Sustainable Diamonds: Lab Created Diamonds Vs “Real” Diamonds
You know what they say, diamonds are forever … but can you wear the bling without the ethical baggage?
If Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in the film Blood Diamond has anything to say about it, it would surely be, no.
Let’s be honest, despite his less than perfect Zimbabwean accent, his story opened our eyes to the ethical atrocaties within the diamond industry, including land degradation, child labor, and armed military conflict.
But is that the end of the road for a conscious consumer looking for some sparkle?
In the name of ethical and sustainable jewelry, we’re going to shed some light on an ethical diamond alternative.
For once, we’re dropping our usual “natural is better” line so you can see the sustainable sparkle in diamonds grown, not in nature, but in a lab.
QUICKLINKS FOR LAB-CREATED DIAMONDS
- What are lab-created diamonds?
- Are lab-created diamonds fake?
- Can you tell the difference between a lab-created diamond and a real diamond?
- Are man-made diamonds cheaper than real diamonds?
- Are lab-created diamonds more sustainable than natural diamonds?
- Why should you choose a lab-grown diamond over a natural diamond?
WHAT ARE MAN MADE DIAMONDS AND HOW ARE THEY MADE?
While lab-created diamonds have become popular in recent years, they’re not exactly new.
In fact, synthetic bling dates back to the late 1800s when a French chemist created the world’s first synthetic gemstones (rubies). And in the United States, synthetic diamonds have been used since the 1950s by companies like General Electric for a range of industrial purposes.
So, how are lab-grown diamonds possible and how have we gotten to where we are today?
Starting with the ultimate diamond-producing lab (aka the Earth), diamonds are formed by constant geological pressure over millions of years. A diamond, in simple terms, is just a piece of highly heated and pressurized carbon or really really expensive coal.
Give some people in white lab coats a clean laboratory with some super powerful machines, and they can basically mimic Earth. Using the same processes that our planet uses, lab-grown diamonds are made in two ways:
- By using heat and pressure: A High-Pressure and High-Temperature (HPHT) machine applies intense pressure and heat to the diamond seed after it’s been placed in pure carbon. The heat causes the carbon to melt and the diamond forms around the seed. Once cooled, the diamond is ready for polishing.
- By applying a chemical vapor: A Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD) is applied layer by layer to the diamond seed. Contained in a chamber, the diamond will continuously get bigger and bigger until it’s ready to be removed and polished.
How long does it take to make a diamond in a lab?
Scientists have been able to recreate the processes that take typically millions of years in as little as three months! Mother nature is downright incredible, but that’s just out of this world.
Thanks to advances in technology over the past several years, scientists have been getting better at creating diamonds in a laboratory. Now, they’re taking hints from the fool’s gold playbook and producing lab-grown diamonds that are indistinguishable from natural diamonds to the untrained eye.
ARE LAB-CREATED DIAMONDS FAKE?
Lab-created diamonds aren’t ‘fake.’ They aren’t imitation diamonds, like moissanite or cubic zirconia. They have the same properties of natural diamonds but are just made in a smaller, more efficient lab.
However, their ‘fakeness’ is contested—namely by some of the big names in the diamond industry that stand to profit directly from the higher prices (in every sense of the word) fetched by “real” natural diamonds. Big companies like Rio Tinto and De Beers certainly aren’t likely to be happy with this new type of bling cutting into the profits of high-end jewelry stores.
Much to the disdain of certain aforementioned diamond companies, the FTC has indeed ruled that lab-grown diamonds are real.
CAN YOU TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A LAB-CREATED DIAMOND AND A REAL DIAMOND?
Unless we have access to a fancy microscope, jewelry buyers are unable to tell the difference between a real diamond and one that’s created by scientists. And practically speaking, their quality in terms of strength and cutability is virtually identical.
ARE MAN-MADE DIAMONDS CHEAPER THAN REAL DIAMONDS?
Lab diamonds are typically 30% cheaper than their natural counterparts. The costs of processing the diamond (polishing, cutting, and inspection) are the same, but the costs associated with extraction, that is mining, are significantly reduced.
Not to mention the fact that lab grown diamonds are a renewable resource while natural ones that take millions of years to grow are not. Once we mine all Earth’s diamonds, we’ll have to wait a while before we can dig out some more.
Cost and value of lab-grown diamonds vs natural diamonds
There are several facets when it comes to the cost of a lab-grown diamond—and a lot of disagreement in the industry.
While off the bat they’re cheaper than natural diamonds, some say that they don’t maintain the same value as Earth-grown diamonds.
The cost of production for lab-grown diamonds will continue to drop as scientists continue to make the process more efficient and, as such, it’s likely that the value of these diamonds will also continue to drop.
However, some argue that natural diamonds aren’t as rare and unusual as many big jewelry brands would like us to believe.
And in fact, most of these diamonds (even the ones found in ethical engagement rings) also tend to depreciate in value over time.
One trader remarked that just 2-4% of natural diamonds appreciate over time.
In the case of lab-grown diamonds, while it may sound like these machines are capable of making it rain, we’re unlikely to see them pumping out volumes of diamonds anytime soon.
This means that they do carry some inherent value.
All things considered, neither type of diamond is truly ‘rare.’ Similarly, neither type of diamond is truly abundant. That’s why many people look beyond the financial value of the stone to really appreciate the value of man-made diamonds.
ARE LAB-CREATED DIAMONDS MORE SUSTAINABLE THAN REAL DIAMONDS?
Diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, but can they ever be Earth’s best friend?
Remember how natural diamonds are the result of geological pressure?
Well, for this pressure to exist, the diamonds have to be under a significant amount of rock. That said, the mines in which they are found are typically deep—like deeper than the height of the Empire State building deep.
For miners, this means a tremendous amount of earth moving.
Every carat is associated with the movement of up to 1750 tons of earth. Using some basic math and the fact that we mine around 148 million carats of diamonds every year, that means that 259 trillion tons of earth are moved every single year for the sake of some bling.
This number, and the fact that we can see these mines from space, make it easy to picture the deforestation and soil erosion that’s caused by diamond mining.
And it doesn’t stop there. The extractive process is large on every scale. It requires vast amounts of water, chemicals, and a significant amount of energy –and not just electricity, but petroleum-based non-renewable hydrocarbons such as oil, diesel, gas, and petrol (which in turn require even MORE mining).
One study even found that the per carat carbon emissions of mined diamonds were two million times that of lab-grown diamonds. While this exact number has come under some scrutiny, another study found that the CO2 emissions from diamond mining were equal to 1.5 million vehicles running for an entire year.
And then there’s the devastation caused by the various methods of diamond mining. Each type of mining presents its own unique set of environmental risks.
- Open Pit Mining: Considered the most threatening of all the mining strategies, this involves the removal of healthy topsoil from fertile farmland. The diamonds are extracted, leaving massive pits behind, and then miners move onto new areas.
- Often, the pits are full of stagnant water which becomes a breeding ground for mosquitoes and other waterborne viruses. The world’s largest Superfund site, the Berkeley Pit in Butte Montana (a copper mine), is an example of strip mining at its very worst. This particular pit now threatens to overflow and permanently alter the area water table.
- Another example is the Big Hole in in Kimberley, South Africa, claimed to have been excavated by hand, starting in 1871. The mine’s impact on miner’s health was devastating.
- Underground (Hard Rock Mining): Underground hard rock mining, even when on a small scale, has been associated with significant levels of land degradation, flora and fauna loss, and the contamination of surface and groundwater. For mining like this, 126 million gallons of water (per carat!) are required to move the earth. Dangerous contaminants are introduced (like mercury) which can also have grave health effects on workers.
- While we’re talking sustainability here, it’s worth noting that underground mining is incredibly dangerous work. South African diamond miners have an overall 20% higher mortality rate compared to the general populous. The same study found that underground mining was a statistically significant predictor in this increased mortality rate.
- Marine Diamond Mining: Marine mining is the most common method today and involves the use of massive ships with powerful drills. Like with offshore oil drilling, habitats, and sea life are decimated—including larger species like whales, dolphins, sharks, and seals.
- Coastal Mining: Large-scale excavation and modification also takes place along coastal areas, where plant life, soil, and sand are removed before mining begins.
- Alluvial (Artisanal) Mining: Since some diamonds are found in deposits with a large surface area, it’s difficult to mine them industrially. For this reason, extraction is done by hand by individuals or families (and often with little regulation). Due to its informal nature, there is likely (typically) little regard for environmental impact and biodiversity loss, water deterioration, and soil degradation is common.
Are diamonds a sustainable resource?
So, considering the various means of extracting this expensive coal, are there any natural diamonds that are more environmentally friendly than lab-grown diamonds?
That’s a rhetorical question, but you knew that already.
Of course, in some cases, lab-grown diamonds use inefficient technology and are powered by coal-fired plants. Unfortunately, this sometimes means a potentially higher carbon footprint than a naturally mined diamond.
Fortunately, many lab-grown diamond producers are doing something about this. Many have commited or have already made changes to improve their production by using renewable energy, recycling practices, or carbon offsets.
How to find sustainable diamonds?
Here’s what you can look for on your search for the best bling for the planet.
- Look for brands that are committed to using renewable energy (some have even reduced their carbon footprint to zero by doing so!).
- If they’re not using renewable energy, are they purchasing carbon offsets?
- Look for brands that recycle water or other production materials or take steps to reduce how much of these materials are used.
- Check for any independent certifications for quality and transparency measures.
- Look beyond “eco-friendly” and “sustainable” claims for proof. What numbers or data can a brand share with you to let you know that they are the real ethical deal? Upon the point at which a Sustainable Grown Diamond certification becomes available (which it is expected to do sometime in 2020), look for brands that bear this certification.
We’ve also started collating a list of ethical brands that we’ve vetted against the criteria outlined in this article. Have a read of our guides on conscious jewelry, the best ethical jewelry brands, black-owned Etsy Jewelry Shops and sustainable timepieces for some ideas.
WHY SHOULD YOU CHOOSE A LAB-CREATED DIAMOND OVER A NATURAL DIAMOND?
That shining diamond may take your breath away, but it may also carry a dark bloody secret.
Thankfully, conscious consumers (especially millennials and Gen Zers) are looking to the lab to be able to take advantage of all that sparkles without costing the Earth.
Ethical man-made diamonds
One of the biggest problems with natural diamonds is a lack of transparency. Even when buying supposedly “ethically-sourced” diamonds, for some brands, there’s simply no way of knowing if that’s the case or not. Greenwashing is everywhere!
The Kimberley Process was designed to prevent “conflict violence”—you know, the massacres, corrupt governments, and tremendous amounts of civilian and sexual violence associated with that birthday or anniversary gift. However, the strategy has mostly failed, there are loopholes in the process which leaves it as a toothless protection for those who are vulnerable.
Simply put, you never know what you’re getting when it comes to natural diamonds. That velvet box may contain some pretty diamond studs—but it could also come with conflict, forced labor, child labor, abysmal working conditions, unfair pay, and human trafficking.
Turns out, “blood diamond” is actually pretty apt. And that kind of jewelry doesn’t pair well with anything.
On the other hand, lab grown diamonds are almost entirely traceable and transparent.
When someone buys a lab-grown diamond, they have 100% assurance that that diamond was at least produced ethically. It definitely wasn’t linked to conflict. It almost certainly wasn’t associated with child labor or dangerous working conditions. And it wasn’t responsible for biodiversity loss or soil degradation.
Lab-grown diamonds vs natural or mined diamonds
- Advantages compared to natural diamonds: There is less water (126 vs 18 gallons per carat) and land required, safer working conditions, no conflict or child labor involved, less biodiversity loss, and they’re more affordable.
- Disadvantages compared to natural diamonds: Some can tell the difference when using a really good microscope and their future value is more uncertain. Also, an estimated 10 million people are involved in the diamond mining industry and lab-grown diamonds could lead to livelihood losses.
So in summary:
- Advantages of lab grown diamonds vs. blood diamonds: Everything.
- Disadvantages of lab grown diamonds vs. o blood diamonds: Absolutely none, zero, zilch, nada.
In our eyes, lab-grown diamonds are better in every way, shape or form, even if they’re not quite built in the big lab. They’re still far better for people and better for the planet. If sustainable fashion and sustainable jewelry are kind of your thing, then this is the type of bling for you.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON LAB-CREATED DIAMONDS
For many, jewelry (specifically diamonds) is a symbol of love.
Diamonds are given as a sign of affection or appreciation, or a way to celebrate a special moment or day. Love is forever, so what better stone to represent that than nature’s most durable?
But nothing tarnishes a loving gesture like conflict, environmental destruction, human rights abuse, and unethical sourcing.
Unfortunately, even if you do a lot of work to ensure that the mined diamond you buy is ‘ethical,’ most brands just don’t have the transparency to back those claims up.
They’re just the very end retailer in a long and very complex supply chain.
That’s why we’re saying ‘I do’ to man-made diamonds (and eco friendly wedding rings). #WeSaidYes
What do you find most dazzling when it comes to diamonds? Are you sold on ones from the earth or are you a conscious consumer who’s excited about diamonds made in a lab?
Let us know what you think and if there are any important comparisons we forgot to mention!