From labs to lookalikes: what you need to know about ‘sustainable’ diamonds
When you think of luxury, you may think of something rare and beautiful—and for some the epitome of luxury would be a glittering diamond. While the custom of wedding and engagement rings has been around for centuries, the diamond as the peak of premarital luxury can pretty much be tied back to a De Beers ad in 1947 featuring the phrase “A Diamond is Forever.”
And since then, diamonds have stuck. Back in the early 2000s, 1,8 million engagement rings every year were sold across the United States with 96 percent of them featuring diamonds. In more recent years, after the worst of the COVID-19 lockdowns have passed, the demand for diamonds (and other marriage-associated luxuries) have shot up, and prices lovebirds are willing to pay have also risen.
But, as lovely as a diamond ring can look, there’s sometimes a dark story behind it if it has been mined. Environmentally and ethically, diamond mining has faced a myriad of concerns from ecological destruction to human rights violations, which has led consumers to question whether a lab-grown diamond is a better option, or even if a diamond is right for them.
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 via three separate mining processes—pipe, alluvial, and marine. The two varieties of pipe are open-pit mining (which leads to giant holes in the earth like the massive Kimberley Big Hole in South Africa) and underground mining. Alluvial mining uses the process of sorting through gravel for rough diamonds which can contribute to increased runoff and river pollution. Finally, marine requires harvesting diamonds from the seabed, which in certain places like Namibia can account for the majority of their diamonds. But this process has similar impacts to dredging by destroying kelp beds and reefs.
These processes require resources. According to a 2021 report from Imperial College London, the median amount of carbon dioxide per karat of a mined diamond is around 108.5 kg per carat, with the amount of earth extracted standing at around 250 to 1750 per carat. Mining processes can also interact negatively with local ecosystems, release pollutants into the water and air, and make loads of noise. “Mineral resource exploitation,” the authors write, “causes irreversible damage to the natural environment shown through negative impacts on water resources, air quality, wildlife, soil quality, and climate change consideration.”
[Related: A buyer’s guide to ethically sourced diamonds.]
The issues with diamond mining don’t end with environmental impacts. For centuries, the diamond industry has been synonymous with labor abuse, including The De Beers controversy over “blood diamonds,” or diamonds that are mined in war zones and can fund violent conflicts, of the late 1990’s as well as Petra Diamond’s recent abuse of workers in Tanzania. Around two decades ago, governments ended trading in blood or “conflict” diamonds which had led to several disputes across the continent of Africa, by implementing the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme. But, according to Human Rights Watch, there are still some serious issues with abuse, forced labor, and underpayment in diamond-heavy regions. These concerns have even led to bans of imports on gems and gold from certain countries associated with forced labor, and there is now even a movement to get Russian diamonds banned or labeled as “conflict” diamonds due to the war in Ukraine.
With the cloud of imperialism, environmental destruction, and conflict hanging over them, it can be hard to view a diamond as a symbol of love. But when local communities are considered, mining industries can potentially have a positive impact on the local economy, says Kyle Simon, GIA diamonds graduate and Co-Founder of jewelry company Clear Cut. 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 percent of the De Beers diamond company and 50 percent of the actual mining operations company. Part of the funding from the diamond industry goes back to education, healthcare, and infrastructure. Still, it can be tricky knowing exactly where your exact diamond originated.
Diamond alternatives that have taken off
The first thing that might pop up on a quick search for ethical or sustainable diamonds are lab grown. Yep, diamonds no longer take billions of years under the earth to create. They can be made pretty efficiently in a lab anywhere, requiring no mining at all. And they are technically still “real” diamonds—at least chemically, physically, and visually. The technology has been around to create these diamonds since the 1950’s, according to lab-grown diamond company Clean Origin, but has just recently taken off as an alternative to mined diamonds. The price point for a lab grown diamond usually falls around 30 percent below a mined diamond.
Synthetic diamonds are created in one of two ways—high pressure high temperature (HPHT) or chemical vapor deposition (CVD). HPHT is the original way that lab diamonds were made, and the process consists of putting a tiny diamond in carbon and heating the “seed” up to over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and pressure of around 1.5 million pounds per square inch, according to jewelry company Ritani. The carbon around the itty bitty diamond then melts into a diamond, giving a glittery, bigger diamond.
CVD, on the other hand, puts the “seed” in a vacuum chamber full of carbon-filled gasses and heat of around 1500 degrees Fahrenheit. The carbon in the gas turns into plasma and layers onto the diamond seed, creating what are called Type IIA diamonds—or super chemically pure diamonds that are extremely rare to find out in the wild.
“Since lab-grown diamonds are created in the same way, under high heat with pure carbon, and are chemically, visually, and physically identical to mined diamonds, we evaluate that there is no reason to continue these dangerous mining practices in engagement rings and fine diamond jewelry,” says Janie Marshall, Head of Brand at Clean Origin.
Concerns about energy use of diamond-making labs, as well as the efficiency and cleanliness of the two methods (some argue CVD is the more environmentally friendly option, while 50-60 percent of lab-grown diamonds are still made using HPHT), keep lab made diamonds from being environmentally clear. “The laboratory requires a tremendous amount of energy,” says Simon. “So like in a laboratory, you’re mimicking a process that took billions of years to occur.”
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 how to deal with them yet,” he added, “and there is a lot of misinformation, with some companies marketing them as an environmentally superior product.”
Additionally, there is the issue of reselling your lab-grown diamond—there simply isn’t the same market for used lab-grown gems that there is for mined diamonds.
“A lot of people are really looking for vintage diamonds … and those will be recycled through the market over and over and over,” Simon says. “With lab-grown, there’s really no resale market because of the lack of value. It kind of incentivizes people to just continue to manufacture and produce more.”
Of course, there are other options out there that aren’t diamonds at all—moissanite, white sapphires, and cubic zirconia. Moissanite is also lab-made and nearly as hard as a diamond (a 9.25 on the Mohs hardness scale—a diamond is a 10) and these gems are considerably more affordable. A moissanite is about one-tenth as expensive as their diamond counterparts, Don O’Connell, president and CEO of moissanite maker Charles & Colvard, told Brides Magazine. But, they are also created in a lab, which carries some of the same dilemmas as lab-grown diamonds.
Similarly, other brilliant white gems like a white sapphire are also more affordable, less-sought-after, and less controversial—but don’t shimmer in the same way that a natural or lab-made diamond would. White sapphires are a bit cheaper than moissanite, so a good chunk cheaper than diamonds. Sapphires can be made in a lab or mined just like diamonds. Cubic zirconia is by far the most affordable option (a one carat stone goes for around $20) but it does have a tendency to wear out or scratch and would need to be regularly replaced.
The most sustainable option of pretty much any product is to use what you already have or buy it second-hand. So, if you’re looking for a gemstone or jewelry of any kind, lab made or natural, be sure to check out some options that have already been loved for a few years. You can even take an older gem and put it on a fresh band for a little bit of an update. Second-hand retailers often have a wide variety of pre-loved engagement rings, bands and loose gems. If you’re looking for something vintage, antique jewelry shops or Etsy can be a good place to look.
But, if a new diamond is an absolute need, taking a long hard look at where it comes from is an absolute necessity—be it mined or lab-grown.The sustainability and ethical problems of diamond mining throughout history are too big to push to the side, but a lot of lab-grown diamonds are still shrouded in mystery.