How do lab-grown diamonds compare to traditionally mined diamonds, and do they provide a more environmentally friendly option?
In the first place, a lab-created diamond is exactly like a mined diamond in every single way. Around 100 miles under the surface of the earth’s mantle, the crushing pressure and enormous heat form natural diamonds. During a period when our planet was hotter than it is now, most were produced between 1 billion and 3 billion years ago.
The only difference between lab-grown diamonds and natural diamonds is that they are manufactured. And even expert gemologists can’t tell the difference with the naked eye.
Extreme heat and pressure are also used to generate lab-grown diamonds, but this time, the process takes place in a machine rather than deep inside the earth.
A diamond may be grown in one of two ways. In both cases, another diamond’s “seed” (a flat slither) is used as a starting point. High-Pressure High Temperature (HPHT) was used to create the first lab diamond. The seed was put in a chamber with pure graphite carbon and heated to roughly 1,500C under the pressure of about 1.5 million pounds per square inch.
Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD) is a newer method of diamond growth (CVD). Heating the seed to 800C in a carbon-rich gas enclosed container is used. As a result, the gases “stick” to the seed, causing it to develop atom by atom into a diamond carbon.
Technology and cost of lab-grown diamonds
Lab diamond technology has advanced significantly in the last few years, enabling businesses to produce better grade diamonds quickly and inexpensively. As a result, the lab diamond and mined diamond industries have become more competitive. CVD lab-grown diamonds now cost between £200 and £400 per carat, compared with £3,000 per carat in 2008, a survey commissioned by the Antwerp World Diamond Centre found (AWDC).
Diamonds created in a laboratory are becoming more popular. According to the AWDC research, this market category is growing at a rate of 15 to 20 per cent each year due to the diamonds’ low price, transparency, and environmental friendliness. As more jewellers begin to offer lab-created diamonds and more laboratories are established, the boom is projected to continue.
Credentials for the environment
Lab diamonds, on the other hand, are not without flaws. Even though exact statistics on the carbon footprints of naturally mined and lab-created diamonds are difficult because of the lack of transparency, lab diamonds need an enormous amount of energy. The Diamond Producers Association commissioned a study on the subject, and it found that mining natural diamonds produces three times the greenhouse gas emissions of lab-grown diamonds. Seven of the world’s major diamond miners are represented by the DPA, including De Beers, Alrosa, and Rio Tinto.
Compared to lab-created diamonds, mined diamonds have a far larger environmental imprint. A subterranean diamond extraction requires an entire factor more energy than creating a diamond above the surface of the earth. Additionally, mining uses a lot of polluting fuel, while our above-ground manufacturing is powered by renewable energy,” a blog post on their website states.
For every carat of diamond, an estimated 250 tonnes of soil must be moved. Mining in 2018 produced 148 million carats, just for reference. Some mines have grown to such an enormous size that they can be seen from orbit by NASA’s Terra satellite. Mining diamonds uses two times as much energy per carat as growing them in a lab, according to a Frost & Sullivan analysis from 2014. Some industry insiders have questioned the report’s integrity, saying that it presupposes renewable energy and thus doubts the dependability of its estimate that lab-made diamonds emit just a few grammes of carbon per carat.
For every carat of diamond, an estimated 250 tonnes of the earth is displaced.
According to Trucost, a different consulting firm that published a study for the Diamond Producers Association, the value is far lower than the one Trucost projected. The carbon footprint of lab-grown diamonds is 510kg CO2 per polished carat, compared to 160kg CO2 per polished carat for mined diamonds.
Carbon dioxide is being captured in the porous mined rock called kimberlite by researchers at De Beers’ parent firm Anglo American, which has also been working on a project to lessen the carbon impact of mined diamonds. A technology termed “mineral carbonation” has been developed by the company’s geologist Evelyn Mervine to offset the greenhouse emissions produced during the mining process.
It’s possible to mine diamonds by removing so much dirt and rock that the holes are visible from orbit (Credit: Alamy)
Extensive earth-and-rock removal is often required while mining diamonds, resulting in enormous holes visible from outer space (Credit: Alamy)
Diamond mining’s impact on the environment extends well beyond its carbon emissions. Acid mine drainage, a byproduct of diamond mining, has contaminated local water supplies. As a result of minerals leaching into the water supply during the mining process. One of the mining industry’s “biggest environmental liabilities” has been cited by Canadian researchers at the University of Waterloo. Researchers from the University of Waterloo have been working with the Diavik diamond mine in Canada’s Northwest Territories to decrease pollution from the waste rock, even though acid mine drainage isn’t only a concern for the diamond industry.
Habitats in Canada and elsewhere have been destroyed as a result of mining. The Wall Street Journal claimed in 2016 that De Beers had drained a Canadian lake for diamond mining and killed more than 18,000 fish. Diamond mines in India have been blamed for further stressing already-vulnerable tiger populations.
Acid mine drainage, a byproduct of diamond mining, has polluted local water supplies.
Even though neither the mining or lab diamond sectors are flawless, the environmental costs associated with the latter may be greater than those associated with the former. “Few sectors in the world have a higher environmental and social impact than mining,” former Tiffany CEO Michael J. Kowalski said in a New York Times opinion post in 2015.
Diamond mining has both environmental and humanitarian consequences that are interwoven. Low pay and risky conditions are employed by certain diamond mines. Despite the Kimberley Process, which was put in place in the early 2000s to curtail the trade in conflict diamonds, diamonds can have a murky past. According to a Global Witness conflict resources team member who asked to remain anonymous for fear of jeopardising their job, the method is riddled with flaws. A “conflict diamond,” as defined by the Kimberley Process, “is a diamond supporting an armed organisation seeking to overthrow a legitimate government,” she explains.
Mining diamonds has long been associated with human rights violations, but that is no longer the case. According to her assessment, “The Kimberley Process has failed to keep pace.” For example, she cites the deaths of hundreds of civilian miners in Zimbabwe in the mid-2000s after a massive diamond find. According to a study by Global Witness, the diamonds discovered here were trafficked in Antwerp and Dubai and were “circulating freely on worldwide markets.
The Kimberley Process can no longer track a stone after it has been cut and polished, making the supply chain even murkier. From the mine to the store, diamonds travel through several trade hubs and are often mingled with diamonds from other exporting nations. The upshot is that even among diamonds that have been certified by the Kimberley Process, many firms are unable to identify the provenance of the gems they utilise. Diamonds from renowned jewellers like Bulgari, Pandora, Cartier, and Tiffany & Co. cannot be traced back to their particular mines, according to Human Rights Watch’s 2018 study.
Nevertheless, there is a fear that the high demand for lab diamonds would result in the loss of employment in developing nations with abundant natural resources. To help prevent mass atrocities in Africa’s most dangerous war zones, the Sentry/Enough Project’s executive director Brad Brooks-Rubin wonders: “Is it ethical to steer people away from purchasing diamonds from developing nations where a million or more people depend on the work?”
Returning the favour
Lab diamonds have an advantage over mined diamonds when it comes to environmental effects, but the ethical problems surrounding lab diamonds and mined diamonds remain thorny. Only 30 per cent of the diamond market is used for jewellery, while the remainder is sold for drilling, cutting, and grinding. This is where lab-created diamonds may be put to use for environmental good.
Windmills and automobiles alike may benefit from the friction-reducing properties of a thin diamond covering.
Cleaning up contaminated water is one of their many commercial applications. Boron is added to diamonds when they are being grown to become “boron-doped,” which may conduct electricity. A process known as mineralisation oxidises normally harmful organic molecules, transforming them into a form that may be degraded in the environment.
According to Ada Diamonds CEO Jason Payne, Lab diamonds may also considerably decrease communications and transportation carbon footprints. Lab-grown diamonds are ten times more durable than natural diamonds, giving them an advantage over mined diamonds in this application.
With diamonds being among the hardest materials on the planet, polishing a raw diamond is only possible if you have a second diamond nearby (Credit: Getty Images)
According to Payne, “a diamond is the ultimately known semiconductor… vastly superior to silicon or other materials. You may lower the amount of energy wasted as heat while conducting electricity from a power plant to devices like your cell phone as it charges by using lab diamonds in transistors. According to the US Department of Energy, Diamond-based components may minimise these losses by up to 90%.
Moving mechanical elements in windmills to automobiles may benefit from a thin diamond covering. The use of diamond film, according to Nissan, reduced friction between engine components by 40%. The clarity necessary for many of these applications is lacking in mined diamonds instead of lab-grown diamonds, says Payne.
Invisibility of diamonds
The mined diamond business has promoted its way out of problems in the past when confronted with existential danger. In fact, a successful advertising effort by De Beers in 1947 is one of the main reasons why so many of us are enamoured of diamonds. When the firm persuaded us that “a diamond is eternal” and that a diamond ring is an integral component of getting engaged, it irrevocably impacted our cultural norms and values. It is a well-crafted marketing fallacy to believe that diamonds are very scarce. De Beers has lately been cutting down on the number of customers it contracts with because of an overflow of diamonds. The business has said that it plans to reassess the contracts of its rough diamond clients at the end of the year.
The traditional rebranding attempt for mined diamonds is no longer working as lab diamonds have become more popular. Across the globe, the industry is dealing with oversupply and a drop in demand, notably in China, the world’s second-largest diamond market. Last November, Simon Forrester, CEO of the National Association of Jewellers in the United Kingdom, told an audience on the rooftop of a posh London hotel that “as an industry, we are suffering, [because of] lacking customer trust.” In late 2019, De Beers, the world’s largest diamond producer, would reduce output by 15% owing to unfavourable market conditions.
In Antwerp, Neuhaus says she’s observed a shift in the air due to the increasing popularity among consumers of environmental responsibility and social justice issues. In my youth, [Antwerp] was a hotbed of activity. Everyone’s business was booming. As she returns to her old neighbourhood, “you can tell there’s a different vibe… there’s less money than before.” Her departure from her family company into a new world of lab-grown diamonds serves as a metaphor for the current shift in the industry. One of Meghan Markle’s customers, her lab diamond company, is booming.
Neuhaus believes that the true worth of diamonds, whether mined or lab-grown, is not in the price or rarity of the stones. She replies, “It’s more about the emotional worth,” holding out a long gold chain with a green pendant. The first item of jewellery I produced for myself: Jewelers will continue to sell lab-grown and mined diamonds as long as they retain their emotional resonance.