Ever since he was a young child, Rusty VandenBiesen (LifeGem co-founder) had an issue with dying. Now that’s not too unusual, I’m sure most of us experience some discomfort when we think of our demise. Rusty’s fear was very specific, or so he thought.
Rusty’s fear was not so much about the act of dying as it was about being forever gone once he was dead. When he was a child of four, he asked a simple question after seeing a crucifix hanging on his Grandmother’s wall. “What is that?” Obviously, the answer was not so simple. In any case, his four-year-old mind absorbed as much as it could, twisted up the rest, and somehow spit out the thought, “Wow, once we’re gone, we’re gone. No proof we ever even existed.” He carried this with him from that time on. Quite a burdensome thought for someone who should, at most, be worried about what time Bugs Bunny came on channel 3.
As time passed, Rusty continued to dwell on this thought of being “forever gone.” He dreamed there would be a way to make a part of himself “forever here.” Then one day, ding, the light bulb went off. He had seen a special on TV about diamond making in which someone made the off-hand comment that diamonds could be made out of peanut butter. Why? Because peanut butter could be reduced to carbon, and diamonds were simply a crystallized form of carbon.
Now here’s an idea, Rusty thought. We’re made out of carbon, and diamonds are made out of carbon. If I could somehow turn myself into a diamond, not only would I finally be “forever here,” I would also be able to create one awesome memorial to comfort my family after I’m gone. Well, I don’t know if anyone ever successfully made a diamond out of peanut butter, but Rusty was sure successful!
I’ve heard better ideas, and I’ve heard worse…
His patent lawyer told him in early 1999. It’s all in the execution. How are you going to turn this idea into a reality? Enter his older brother Dean VandenBiesen (also a LifeGem co-founder). Dean had a degree in Geology, but more importantly, he had the “never give up” attitude that was needed to overcome the countless setbacks and make a diamond from cremated ashes a reality.
So began the three-year-long process of figuring out if indeed diamonds could be created from ashes. At every step of the way, they encountered a scientist saying the same thing… “It’s not possible.” And every step of the way, they somehow convinced these exact same scientists to try it anyway.
They said, “you won’t be able to get the carbon out of the ashes,” but they did.
They said, “you won’t be able to get the carbon pure enough,” but they did.
They said, “you won’t be able to create a diamond from that purified carbon,” but they did.
Finally, they said, “Okay, you’ve done it. But you won’t be able to do it cost-effectively enough for people to buy.” And Rusty and Dean said, “Hmmmm.”
You want me to invest in what?
That’s what Greg Herro heard over and over and over again. Greg was a family friend of the VandenBiesen brothers and the third co-founder of LifeGem. Greg was brought in for his entrepreneurial vision and leadership, although it still didn’t mean anyone was interested in investing in a high-risk start-up in a market that simply did not exist.
By now it was late 2002, almost four hard years had passed, and every dime the three owned had poured through the business like a sieve. And guess what, they had still not sold one. In fact, no one even knew about it. So the three inventors got together to rehashed their position. They figured out how to make a diamond from ashes. They figured out how to scrape together a lab to handle a production level of orders. The only thing that remained was to see if anyone else thought this was a good idea and would want one.
From 100 hits to 100,000!
With their last few nickels, they hired a Chicago media company to do a press release stating not much more than, “Chicago company creates diamonds from human ashes as a beautiful memorial to your loved one.” This happened on August 20th, 2002. On August 19th, 100 people had stumbled upon their web site LifeGem.com, but by the end of August 20th, that number had risen to 100,000! It seems Rusty was not the only one with the fear of being “forever gone,” and the new business was officially born.
Since then, people have been comforted by diamonds created from their loved one’s ashes from the US to Japan to Australia to China and beyond.