it? Compared to all the alternatives, this is a pretty cool thing. It's more comforting than spreading ashes, that's for sure.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela