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Are lab diamonds the world’s best friend?

  • Written by  Harriet Constable
  • Published in Development
Are lab diamonds the world’s best friend? New York’s Diamond District on 47th Street
22 Aug
2018
After 130 years in the diamond industry De Beers recently announced it would begin selling lab-grown diamonds. But what are lab-diamonds, why all the hype, and what do they mean for the future?

Take a short stroll east from the frantic hustle of New York’s Times Square and you’ll stumble across shop windows dazzling with thousands of diamonds in baguette, oval, princess, crystal and emerald cuts. Here, tourists gaze open-mouthed at the glittery splendour with their faces pressed to the glass, elderly ladies swoop out of stores clutching shiny purchases in expensive shopping bags, and giggly couples try out engagement rings for size.

This is 47th street: the gateway to the United States’ staggering $47billion diamond industry. Yet while many shops here in the Diamond District have been in operation for generations there are some new players on the scene, and their diamonds don’t come from the earth.

In his basement store, Danny Baruch and his brothers are hard at work, cutting, inspecting and selling diamonds that have been grown in a laboratory in New Jersey. Although his family have been in the mined diamond industry for generations, Baruch launched American Grown Diamonds in June 2015 after seeing an opportunity. ‘Lab grown diamonds are something that’s pretty new to consumers. They’ve been around since the late 1950s for industrial purposes but in the last five to six years I learned that it was possible to make [jewellery] quality,’ says the 30-year-old Baruch.

Lab diamonds are grown in high pressure chambers heated with plasma (Image: Diamond Foundry)Lab diamonds are grown in high pressure chambers heated with plasma (Image: Diamond Foundry)

Lab diamonds are created by breaking down a hydrocarbon gas mixture in a high-pressure, high-temperature chamber that mimics the conditions needed to form diamonds from the ground. The diamond takes just a few weeks to grow and is then sent to the same diamond cutters and polishers that work with mined diamonds. ‘[They’re] chemically, physically and optically identical to mined diamonds, and even experts can’t tell the difference between mined and lab diamonds without special machinery,’ says Baruch.

The growing popularity of lab diamonds has caused much dismay to established diamond businesses, and fierce debate has rumbled on in recent years about what exactly a ‘real’ diamond is. De Beers, one of the world’s largest diamond companies, spent millions of dollars on an advertising campaign called ‘Real is Rare’ aimed at combating the growth of the lab-grown diamond industry. Meanwhile, big players in the lab-grown world, such as the Leonardo DiCaprio-backed Diamond Foundry, argue that suggesting lab-grown diamonds aren’t ‘real’ is unfair and unclear.

However, in a surprising turn of events, De Beers completely switched gears in May 2018, announcing it would enter the lab grown industry itself. In a statement, De Beers Group CEO Bruce Cleaver said that its lab-grown diamonds would offer, ‘Affordable fashion jewellery that may not be forever, but is perfect for right now.’

As the drama continues, the US government’s Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently made changes to its jewellery guidelines and stated that all diamonds, whether mined or man-made, are ‘diamonds, pure and simple’. Concluding matters, Diamond Foundry CEO Martin Roscheisen wrote that, ‘Lab diamonds are mainstream now and the demand for them is through the roof.’

Diamonds

Buyers

Many of those buying lab diamonds are millennials, 70 per cent of whom would consider purchasing a lab-grown diamond for an engagement ring, according to a report by consumer research organisation MVI Marketing.

Jonathan Park is one such example. The 28-year-old coder from New York recently visited American Grown Diamonds to purchase an engagement ring. ‘When I decided to get engaged I did some research and a [lab-grown diamond] sounded like a really good compromise. I know it’s ethically sourced, which is really important to me, and it’s cheaper [than a mined diamond],’ he says.

Lab-grown diamonds typically sell for about 30 per cent less than mined diamonds, which is a big incentive for customers according to Baruch: ‘Even for consumers who have the money I think they're being a little more conscious on where they spend it these days and they can get a lot more bang for their buck when they're buying a lab-grown diamond over a mined one,’ he says.

Environmental factors also come into the decision for many consumers. Reports estimate that 250 tonnes of earth is shifted for every single carat of diamond, and some mines are now so huge that they can be seen from space. The fact that organisations such as Diamond Foundry can sell diamonds while being certified 100 per cent carbon neutral is a big selling point.

Traceability is also something that lab diamond sellers can offer assurance on in a way the mined industry cannot. Experts say it is still very difficult for consumers to know where a mined diamond has come from or what human-rights abuses it may have been associated with on its journey from mine to shop.

The Kimberley diamond mine in Australia – one of the world’s largest suppliers of mined diamondsThe Kimberley diamond mine in Australia – one of the world’s largest suppliers of mined diamonds

The Kimberley Process

Diamonds sourced from mines follow the Kimberly Process, a certification system for rough diamonds that was set up to stem the flow of conflict diamonds. Yet there are numerous issues it fails to address, says Alice Harle, senior campaigner at Global Witness, an environmental and human rights organisation that has lead several investigations into the diamond world. ‘Conflict diamonds are narrowly defined by the Kimberley Process as “rough diamonds used by rebel movements to finance wars against legitimate governments”. Because of this narrow definition of a “conflict diamond” the Kimberley Process is not empowered to address the range of risks to human rights posed by the trade in diamonds,’ she says.

An eye-opening 2013 article published in Foreign Policy exposed some of these ‘abuses’ in more detail, centering in on Surat, a rapidly growing city in India where 90 per cent of the world’s diamonds go to be cut and polished. The reality of the sparkling multi-billion dollar diamond industry is, ‘hundreds of compact, dimly lit polishing rooms, where rows of teenage boys work 14-hour shifts, each grinding and shining about $10,000 in diamonds a day,’ according to the article. Author Jason Miklian describes how ‘decades of continuously inhaling microscopic diamond grains often leads to tuberculosis and respiratory diseases (“diamond lung”, as it is called locally), which afflicts tens of thousands of workers.’

More recently, a 2018 investigation by the Thompson Reuters Foundation exposed that poor working conditions and abysmal pay were leading to multiple suicides. Workers in the diamond industry were setting fire to themselves, drinking poison, and jumping from their office buildings. ‘The highest number of more than 5,000 suicides reported in Surat city since 2010 were in areas where diamond workers live,’ says the article.

On top of these shocking reports, the Foreign Policy article also points out the gaping holes in the Kimberly Process that can easily be sabotaged. For starters, the Kimberley certificate is, ‘shamefully basic… about as easy to fake as an old driving licence.’ Then there’s the fact that diamonds from all over the world come to Surat, where regulations are wanting, leading to stones being mixed up. ‘Individual stones can change hands up to a dozen times over a matter of weeks in polishing houses that grab from piles of legal and illegal stones like mix-n-match candy bins,’ says the article.

According to estimates by diamond company Brilliant Earth, ‘loose diamond handling practices in places such as Surat are one of the main reasons why… less than one per cent of diamonds are traceable to a country of origin by the time they reach a jewellery retailer.’

Workers at a diamond mineWorkers at a diamond mine

What’s ethical?

Trying to make an ethical choice when it comes to a diamond purchase may not be as simple as just going lab-grown, according to Brad Brooks-Rubin, previous special advisor on conflict diamonds to the US Department of State and now managing director at The Sentry/Enough Project, an organisation that aims to end mass atrocities in Africa’s deadliest conflict zones. ‘[Lab-diamonds] focus on the environment, but a bigger question is, is it ethical to guide people away from buying diamonds in developing countries, where a million people or more rely on the work?’ he says.

The diamond industry has faced opposition to this issue before. When the Kimberley Process was introduced many companies pulled out of Africa and began sourcing their diamonds from developed countries such as Canada and Australia because they had clearer supply chains. African countries were enraged and argued it was a political move to keep African diamonds out of the supply chain. ‘It was seen as a “Western Block”,’ says Brooks-Rubin.

Over time, companies have worked to improve this, and organisations such as the Gemological Institute of America has launched the ‘Mine to Market’ initiative which tests diamonds at multiple interludes along their journey, effectively tracking the gems from start to finish. The process means companies can confidently work in developing countries with approved mines. However, the technology is still not widely implemented.

Alice Harle at Global Witness thinks this may be a way that the mined-diamond industry can differentiate itself and appeal to consumers even while lab-diamonds become more and more popular. ‘Positive impacts on local communities are not something that the lab-based synthetic diamond industry can provide… the mined diamond industry [has] the opportunity to show its potential value in bringing real improvements to local communities rather than the harms,’ she says.

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