Why “sustainable” diamonds are almost mythical

When you think of luxury, you might think of something rare and beautiful – and for some, the epitome of luxury would be a sparkling diamond. While the custom of wedding bands and engagement rings has been around for centuries, the diamond as the pinnacle of pre-wedding luxury can roughly be traced to a De Beers advertisement in 1947. with the phrase “A Diamond is Forever”.

And since then, the diamonds have been stuck. At the beginning of the 2000’s, 1.8 million engagement rings every year were sold across the United States with 96 percent of them featuring diamonds. Over the past few years, after the worst of the COVID-19 lockdowns passed, the demand for diamonds (and other luxuries associated with marriage) have skyrocketedand the prices the lovebirds are willing to pay have also increased.

But, as beautiful as a diamond ring may look, sometimes there is a dark story behind it if it has been mined. Environmentally and ethically, diamond mining has faced a myriad of concerns ranging from ecological destruction to human rights abuses, leading consumers to question whether a lab-grown diamond is a best option, or even if a diamond suits them.

Some diamond companies have held firm in their extracted position is superior to that grown in the laboratorybut like more consumption options present themselvesDeciding what is “best” – for you and for the planet – can be confusing.

The environmental and ethical implications of diamond mining

When it comes to mining diamonds, the environmental and social impacts can be dramatic. Diamonds are mined through three distinct mining processes—pipe, alluvial and marine. Both varieties of pipe are open cut (which leads to giant holes in land like the massive Kimberley Big Hole in South Africa) and underground mining. Alluvial mining uses the process of sorting gravel for rough diamonds, which can contribute to the increase runoff and river pollution. Finally, the navy requires the harvesting of diamonds from the seabed, which in some places like Namibia can account for the majority of their diamonds. But this process has impacts similar to dredging by destroying kelp beds and reefs.

These processes require resources. According to a Imperial College London Report 2021, the median amount of carbon dioxide per carat of a mined diamond is about 108.5 kg per carat, with the amount of earth mined being between 250 and 1750 per carat. Mining processes can also interact negatively with local ecosystems, releasing pollutants into the water and air, and making a lot of noise. “The exploitation of mineral resources”, write the authors, “causes irreversible damage to the natural environment which manifests itself in negative impacts on water resources, air quality, fauna, soil quality and consideration of climate change”.

[Related: A buyer’s guide to ethically sourced diamonds.]

The problems associated with diamond mining do not stop at environmental impacts. For centuries, the the diamond industry has been synonymous with labor abuseincluding the De Beers controversy over “blood diamonds”, or diamonds mined in war zones and potentially funding violent conflict, of the late 1990s as well as Petra Diamond’s recent abuses against workers in Tanzania. About 20 years ago, governments put an end to the trade in blood or “conflict” diamonds that had led to several disputes across the African continent, by implementing the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme. But, according to Human Rights Watch, there are still serious problems of abuse, forced labor and underpayment in diamond-rich areas. These concerns have even led to import bans on precious stones and gold from certain countries associated with forced labor, and there is even now a movement to get Russian diamonds banned or labeled as ‘conflict’ diamonds because of the war in Ukraine.

With the cloud of imperialism, environmental destruction and conflict hanging over them, it can be hard to see a diamond as a symbol of love. But when local communities are taken into account, mining industries can potentially have a positive impact on the local economy, says Kyle Simon, a GIA Diamonds graduate and co-founder of Clear Cut jewelry company. Botswana is one of these unique cases, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The Once Impoverished African Nation now owns 15% of diamond company De Beers and 50% of actual mining operations company. Part of the financing of the diamond industry comes down to education, health care and infrastructure. Yet, it can be difficult to know exactly where exactly your diamond came from.

Diamond alternatives that have taken off

The first thing that might come up on a quick search for ethical or sustainable diamonds is lab grown. Yes, diamonds no longer take billions of years underground to create. They can be crafted quite efficiently in a lab anywhere, requiring no mining. And they are technically still “real” diamonds, at least chemically, physically and visually. Technology has done the trick to create these diamonds since the 1950s, according to lab-grown diamond company Clean Origin, but has only just taken off as an alternative to mined diamonds. The price of a lab-grown diamond typically falls about 30% below a mined diamond.

Synthetic diamonds are created in two ways: high pressure high temperature (HPHT) or chemical vapor deposition (CVD). HPHT is the original way lab-grown diamonds were made, and the process involves putting a tiny diamond in carbon and heating the “seed” to over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and a pressure of about 1, 5 million pounds per square inch, according to Ritani jewelry company. The carbon around the tiny diamond then melts into a diamond, resulting in a sparkling, larger diamond.

CVD, on the other hand, places the “seed” in a vacuum chamber filled with carbon-filled gases and a heat of around 1500 degrees Fahrenheit. The carbon in the gas turns into plasma and layers on the diamond seed, creating what are called Type IIA diamonds – or super chemically pure diamonds that are extremely rare to find in nature.

[Related: Diamonds contain remnants of Earth’s ancient atmosphere.]

“Given that lab-grown diamonds are created in the same way, at high temperatures with pure carbon, and are chemically, visually and physically identical to mined diamonds, we believe there is no reason to continue these practices. dangerous mining in engagement rings and fine diamond jewelry,” says Janie Marshall, brand manager at clean origin.

Concerns about the energy consumption of diamond manufacturing labs, as well as the efficiency and cleanliness of both methods (some say CVD is the more environmentally friendly option, while 50-60% of lab-grown diamonds are still made using HPHT), prevent lab-made diamonds from being transparent to the environment. “The lab requires a huge amount of energy,” says Simon. “So, like in a lab, you’re mimicking a process that took billions of years to happen.”

Not to mention, current regulation of the lab-grown diamond industry is “the Wild West right now,” independent diamond analyst Paul Zimnisky told Vogue Business in 2021. “Regulatory agencies don’t necessarily know yet how to deal with them,” he said. added, “and there’s a lot of misinformation, with some companies marketing them as an environmentally superior product.”

Plus, there’s the problem of reselling your lab-grown diamond – there just isn’t the same market for used lab-grown gemstones as there is for mined diamonds.

“A lot of people are really looking for vintage diamonds…and those will be recycled again and again in the market,” says Simon. “With lab-grown produce, there really isn’t a resale market because of the lack of value. It kind of inspires people to keep making and producing more.

Of course, there are other options that aren’t diamonds at all: moissanite, white sapphires, and cubic zirconia. Moissanite is also lab made and almost as hard as a diamond (a 9.25 on the Mohs scale of hardness – a diamond is a 10) and these gemstones are considerably more affordable. A moissanite costs about a tenth the price of its diamond counterparts, Don O’Connell, president and CEO of the moissanite manufacturer Charles and ColvardTold Bridal Magazine. But, they’re also created in a lab, which presents some of the same dilemmas as lab-grown diamonds.

Likewise, other bright white gems like a white sapphire are also more affordable, less sought after, and less controversial, but do not sparkle in the same way as a natural or lab-made diamond. White sapphires are a bit cheaper than moissanite, so a good chunk cheaper than diamonds. Sapphires can be lab-made or mined like diamonds. Cubic zirconia is by far the most affordable option (a one-carat stone costs around $20), but it tends to wear or scratch and should be replaced regularly.

final verdict

The most sustainable option of almost any product is to use what you already have or buy it used. So if you’re looking for a gemstone or piece of jewelry of any kind, lab-made or natural, be sure to check out some options that have already been popular for a few years. You can even take an older gem and put it on a new band for a little update. Second-hand retailers often have a wide variety of pre-loved engagement rings, bands and loose gemstones. If you are looking for something vintage, antique jewelry or Etsy might be a good place to look.

But, if a new diamond is an absolute necessity, carefully examining where it came from is an absolute necessity, whether mined or grown in a laboratory. The sustainability and ethical issues of diamond mining throughout history are too big to push aside, but many lab-grown diamonds are still shrouded in mystery.

Sarah C. Figueiredo