Lab-grown diamonds vs mined gems: exploring the ethics behind jewellery's favourite stone

As the mining industry works hard to wipe the blood off diamonds, we examine the factors at play when it comes to choosing between natural and lab-grown stones

Pandora, the Danish company that makes more jewellery than any other in the world, most of it inexpensive, announced in May that it will no longer sell mined diamonds, instead switching to exclusively laboratory-made stones.

“They are as much a symbol of innovation and progress as they are of enduring beauty, and stand as a testament to our ongoing and ambitious sustainability agenda,” said chief executive Alexander Lacik, who announced the launch of Pandora’s Brilliance range of jewellery featuring lab-grown diamonds.

Lacik told the BBC the change was part of a broader sustainability drive Pandora was pursuing because “it is the right thing to do".

Advances in technology mean “we can offer diamond jewellery at affordable prices, and we know there is an interest among consumers for lab-created diamonds and we expect the market to grow,” Pandora’s director of external relations, Johan Melchior, tells The National.

The launch of Brilliance, he claims, “is a step towards creating low-carbon jewellery. We are seeing increased interest, particularly among the younger generations, in shopping more consciously and sustainably, and our lab-created diamonds are carbon-neutral-certified.”

‘A false and misleading narrative’

The diamond industry, however, is not happy about Pandora’s claims and leading industry organisations published a swift rebuke, objecting to a “false and misleading narrative” in the Pandora announcement, “which positioned laboratory-grown diamonds as an ethical choice versus natural diamonds”.

The organisations, which include the Natural Diamond Council (NDC), the World Jewellery Confederation, the World Diamond Council and the Responsible Jewellery Council, jointly said the diamond industry employs tens of millions of people globally, and many communities in developing nations rely on income and welfare from diamond mining.

The group acknowledged Pandora’s decision to sell lab-grown diamonds as a positive expansion of the diamond industry, but warns that “potentially false and misleading assertions can diminish consumer confidence across all categories and create confusion which is detrimental to the industry as a whole”.

Business consultancy firm Bain & Company valued the industry at $80 billion in its most recent report in 2019. However, 20 years ago it was in crisis. The 2006 film Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, raised awareness that some diamonds could be tainted with the blood of conflicts. However, a certification scheme to prevent “conflict diamonds” from entering the mainstream rough diamond market, called the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) had already been introduced in 2003 to ensure that only rough diamonds with KP certification can be legally traded between countries that are KP members.

‘Actively safeguarding vulnerable species’

The Kimberley Process is a United Nations and World Trade Organisation-mandated structure that involves governments, industry and civil society. Raluca Anghel, head of external affairs at the NDC, explains that in addition to the Kimberley Process, the World Diamond Council, the body that represents the international diamond industry in the KP, created the System of Warranties. This “sets out high standards for the entire industry as buyers and sellers of diamonds, rough and polished, are committed to adhering to internationally recognised principles on anti-money laundering, anti-corruption, and protection of human and labour rights”.

While the issue of sustainability resonates strongly with millennial customers and diamond mining undoubtedly has a dubious history, that has changed immeasurably.

The industry is dominated by a few large miners, members of the NDC, who oversee 75 per cent of the world’s rough diamond mining across four continents and offer a transparent supply chain. They employ more than 77,000 people who depend on our passion for diamonds and earn 66 per cent more than the national average of their country, benefitting their local economies by $3.9 billion. All of this has been independently audited.

Quote
[The aim] isn’t to compete with the mined diamond industry, but simply offer more choice to consumers
Alexander Lacik, chief executive of Pandora

The companies invest in good living and working conditions; more than $292 million is invested in free education and hospitals, and there’s even a new airport in the sub-Arctic region in Siberia where the Alrosa mine is located (the 14.83-carat The Spirit of the Rose purple-pink diamond sold by Sotheby’s for $26.6m last November was from Alrosa).

If the complete footprint of these diamond mines was grouped together, the total 840 square kilometres is the size of New York City, yet the NDC members protect three times the amount of land that they use, restoring mined land and preserving wildlife.

One of the companies, De Beers, which has mines in Botswana, South Africa and Namibia, has an integrated approach to protecting the natural world that includes 200,000 hectares of land for conservation across southern Africa.

“[That’s] more than six times the area of land on which we mine globally,” De Beers chief brand officer David Prager tells The National. “It also includes actively safeguarding endangered, threatened and vulnerable species through ground-breaking programmes.”

Wherever De Beers finds diamonds, “our mission is to turn a finite resource below ground into infinite opportunity above ground. Diamonds have played an important role in the economies of South Africa and Namibia, and our Building Forever sustainability framework is designed to maximise the benefit a diamond from De Beers can create in protecting the planet and improving people’s lives,” says Prager.

De Beers mines are joint ventures with the respective governments earning substantial export revenue that governments reinvest in the communities. Similarly in Botswana, where De Beers and fellow miner Lucara operate, the diamonds generate 80 per cent of the country’s export earnings.

Since diamonds were discovered in 1967, Botswana has risen from one of the poorest to one of the top 10 wealthiest countries in Africa. Both mining companies have made strides to accelerate female entrepreneurship and leadership. At Lucara, 85 per cent of the organisation’s leadership is female, which is novel for the mining world, and 98 per cent of its workforce is local.

‘We do not leave ghost towns behind’

The managing director of Lucara Botswana is Naseem Lahri, a Muslim of Mongolian and Persian heritage, who moved from insurance to mining. “Mining is very dynamic and the work is always exciting,” she says.

Her experience highlights the immense changes diamond mining has undergone. Sustainable investment in the community is at the heart of Lahri’s achievements. “The aim is to diversify and ensure that when the mine closes, the communities around us can thrive and we do not leave ghost towns and villages behind.”

Lucara has uncovered some of the biggest diamonds in history, including the 1,109-carat rough that Graff bought, called the Lesedi La Rona, and the 1,758-carat Sewelo that is jointly owned with Louis Vuitton. The un-set stones cut from the Sewelo are currently touring the world and Louis Vuitton will work on custom-designed high jewellery creations with discerning clients.

Meanwhile, for those who view the mine pits as large scars in the landscape, Lahri emphasises the continuous rehabilitation of the mine, while funds are set aside for complete land rehabilitation after the mine is exhausted.

‘More choice for consumers’

Cost may well be the fifth C when it comes to the lab-grown versus natural stone argument.

Diamonds have always been a status symbol, but can be expensive “and, to a lot of people, something they’ll never get a chance to own”, says Melchior at Pandora, who says their aim “isn’t to compete with the mined diamond industry, but simply offer more choice to consumers”.

De Beers itself dabbles in laboratory-grown diamonds, by way of its Lightbox wing, which creates fun fashion accessories.

Others using lab-grown diamonds in jewellery include designers such as Laura Chavez of Lark & Berry and Matilde Mourinho Felix (daughter of Portuguese football manager Jose Mourinho). Swarovski makes them for the jewellery trade, but unveiled its own Atelier Swarovski collaboration with actress Penelope Cruz.

Lark & Berry sources its gems from the Diamond Foundry in California, a big player in this arena, while Fiori Jewels brought lab-grown diamond jewellery to the UAE and sells it from Gold & Diamond Park in Dubai. Damas is the latest brand to announce its interest in the man-made diamond industry.

LG certification a must

To the naked eye, these synthetic diamonds cannot be told apart from natural diamonds; they are chemically identical and are graded using the same 4C system of cut, colour, clarity and carat.

To avoid consumer confusion, the Gemological Institute of America, which certifies all precious gemstones, is giving them full certification, but each gemstone must be engraved with LG to identify them as laboratory-grown.

Quote
There is something intrinsically appealing about things that originate from the Earth
Gaelle Khouri, jewellery designer

A system called CVD (chemical vapour deposition) using carbon-rich gas can produce large, high-quality diamonds in a matter of weeks, not millennia. Diamond synthesis, however, needs huge amounts of energy to generate the high temperatures required.

Much of the world’s production is in India and China using coal-fired energy – hugely controversial as we move towards the COP26 climate conference in November. Some production is in Europe and America, using a combination of renewable energy and carbon offsetting to meet sustainability claims.

However, NDC’s Anghel emphasises that it’s “really important that everybody buying and selling diamonds has the facts [third party-verified], which should be fairly communicated”.

The allure of natural diamonds

While the clinical aspect of lab-grown diamonds appeals to some consumers still wary of blood diamonds, others can’t help but be drawn to the “real” thing. Natural diamonds have a billion-year history, and few, if any, are being formed any more, which gives them a mystical and sentimental edge over manufactured diamonds.

Lebanese jewellery designer Gaelle Khouri says she considers lab-grown diamonds “an impressive invention”, but while tempting, the drawback could be their abundance, which means their value depreciates over time.

Natural diamonds have an allure, she says.

“I think there is something intrinsically appealing about things that originate from the Earth. It might be the unknown factor behind the mystery of creation that makes earthy things, like natural gemstones, so desirable.”

Updated: July 29th 2021, 4:41 AM