Natural versus Lab diamonds
The demand for an alternative to natural diamonds has seen many jewellers turn to offering lab-grown diamonds to their customers who are wanting bigger stones for less money. Several questions do arise, how eco-friendly are they? and well, are they the same as naturals?
Their debate is comparable to vegan v carnivore or beef v lab grown meat and their comparative effects on the environment and economic output. Despite controversy, lab grown diamonds are a growing industry and some big jewellery chains have openly embraced their arrival.
There is no issue about prefering natural diamonds in Vermilion jewellery as its aesthetic is artisan & artstic so that automatically rules out lab-grown diamonds even though the much lower price is tempting. Actually there is more concern with them sneaking in as frauds for the naturals than choosing not to use them which has eliminated using secondhand or heirloom stones. The exception being vintage cuts which are not replicated in the lab..yet. Also the data is sketchy as to whether lab-grown diamonds are as eco friendly as their marketing seems to imply.
"maybe lab diamonds are kinder to the environment but they do not contribute to sustainability in poorer countries "
We know natural diamonds are produced from elemental carbon under intense pressure between 1 & 3 billion years ago and that chemical impurities such as nitrogen, sulphur, and boron form the coloured ones. When you think of where natural diamonds are mined, it is easy to conjure up vast holes, stressed water supply and significant environmental impact.
But at the other end of the diamond mining scale, lies small artisanal diamond mining. Diamonds unlike gold require no chemical extraction, just hard graft. The Democratic Republic of Congo accounts for nearly 70% of the global production but the informal nature of the sector means it is especially vulnerable to human rights violations, corruption and illicit trade between small traders. Some 10 million people work in the diamond industry, in some of the poorest areas of the world. The diamond industry contributes US$8 billion a year to Africa and interestingly, no conservation group has endorsed lab-grown diamonds.
So what are natural diamond miners doing about the environment and exploitation?
Large scale mining has become a lot more efficient and environmentally aware to cater to the demands from the government, land holders & the jewellery industry for sustainability and transparency. Blockchain digital technology (incorruptible transparency and tracebility authentication) is being trialed to address the exploitation of small and remote artisan diamond miners. This allows small traders to earn a legitimate and fair income for their diamonds which are traceable from mine to shop.
Even so you cannot look at those large mines without contemplating the environment in particular and as such lab diamonds have jumped on this as a key benefit of lab production (besides price), namely not mining the earth and using less energy. Fair trade for artisanal workers is still very much a work in progress.
" lab-grown & natural diamonds have completely identical chemical compositions, they are indistinguishable"
To make a lab diamond you need a sliver of real diamond first (the seed, like a pearl) and then days to a month in a machine to mimic the pressure and temperature of Earth. The material used to make a diamond can come from anywhere or anything that can be reduced to elemental carbon. The result is an identical chemical form to a natural diamond.
Human & pet ashes for example are gaining a niche market in lab diamonds. Experimentation is underway to produce coloured lab diamonds of shades which do not exist in the natural world. Despite the creativity of this, having worked in a lab, creativity eventually gives way to achieve a standard reproduceable product at a particular price point.
While the environmental footprint of a diamond mine is obvious, the actual energy use in producing a lab diamond is less clear. Diamond machines require buildings, steel & large amounts of constant energy. It should be an ideal process using renewable forms of energy but with India and China still heavily reliant on coal as an energy source, it's easy to be skeptical that production is in fact from renewable sources.
Over half of the worlds lab diamond factories are based in China followed by India and the USA. In contrast Russia, Botswana and Canada are the largest natural diamond miners amongst a smaller plethora of african countries including South Africa, Namibia & Angola where diamond mining is a significant contributor to the economy and employer of small traders.
That being said, eco friendliness and sustainability is being drummed in to the jewellery industry and rightly so. But whether claims being made by both sides can be truly validated remains an ongoing issue.
"While lab diamonds have their use and their place, luxury consumers will continue to desire the rarity and amazing story of natural diamonds"
Tiffany & Co
So how are the other jewellery houses treating diamonds? Tiffany's position is they don't believe lab grown diamonds are a luxury material. Cartier's postion is similar, "The problem with lab-grown diamonds is that, despite having the same molecular structure as those found in the earth, lab-grown diamonds don’t have any history having been made 2 weeks earlier. We make a promise of naturality and traceability to our clients."
Pandora, on the other hand has gone full lab-gown and the driving factor for them is price, making diamonds affordable for mass consumption and to those who could not afford a diamond before.
So how can I tell the difference between lab-grown & natural diamonds?
The short answer is that you can't nor can your jeweller unless they have impeccable means of tracking their inventory or use sophisticated equipment. Most but not all larger lab diamonds have a laser inscription but melee (tiny) diamonds don't, even though legally any lab-grown diamond must be identified as such.
Substitution of lab diamonds with natural has become a significant problem with second hand and vintage/estate dealers and melee buyers who do not have the sophisticated equipment to discern the difference. When you consider that lab diamonds are around 70% cheaper than their natural cousins there is a significant motivation for fraud.
Discerning the difference between therefore is tricky, the most obvious indicator is price.
The quality of lab-grown diamonds is still a work in progress, while they are diamonds, some may discolor eventually and their resale value will never be close to a natural diamond of the same quality but technology is improving all the time. Cutting a lab diamond is more challenging than a natural one due its crystalline form. One would suspect less care and precision by an artisan cutter knowing that any mistakes can be retified by just replacing the defective one with a new one.
So what is best for me?
Ultimately you give the value to your diamonds so natural v lab is personal choice, each has its pros and cons, there is no right or wrong. It comes down to what emotionally ties you to your diamonds and what they signify. If you have never owned a diamond and can't afford a significant one, and you love the properties of diamonds then lab-grown diamonds could be an ideal choice.
Others may seek a further emotional connection to nature and her bounty and be prepared to pay for the rarity, the story and the sustainability of owning natural diamonds that can be passed down through the generations, reset and reused.
Purchasing on eco friendliness is less clear, there really isn't enough traceability yet although that is changing, you can buy a lab diamond that has verifiable eco credentials such as Pandora and other major jewellery chains. Natural diamonds already have processes in place to combat exploitation and reduce effects on the environment. For example Canadian diamond mines have some of the world's highest environmental standards & their diamonds command a premium. They are conflict-free, having undergone a certification process that allows the stones to be tracked from mine through manufacturing, wholesaling and to the retail consumer.
We have not yet figured out how to stop mining the earth, whether it be for diamonds, gold, iron or rare earths needed make steel for machines or batteries to power our phones. While its easy to lump diamonds and gold into the vanity section, only 30% of the diamond industry is used for jewellery, the rest is industrial (lab-diamond use right there) and gold is a sought after metal for its conductive and anti corrosive properties. The value of gold and diamonds due to their preciousness has already made them automatic candidates for repurposing and recycling long before sustainability became a thing.
Both naturals and labs are here to stay and if lab diamonds (currently occupying 6% of the market) are encouraging the natural mining industry to make their processes more sustainable then that is a good thing. But lab diamond producers and sellers need to be aware that they must apply verifiable claims to their own products rather than jumping on vague claims of eco friendliness to appeal to current trends.
Regardless of your choice, it boils down to knowing its provenance. A lab diamond no matter how small must be legally identified as such. Any good jeweller or artisan would know this, and over the years it has become easier to track the chains of supply. The tiniest diamonds can now be screened for quality and naturalness.
It was interesting at the HK Jewellery Show which is one of the biggest contacts and supply sources in the world, the lab diamond floor was in a completely different hall to natural diamonds. The vibe there was strange, very aggressive sales people, it was not where I wanted to hang around much, even to learn. It was at odds with the atmosphere of the rest of the show.
Question where your diamonds come from and the jewellery industry will be forced to respond with more transparency which is of ultimate benefit to everyone.