Lab Grown Diamonds vs Mined Diamonds – Which Is More Ethical?
Last week the GIA (Gemology Institute of America) announced it would no longer refer to lab grown diamonds as synthetic. This is big news for those of us who want the real deal, but need assurance of ethical origins. So What is the difference between lab grown and mined diamonds? And why could one be better than the other?
If you’ve ever bought a diamond, you’ll know that questions surrounding origin and traceability are hard to answer. When ethical or conflict free choices are important to you then you may find the process frustrating. Fortunately, in recent years there has been an explosion in the market for lab grown diamonds. These fully traceable diamonds provide certainty and reliability to the ethically minded. So what are lab grown diamonds and what makes them an ethical alternative to other diamonds? We spoke to two UK leaders in the area to find out.
What is a mined diamond?
Mined diamonds start life as carbon dioxide, buried 100 miles under the surface of the earth and subject to temperatures of around 2,200 degrees fahrenheit and pressures of roughly 727,000 pounds per sq inch. Over 1 to 3 billion years, this pressure and temperature modify the structure of the gas, creating a solid stone (in this case a rough diamond). The stones are pushed to the surface by volcanic eruptions, putting them within our reach through mining. In order to successfully mine diamonds, one of three techniques is used. Open pit mining is the most common in countries such as Africa. It is an incredibly intensive process requiring 1750 tonnes of earth to be displaced to extract just 1 ct of diamond. Pit mining also leads to deforestation, soil erosion and degradation of the land quality. This means that once the land has been mined it is difficult to then grow trees or crops there. Working conditions in the mines are generally difficult to quantify and child labour is sometimes still used.
Other mining techniques include alluvial – redirecting water flow in rivers to capture diamonds. And Marine Mining which relies on drilling into the seabed and excavating large areas of seafloor, disrupting the ecosystems balance often beyond repair for many decades.
Alan Frampton, Jewellery Director of Cred Jewellery states, “Mining diamonds is an energy intensive and ecologically invasive procedure, affecting fragile ecosystems across the world.” The size of these mines means that the infrastructure needed to run them is huge, this accounts for a percentage of the large cost of buying a diamond. So if you thought you were paying for the rarity of your stone, you would be mistaken. 151 million ct of diamonds were mined in 2017 alone. This is a huge amount, and diamond companies who have perpetuated the notion that your diamond is rare and special are profiting from this by charging more for their ‘rarity’.
What’s the issue with ‘ethically’ mined diamonds?
When it comes to certifying the origin of a mined diamond, all three mining methods are subject to the same issues. This is in part due to the industries vast size and the many different hands that a stone can pass through on its way to jewellers and then customers. Rough diamonds from different mines are often mixed together when they are being cut and polished. In 2000 the Kimberley Process for certifying diamonds was introduced. It served as a way to ensure whether a diamond was from a conflict free mine or not. However due to loopholes in the process exploited by corrupt governments, the KP is no longer a reliable way to trace a diamond’s origin.
“Diamond mining has taken an enormous toll on environments around the world, nowhere more than Africa. We’re talking huge, permanent holes dug into the earth, polluted ground waters, wildlife displacement — the list goes on.” – Laura Chavez, Founder of Lark & Berry
Diamond’s are mainly mined in Africa and Canada. Due to its rocky political landscape that has been scared by many wars, Africa is therefore a less viable place to source an ethical diamond. However Cred Jewellery can ethically source diamonds from Namibia which currently has the best practise in the Continent. Most ethical diamonds usually come from Canada where standards are better. A Canada Mark ™ Diamond is tracked from the mine using a unique serial number that is laser etched into the stone. Canada requires by law that a thorough environmental assessment is undertaken before the creation of new mines. This is to ensure that the local habitat will not be irrevocably damaged and that the land can be restored once the mine closes. Canada also has strict labour laws in place so miners are protected by health and safety regulations.
Many jewellers have a number of suppliers for diamonds, so keeping track of each stone’s origin is hard. A lot of suppliers don’t sell stones
with proof of origin so certifying a diamond as ‘ethical’ is near impossible. Your diamond seller or jeweller may be able to tell you that the stone is ethical or KP certified but unfortunately even they cannot be sure of this.
What is a lab grown diamond?
Therefore with all this in mind, a fully traceable alternative would take the hassle out of choosing a diamond. Chemically identical to mined, lab grown diamonds are entirely traceable and are therefore more likely to be relied upon as an ethical alternative to mined diamonds. They are man made, created using one of two processes. HPHT is a High Pressure, High Temperature process which mimics the natural creation of diamonds in the earth. The other method is CVD which stands for Chemical Vapour Deposition. Both processes are similar to the natural creation of diamonds in the earth however they are much quicker and more easily controlled. Under these conditions it takes mere months, not billions of years to create a rough diamond. This means that creating a near perfect, flawless diamond is easier to do. “Lab Grown Diamonds belong to a category of diamond called Type IIA. Less than 2% of the world’s mined diamonds belong to this category,” Cred told us.
They may have incredible qualities but due to the way they are made, lab grown diamonds are around 30% cheaper than mined diamonds.
Are Lab Grown Diamonds Too Good To Be True?
Creating a diamond in a lab is an energy intensive process, which can require vast amounts of electricity (the source of which may not be so green) to replicate the heat and pressure needed. However, companies such as Diamond Foundry in San Francisco, are purely solar powered. This means that they are a carbon neutral company. It’s also important to ensure the safety of the labs. Laura Chavez, Founder of Lark & Berry, visits new labs herself. “We look at the working environments. Is it clean and safe, do the workers have the correct safety gear etc.” However she agrees that due to the infancy of the industry, standards are generally judged on an individual basis. “I have to visit them to get a sense for it,” she told us.
“According to a study by Princetown University the carbon footprint of a Lab Grown is 18-22% of a Mined Diamond.” – Alan Frampton, Jewellery Director at Cred Jewellery
What are the differences between the two?
Given the difference in origin, what are the main differences between lab grown and mined diamonds? The FTC has ruled that, “A diamond is a diamond no matter whether it is grown in a lab or comes out of the ground.” It goes on to clarify that, “the Commission no longer defines a ‘diamond’ by using the term ‘natural’ because it is not longer accurate to define diamonds as ‘natural’ when it is possible to create products that have essentially the same optical, physical and chemical properties as mined diamonds.” Lab grown diamonds are also quality verified using the 4 c’s (cut, clarity, carat and colour) in exactly the same way as mined diamonds. Indeed, a GIA certified expert wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the two stones. It can only be done by scientists using specialist lab equipment.
However lab grown and synthetic diamond’s should not be confused. Synthetic diamonds are of inferior quality. You will have come across them as cubic zirconia, moissanite and clear quartz. They are artificially created and are chemically different to lab grown and mined diamonds. It is easy for a certified gemologist to tell whether a diamond in synthetic or not.
The largest difference has to be the value of mined vs lab grown diamonds. Due to the nature of their creation, lab grown diamonds are around 30% cheaper. Therefore consumers can get a more reasonably priced stone, or choose a bigger stone to get more value for their money. This means that diamonds are more attainable than ever. “We want to pass this saving on to the customer to make it more accessible,” Laura Chavez told us. “I believe that everyone should be able to own beautiful fine jewellery and beautiful diamonds.” Another positive for Laura is the traceability of the diamonds.
Traceability is also important to Cred Jewellery. “Giving our customer the choice of a Lab Grown Diamond means we have the opportunity to transform the jewellery industry forever and demonstrate the power of the informed consumer.” They have seen an increase in ethically minded customers asking for lab grown diamonds. “ All Lab Grown diamonds are environmentally and socially responsible. They are conflict and child labour free and their origin is verified by their certificate and a unique laser mark on each stone’s girdle.”
“Mines have been setting diamond prices for years. Now we have a better alternative so we can offer more competitive prices.” – laura Chavez, Founder of Lark & Berry
Why are lab grown diamonds more ethical?
As the average consumer becomes more informed as to the true nature of diamond mining, lab grown diamonds are seen as the perfect ethical alternative. In recent years, they have grown in popularity. The production of lab grown diamonds has already increased from 325,000 carats in 2013/14 to 4,000,000 carats in 2016/17. In the USA, jewellery industry leaders are predicting that 50% of their diamond inventory will be Lab Grown by 2020. This is impressive growth and companies such as Diamond Foundry are leading the way. In 2017 they received investment backing from Environmental Activist and Actor, Leonardo Dicaprio.
Jewellers that offer lab grown diamonds generally have better ethical values too. Cred uses Fairtrade gold, and Lark & Berry currently use recycled metals. However, Laura wants to do more than this. “ We plant 5 trees for every purchase made. It’s not enough to just be a disruptor in the industry, we have to give back somehow. Helping reforest the planet is a good way to start.” So far they have planted over 500 trees in partnership with One Tree Planted. Brands like Lark & Berry and Cred are going the extra mile to put right the wrongs that the jewellery industry has done to our planet through mining and material extraction.
But the big question remains, are you missing out on luxury and romance when you choose a lab grown diamond over a mined one? Big diamond brands have over the years told us that diamonds are the ultimate in rare glamour and sophistication. “A Diamond is forever,’ was a marketing phrase famously coined in 1948 by De Beers. However we see nothing glamorous about the disastrous environmental impact of mining. We see nothing sophisticated about poor safety standards and child labour. And as for rarity, currently 1% of the worlds diamond production is in labs, so that one speaks for itself.
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