Lab Grown Diamonds vs Mined Diamonds – Which Is More Ethical?

The GIA (Gemology Institute of America) no longer refers 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 as well as a more accessible cost. So What is the difference between laboratory grown and mined diamonds? And is one more ethical than the other?

For years the debate over the environmental and ethical consequences of mined diamonds has raged. So when the GIA (Gemology Institute of America) announced that laboratory grown diamonds should no longer be categorised as synthetic, it seemed like an eco friendly alternative had been discovered. In this article we take a deep dive into the diamond industry today and the role of the Kimberley Process in maintaining transparent and ethical supply chains. We also discover alternative ways to capture carbon in order to create diamonds in the lab using renewable energy. As it turns out, the answer to our question isn’t so clear cut.

How are diamonds mined?

Mined diamonds start life as carbon dioxide, buried 100 miles under the earth’s surface 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 four 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. It’s similar to Underground mining, which involves tunneling to reach deeper layers of rock containing the rough diamonds.

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. Diamond mining is the fifth largest industry in the world. It plays a crucial role in world economic development, and the trade of mineral commodities represents a substantial part of international markets. 

Over the years, the industry has earnt a bad reputation. Raluca Anghel of the Natural Diamond Council tells us that when we think of diamond mining “we think of negative practises from a long time ago that have counted against the industry ever since.” Today however, the diamond industry is one of the most regulated in the world. 

How has the Diamond Mining Industry Changed?

When we think of diamond mining we think of scared landscapes, pollution and conflict. And while this may be true of the past, it certainly isn’t of the industry today. “We can’t choose where we find diamonds,” Raluca says. “They appear in the most remote areas on earth. Equally, you can’t grow this activity unless you grow the infrastructure around it.” A perfect example of this is Botswana, regarded by many as a model for the diamond industry to follow. 

After diamonds were discovered there in 1967, the country has only grown more economically stable. As reported by Eco Age Co Founder and Creative Director Livia Firth when she travelled to Botswana – for every $1 of diamonds sold, 80.2% goes to the Botswana Government. All government revenue for minerals goes into a pool and is used for infrastructure. This means that education in the country is free, a rarity on the continent of Africa. According to Raluca, “sustainable development and corporate social responsibility is part of the way diamond companies do business. It’s a symbiosis which is rarely seen in other industries.”

Laboratory Grown vs Natural Diamonds - Which Is More Ethical - Only Natural Diamonds, Natural Diamond Council Ana de Armas

Image: Only Natural Diamonds / Ana de Armas

What Is the Kimberley Process?

This change is partly thanks to the Kimberley Process. It is a tripartite international forum established by governments, industry and civil society in 2000. With the endorsement of the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council it was created in reaction to civil wars raging in several African countries. At the time, the sale of rough diamonds were being used to finance guerrilla campaigns by rebel forces, known as ‘conflict diamonds’. The World Diamond Council (WDC) was established the same year by the diamond and jewelry industries to address the challenge of conflict diamonds. It came to be the industries representative within the KP, where it holds observer status, along with civil society. Today there are 56 Government Participants in the KP, representing 82 countries.

The KP’s key mechanism for eliminating the flow of conflict diamonds is the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS). Rough diamonds can only be traded between parties in KP Participant countries, and international shipments of rough diamonds must be accompanied by a KP certificate. This can only be issued by an authorized KP Authority in the country or region from which they are being exported, ensuring that they are conflict-free.

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Laboratory Grown vs Natural Diamonds - Which Is More Ethical - Ingle and Rhode Diamond and Sapphire Trilogy ring

Image: Ingle & Rhode

How Does The Kimberley Process Ensure Transparency?

Additionally the WDC’s System of Warranties  requires professional buyers and sellers of rough diamonds, polished diamonds and jewelry set with diamonds to include a warranty statement each time a diamond changes hands. This assures the next buyer that it originated from sources in compliance with the KPCS. Elodie Daguzan, Executive Director at the WDC told us that “transparency is a journey of continuous improvement, [the diamond industry] is one of the most regulated industries in the world. The KPCS is like a dedicated customs office for diamonds.”

The KPCS certainly isn’t perfect. Elodie agrees that while it did a good job of almost entirely eliminating conflict diamonds, the KP needs to be updated to reflect today’s issues. Because of this, the WDC’s recently updated System of Warranties also requires a company to indicate that goods were handled in accordance with essential responsible business practices. Including those relating to human and labor rights, anti-money laundering and anti-corruption.

Tim Ingle of Ingle and Rhode insists on additional certifications for all his diamonds. “Canada is unique in offering country of origin certification for diamonds, and the diamonds we offer trace back to two mines in Canada,” he told us. “They are mined with strict environmental legislation that requires the impact to be minimised and the land restored. Canada also has strict employment and health and safety laws, protecting the miners from exploitation.”

In Elodie’s opinion, jewellers should be cautious about adopting standards that may have the unintended consequence of depriving communities in artisanal mining areas in Africa that are largely dependent on diamonds for their livelihood. “This is why the KPCS and WDC System of Warranties are so important. They enable the export of responsibly sourced diamonds, while supporting the sustainable development of some of the most impoverished communities on our earth,” she says.

Environmental Impacts of Diamond Mining

The same can be said of mining in other parts of the world, but Botswana specifically can again be cited as a model for excellent standards. Whilst the environmental impacts of mining, particularly open pit, can be devastating, mines like Lucara and Debswana protect land and eco systems as well as building schools and hospitals. NDC Members protect 3x the amount of land they use. Livia’s colleague at Eco Age, Harriet Vocking, who visited Botswana with her, was left with a profound feeling of positive social impact. “We shouldn’t dictate to countries what they do with their natural resources.” She continued, “we have a ‘global north’ opinion of [mining diamonds].” If money from diamond mining is invested in infrastructure and sustainable development, who are we to tell them not to mine their natural resources? Around 10 million people worldwide depend on the diamond industry. These people deserve to reap the rewards from it too.

What Are Laboratory Grown Diamonds?

Chemically identical to mined diamonds, laboratory 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, Chemical Vapour Deposition. Both processes mimic 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.

Carbon Neutral Diamonds

Creating a diamond in a lab is an energy intensive process, which can require vast amounts of electricity (the source of which isn’t always green) to replicate the heat and pressure needed. However, companies such as Diamond Foundry in San Francisco, are purely solar powered. The company was recently announced as the worlds first 100% carbon neutral diamond producer. Having received investment from none other than Leonardo Dicaprio, the Diamond Foundry has become a hot topic in the world of laboratory grown diamonds. In 2018, industrial designer Marc Newson and Apple’s Sir Jony Ive created a ring cut from a single chunk of diamond from Diamond Foundry. It sold at auction, raising $256,250 for HIV/Aids charity (RED). It was the world’s first wearable all diamond ring.

Laboratory Grown vs Natural Diamonds - Which Is More Ethical - All Diamond (RED) ring by Marc Newson, Sir Jony Ive and Diamond Foundry

Image: All Diamond Ring for (RED)

Fine Jeweller Lark & Berry are proud to work with a UK based lab which uses 100% renewable energy. The company’s Founder Laura Chavez, told us that since she began the brand she has seen an increase in diamond labs using renewable energy. “It’s just a matter of time before most, if not all labs, can do this,” she says. We should also take into account how the laboratory grown diamond starts life. HPHT uses a slice of graphite which has to be mined. Tim Ingle comments that “we need to ensure that the graphite is being mined in as eco-friendly a way as possible. Mining itself is of course an energy intensive activity, so we need to look at the energy used here as well as the energy used in the HTHP and CVD processes.” However mining on this scale is not really comparable to open pit mining for diamonds. The responsible employment and support of communities around the mines should always be taken into account too. 

Diamonds Created From Thin Air

The CVD process however begins differently. Fine Jeweler Kimaï tell us that their diamond seeds are grown in a reactor, the carbon source for which is methane,. Therefore no mining is required. There are several companies pulling it out of thin air too. Both Aether and UK based Skydiamond pull carbon out of the air, and from industry, using it to grow laboratory grown diamonds. Who would have thought that reducing carbon in our atmosphere could be so glamorous?

Kimaï, who made those diamond earrings favoured by Meghan Markle, only use solar powered labs to source their diamonds. They are also proud to reduce water usage too. Co Founder Jessica Warch told us that “our supplier’s process uses just 300-500ml per carat (some growers use 18 gallons of water).” Improvements are being made all the time throughout the process. So what was once a highly energy intensive production, is gradually becoming less impactful. 

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Traceability is also a big win for brands using laboratory grown diamonds. As well as using Canada certified mined diamonds, Ingle and Rhode have seen a strong growth in demand for lab grown diamonds. The main draw being “that they are guaranteed conflict free,” says Tim Ingle. Jessica Warch agrees. “Our diamonds only change hands with six people throughout the supply chain, and we know whose. Mined diamonds can change hands at least 15 times before they even reach you.”

All the Glamour For Less Money

Laboratory grown diamonds are also becoming more popular because they are more reasonable than mined diamonds. According to Tim Ingle, a laboratory grown diamond can be around 30% cheaper than a mined equivalent. Kimaï Co Founder Sidney Neuhas noted that, “consumer perception is shifting towards embracing laboratory grown diamonds. 70% of millennials will now consider a laboratory grown diamond and the industry has grown 250% in two years.” However when considering purchasing an ethical product, price is a fluid idea. When we consider that the mining and sale of diamonds from Botswana has grown an entire country’s infrastructure, championing education for all and better jobs for women, the high cost is arguably worth it. Learn more about how the Diamond Industry is championing jobs for women in episode 16 of our podcast Style With Substance.

What is more ethical?

Which brings us to the big question. Between mined and laboratory grown diamonds, which is more ethical? Natural Diamond Council’s Raluca Anghel feels that this question is too simplistic. “The industries are hard to compare. In every industry some people do a good job and some are not.” She stresses that transparency in both industries is key. In the same way that not all diamond mines drive positive impact like the ones’ in Botswana and Canada, not all laboratories growing diamonds are responsibly sourcing carbon or using renewable energy. 

Laboratory Grown vs Natural Diamonds - Which Is More Ethical - Billy Porter wears Lark and Berry Necklace

Image: Lark & Berry / Billy Porter

As with other areas of sustainability, it comes down to a consumer’s values. Harriet Vocking of Eco Age elaborates, “each mine matches with different values. One Botswana mine is run by a woman and another has a Rhino conservation. Companies have to decide what matches with their values.” Lark & Berry’s jewellery is designed using only laboratory grown diamonds and has been worn at the Oscars, Golden Globes and the Met Gala. It was named one of the Great British Brands of 2020. Founder Laura Chavez insists that “I tell people they should buy diamond jewellery because of what it represents to them. No matter whether their diamond is mined or grown it will still last them forever, and it can still be passed on to heirs.”

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