Lab-Grown Diamonds Are More Ethical Than Blood Diamonds, but Will People Buy Them?
The diamond industry has long been tainted by the revelation of the trading of blood diamonds. International requirements have been put in place to curb their presence on the market, and a reported 99 percent of diamonds mined today are conflict-free, yet consumers are still concerned about the impact of the diamonds they buy. Although the industry has undergone widespread changes to become more eco-friendly, the answer might be far away from the diamond fields, in labs in the United States.
An increasing number of people are turning to lab grown or cultured diamonds, which are reported to have fewer negative impacts on people and the environment. Some even say a revolution is underway in the diamond industry that is reminiscent of the fur trade.
Are lab-grown diamonds as good as the real thing, and are they really better for the planet? Or is the impact they’re having on the mining industry actually causing even bigger problems?
A tainted industry
Diamonds are formed from carbon trapped in rocks called xenoliths deep underground. One hundred miles below the earth’s surface, the carbon is exposed to extremely high temperatures and “cooked” at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. These carbon-filled rocks are carried to the surface by volcanic eruptions, where they cool and form diamonds in the sides of a conical tube. It’s possible to mine these diamonds by finding and excavating these tubes, cracking open the xenolith rocks to expose the gems inside.
This process is not without its problems. The pits that need to be excavated are vast: South Africa’s Finsch mine is more than 1,750 feet across and 1,000 feet deep. Such significant excavation strips the ecosystem and leaves it flailing, unlikely to recover once the mine is closed. Mining has a high carbon footprint, is hugely energy and water intensive and pollutes local water sources.
But it’s the human impacts that have gained the industry notoriety in recent years. The trade in conflict or blood diamonds—stones sold by rebels to fund wars in Africa—meant profits were supporting violence. In 2011, BBC’s investigative news show Panorama uncovered a torture camp, known as Diamond Base, being run by Zimbabwe’s government security forces in the Marange diamond fields—just one example of the human rights abuses that go unsanctioned.
Don’t dig up a diamond, plant a seed
One way to solve problems like these is to avoid the mining altogether: lab grown diamonds are guaranteed to be conflict-free and produced with respect to human rights. They also have much smaller environmental impacts.
The International Grown Diamond Association (IGDA) claims that diamond extraction produces 1.5 billion times more carbon emissions than growing, at 57,000 grams per carat versus 0.028 grams per carat, and requires 480 liters of water per carat, compared to 70 liters for lab grown diamonds.
These are major selling points for lab-grown diamonds, and tend to be the focus of the marketing done by the dozen or so companies growing diamonds, a process that has been in the works for a long time. Since 1954, engineers have attempted to replicate the conditions in the earth’s mantle to generate diamond, with mixed success. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that gem-quality stones were being manufactured, using a technique called chemical vapor deposition. With CVD, a diamond “seed” is put into what is effectively a microwave oven. Natural gas is injected along with hydrogen, which leads the carbon atoms to form diamond rather than graphite. When the microwave beam is switched on, a plasma is formed and carbon atoms are let free. These “rain” onto the seed, building up the diamond lattice one by one.
Ten to 12 weeks later, the result is a flawless, made-to-measure diamond, with all of the beauty, none of the guilt and a much smaller price tag.
The wrong kind of attention
Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Not quite. The diamond industry is worth a whopping $80 billion and is monopolized by a few key players, the biggest of which is the De Beers cartel. In September the company opened its Gahcho KuÃ© mine in Canada, where it aims to extract 12,000 carats—2.4kg—of diamonds every day. But there are no new mines on the horizon, and according to The Economist, “The supply of new diamonds is expected to peak in the next few years, before beginning a slow decline.”
Regardless of the tricks De Beers can play to make it look like diamonds are rarer than they really are, the fact is natural diamond supplies are running out.
Needless to say De Beers does not need additional risk coming from diamond growers, and the company has not welcomed the dawn of the lab-grown diamond. As part of its Gem Defensive Program, the company has built two state-of-the-art machines —DiamondSure and DiamondView—that can distinguish lab-grown from natural diamonds.
Regardless, the lab-grown market has exploded and will continue to grow from today’s $16.2 billion to an estimated $27.6 billion in 2023. Yet this still only represents a small percentage of the market, and even then, most of the lab-grown diamonds are used for industrial applications like sawing, cutting and grinding.
Perhaps it’s the image that is holding buyers back; after all, De Beers managed to turn its “diamonds are forever” campaign into a well-known saying. Speaking to The National, Jon King, executive vice president of Tiffany & Co, explained, “We believe that the story and identity of a diamond is linked to how it has been formed over millions of years. We imagine that people will still make that association—it is about the permanence, if you will, the long history of what it takes for a diamond to form, the conditions of the Earth, and the gravitas involved in that.”
But this sentiment isn’t always reflected by the public; in a 2016 Consumerist poll, only 6.6 percent of people said they would pay a premium for natural diamonds above cultured and synthetic varieties.
Diamonds grown in the lab are just as beautiful, they have significantly fewer environmental impacts, they do not fund conflict or threaten human rights, and they’re 15-30 percent cheaper than their natural counterparts. Are there any drawbacks?
Potentially, yes. Speaking to The Guardian, Tiffany's CEO Michael Kowalski said that although mining has a “long and sad association with human rights and environmental abuses,” it also has a role to play in development, especially in the world’s poorest countries, where “mining is the only viable engine for social and economic growth.” Because of this, he questions the ethical superiority of a move toward lab-grown diamonds.
Take Botswana. The world’s biggest producer of diamonds by value, Botswana had a GDP per capita of about $6,000 per year in 2015, approaching that of China, Russia and Brazil, largely down to the diamonds. Any threat to the diamond industry, such as the rise of lab-grown diamonds, could have a big impact on the economy and knock-on effects for education and health, as the government is so heavily invested in the industry.
Opting for a lab-grown diamond means less of an environmental impact and a guarantee of no links to conflict or human rights abuses. But the long-term effects of supporting a rival industry funded by, and profiting developed countries like the U.S. and the U.K. may be difficult to fully understand.
Change is needed to eliminate the one percent of natural diamonds traded illegally to fund conflict, and companies must be held accountable for their human rights and environmental impacts. Perhaps the lab-grown diamond industry has a part to play in supporting development where its own success has taken away livelihoods. That way buying an eco-friendly diamond could be truly sustainable.