Billions of years ago, when the world was still young, treasures began to form deep underground. As the edges of the Earth’s tectonic plates plunged into the upper mantle, pieces of carbon, some of which were probably from long-dead forms of life, melted and compressed into rigid lattices. Over millions of years, these gratings have become the most durable, dazzling gems that the planet has ever prepared. And very often, for reasons that scientists still do not fully understand, the eruption would send a burst of these stones to the surface inside the bubble magma known as kimberlite.
There will be diamonds hidden in kimberlite volcanoes, which saved them from their fiery house until people evolved, learned about their existence and began to dig them out.
The epic origin of Earth diamonds helped create a powerful marketing mythology around them: they are objects of otherworldly strength and beauty; suitable symbols of eternal love. But although “diamonds are eternal” is perhaps the most memorable advertising slogan ever bearing some geological truth, the supply of these stones in the earth’s crust, in places where we can easily get them, is far from eternal. And the scars we put on the ground and on ourselves to mine diamonds cast a shadow that still remains over the industry.
However, some diamond seekers say that we no longer need to scour the Earth, because science now offers an alternative: personalized biomaterial diamonds grown in laboratories. These gemstones are not simulators or synthetic substitutes; they are optically, chemically and physically identical to their counterparts mined on Earth. They are also cheaper and theoretically limitless. The appearance of laboratory-grown diamonds has stirred up the world of jewelry and has provoked a fierce reaction from diamond miners. Claims abound on both sides.
Producers often say their diamonds are sustainable and ethical; Miners and their industry allies believe that “precious stones” read from the Earth can be considered “real” or “precious.” Some of these statements are subjective, others are supported only by sparse, self-esteem or data obtained from the industry. But this does not stop everyone from making them.
It’s a fight for image, and when it comes to diamonds, image is everything.
Same but different
The dream of a laboratory-grown diamond is rooted in the past. In 1911, science fiction writer H.G. Wells in his short story , The Diamond Maker described what would essentially become one of the key methods for producing diamonds — to recreate conditions inside the Earth’s mantle on its surface. As the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) notes, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries there were several dubious attempts to create diamonds in laboratories, but the first commercial production of diamonds appeared only in the mid-1950s, when scientists using General Electric developed method of creating small brown stones, Others, including De Beers, soon developed their own methods for synthesizing precious stones, and using the laboratory-created diamond in industrial applications, from cutting tools to powerful electronics and, has become popular.
According to James Shigley of the GIA, the first experimental production of gem-quality diamonds occurred in 1970. However, by the beginning of the 2000s, gem-quality stones were still small and often tinted yellow with impurities. In the last five or so years alone, methods for growing diamonds have reached such a level that manufacturers began to consistently produce a large number of colorless stones. It was then that the jewelry sector began to show real interest.
Today, this sector is taking off. According to IGDA Secretary General Dick Garard, the International Grown Diamond Association (IGDA), a trading group formed in 2016 by a dozen laboratory diamond manufacturers and sellers, has about 50 members. When the IGDA first formed, laboratory-grown diamonds accounted for about 1 percent of the $ 14 billion rough diamond market. According to industry analyst Paul Zimninsky, this year they account for 2-3 percent of the market.
He expects this share will only grow as factories in China, which already produce millions of carats a year for industrial purposes, are starting to see opportunities in jewelry. «I have a real problem with people claiming that one is ethical, and there is no other. ”
“This year, some [plants] will grow from 100,000 gem-quality diamonds to one or two million,” Zimniski said. “They already have the infrastructure and equipment in place,” and they are in the process of modernization. (According to a global industry analysis by Bain & Company, about 150 million carats of diamonds were mined last year.)
In addition to increasing production, in 2018, other important events in the industry took place. In the summer, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) changed its decades of leadership when it expanded the definition of diamond to include those that were created in laboratories and excluded “synthetic” as the recommended descriptor for laboratory-grown stones. The decision came right after the world’s largest diamond maker, De Beers, announced the launch of its own line of lab-grown Diamond Lightbox diamonds after vowing to never sell artificial gemstones as jewelry.
“I would say shock,” said Lightbox marketing director Sally Morrison when she asked how the jewelry world reacted to the company’s launch.
While most lab-grown diamonds on the market today are what are known as hand-to-hand combat (less than 0.18 carats), the technology for producing the largest, most dazzling diamonds continues to improve. In 2016, MiaDonna, a laboratory-grown diamond company, announced that its partners had grown a 6.28-carat gem-quality diamond, which is currently considered the largest in the United States. In 2017, the laboratory at Augsburg University, Germany, which produces diamonds for industrial and scientific research, produced what is considered the largest diamond ever grown in the laboratory — a 155-carat hippo that extends nearly 4 inches across. Perhaps not a gem, but still impressive.
“If you compare it with the queen’s diamond, its weight is four times that, it’s more understandable,” said physicist Mathias Shrek, who leads the group that raised this beast from a gem. “But our diamond is larger in area. We were very proud of it. ”
Diamonds can be created in one of two ways: just as they form inside the Earth, or just as scientists speculate that they can form in outer space.
An older, Earth-inspired method is known as “high temperature high pressure” (HPHT), and that’s exactly what it looks like. A carbon source, such as graphite, is placed in a giant mechanical press, where in the presence of a catalyst it is exposed to temperatures of about 1600 degrees Celsius and a pressure of 5-6 Gigapascals to form a diamond. (If you’re curious about what such pressure looks like, the GIA describes it as similar to the force acting if you are trying to balance a commercial aircraft at your fingertips.)
The newer method, called chemical vapor deposition (CVD), is more like how diamonds can form in interstellar gas clouds (for which we have indirect, spectroscopic evidence, according to Shigley). A hydrocarbon gas, such as methane, is pumped into a low pressure reactor next to hydrogen. According to Lightbox CEO Steve Coe, who maintains conditions close to vacuum, the gases heat up very hot — usually from 3,000 to 4,000 degrees Celsius, which causes carbon atoms to free themselves from molecular bonds. Under the right conditions, these released carbon particles settle on a substrate — usually on a flat square plate of HPHT synthetic diamond — forming a layer on the diamond layer.
“It’s like snow falling on a table on the back porch,” said Jason Payne, founder and CEO of Ada Diamonds, a laboratory-grown diamond jewelry company.
Scientists have long crafted personalized diamonds out of the dust of jewelery quality using HPHT, but today CVD has become the method of choice for those who sell larger wedding stones. This is partly because, according to Coe, it is easier to control impurities and produce diamonds with very high purity. However, each method has its own advantages — Payne said that HPHT is faster and diamonds usually have a better color (i.e. less than that) — and some companies, like Ada, buy stones grown in both directions.
No matter how they are made, diamonds grown in the laboratory have the same exceptional hardness, rigidity and thermal conductivity as their counterparts mined on Earth. Cut, they can dazzle with the same brilliance and fire — a technical term to describe how well a diamond dissipates like a prism. The GIA even classifies them according to the same 4Cs — cut, clarity, color and carat — that gemologists use to evaluate diamonds formed on Earth, although it uses slightly different terminology to represent color and transparency estimates for laboratory-grown stones.
In fact, they are so similar that laboratory-grown diamonds entering larger diamond reserves without any disclosures have become a serious problem in the jewelry industry, especially when it comes to melee stones from Asia. Large retailers are now investing thousands of dollars in sophisticated detection equipment to find small differences, for example, in the form of crystals or in impurities such as nitrogen (according to Shigley, they are much less common in diamonds grown in the laboratory).
These differences may be a lifeline for retailers who hope to sift out lab-grown diamonds, but for companies focused on them, they could be another selling point. For example, the lack of nitrogen in CVD diamonds gives them exceptional chemical purity, which allows them to be classified as type IIa; rare and desirable breed, which is only 2 percent of those found in nature. Meanwhile, the ability to control everything during the growth process allows companies such as Lightbox to adjust the formula and produce incredibly rare blue and pink diamonds as part of their standard product line. (In fact, according to Coe, these colored gems have made up more than half of the company’s sales since launch).
Although the diamonds grown in the laboratory boast the same brilliance as their earthly counterparts, they do this at a significant discount. Zimniski said that today your average-quality ordinary diamond grown in the laboratory will be priced at around $ 3,600, while its counterpart, mined on Earth, costs $ 6,100, which represents a discount of about 40 percent. Two years ago, this discount was only 18 percent. And although the fall in prices “has narrowed a little,” as Zimninsky put it, he expects it to fall further, partly due to the aforementioned growth in production in China, as well as technological improvements. (The market is also changing in response to Lightbox, which De Beers uses to position laboratory-grown diamonds as mass-produced for fashion jewelry,
Zimninsky said that if the price drops too quickly, it could discount the diamonds grown in the laboratory in the eyes of consumers. But at the moment, at least paying less seems to be a selling point. A survey of 2018 consumer research on MVI marketing found that most respondents would choose a larger laboratory, grown diamonds over smaller diamonds mined at the same price.
“What [consumers] seem to be most inspired by is the ability to trade in size and quality at the same price,” said Garard of IGDA.
However, for buyers and sellers, price is only part of the story. Many lab-grown diamonds in the world sell their product as an ethical or environmentally friendly alternative to mined diamonds.
But these sales are not without controversy.
According to Anna-Mike Anderson, she did not enter the diamond world to become a corporate tycoon. She did this to try to correct the mistake.
In 1999, Anderson bought herself a diamond. A few years later, in 2005, her father asked where she came from. Confused, she told him that it was from a jewelry store. But he didn’t ask about that: he wanted to know where it really came from .
“Actually, I had no idea,” Anderson said. «It led me to research.»
This study ultimately led Anderson to the conclusion that she probably bought diamond mined in terrible conditions. She was not sure, because there was no place of origin in the certificate of purchase. But around the time of her purchase, diamond-financed civil wars raged in Angola, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Liberia, fueling “widespread devastation,” as Global Witness put it in 2006. In the midst of the diamond wars in the late 1990s, the watchdog estimates that 15 percent of the diamonds entering the market were conflict diamonds. Even those who did not actively feed the war were often mined in dirty and dangerous conditions; sometimes children. And 3.11 carats. Ada Diamonds Heart Shaped Diamond by Sam Cannon (Earthman)
“I couldn’t believe I bought it,” Anderson said.
To try to remedy the situation, Anderson began sponsoring a boy living in a Liberian community that was hit by a blood diamond trade. According to her, this experience was so frank that in the end she felt the need to sponsor more children. Selling conflict-free jewelry seemed like the right way to raise money for this, but after much more research, Anderson decided that she couldn’t honestly believe that any diamond extracted from Earth was truly conflict-free for humanitarian or environmental purposes. At the beginning of the 2000s, diamond miners received their gems as “conflict free” in accordance with the Kimberley Process, supported by the UNOpens in a new window the definition of a diamond certification scheme for a conflict sold by rebel groups to finance armed conflicts against governments seemed too narrow.
“This [definition of conflict] excludes any relation to the environment or excludes the possibility of prey, or someone who was a slave, or beaten, or raped,” Anderson said.
And so she began to study science, and in 2007 launched MiaDonna as one of the first companies in the world to grow laboratory jewelry with diamonds. The business has been active since its inception, at least five percent of its annual income — and more than 20 percent over the past three years — goes to Greener Diamond, Anderson’s charity foundation, which finances a wide range of projects, from training former child soldiers in Sierra Leone, raising food before financing orphans as a result of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
MiaDonna is not the only company that positions itself as an ethical alternative to the traditional diamond industry. Brilliant Earth, which sells what it says is a carefully mined and lab-mined diamonds, also donates a small portion of its profits to support mining communities. Other lab-grown diamond companies position themselves as “ethical,” “conflict-free,” or “positive for the world.” In the lab-grown diamonds, Payne from Ada Diamonds sees not only brilliant trinkets, but also the potential to improve medicine, clean up environmental pollution and promote society in countless other ways — and he believes that there is a growing interest in lab-grown jewelry with diamonds will help propel us towards this future.
Others, however, say that black-and-white characteristics when it comes to the social impact of mined diamonds compared to stones grown in the laboratory are unfair. “I have a real problem with people who claim that one is ethical and the other is not,” said Eartel Estelle Levin-Nally, founder and CEO of Levin Sources, which advocates for better management in the mining sector. “I think this is always about your policy. And ethics is subjective. ”
Salim Ali, an environmental researcher at the University of Delaware who serves on the Diamonds and Development initiative, agrees. He says that the mining industry as a whole has worked hard to turn around since the height of the diamond wars and that governance is “much better” today than before. Global Witness human rights activist also says that “significant progress” has been made in curbing conflict in diamonds, although Alice Harle, a senior Global Witness email campaigner, said diamonds are still fueling conflict, especially in the Central African Republic and Zimbabwe.
Most industry observers seem to agree that the Kimberley Process is outdated and inadequate, and that more work is needed to eradicate other abuses, including child and forced labor, in artisanal and small-scale diamond mining. According to Julianna Kippenberg, assistant director for children’s rights at Human Rights Watch, there are no such problems with large-scale mining operations today, but she notes that there may be other community consequences for land rights and involuntary resettlement.
The flip side, according to Ali and Levin-Nally, is that well-regulated mining operations can be an important source of economic development and livelihoods. Ali cites Botswana and Russia as prime examples of places where large-scale mining operations have become «major players in the economy.» Dmitry Amelkin, head of strategic projects and analytics for the Russian diamond mining giant ALROSA, repeated this opinion in an email to Earther. noting that diamonds turned Botswana “from one of the poorest [countries] in the world to a middle-income country”, and mining revenues accounted for almost a third of its GDP.
In May, according to a report commissioned by the Diamond Manufacturers Association (DPA), a trading organization representing the largest diamond miners in the world, its members worldwide generate nearly $ 4 billion in direct revenue for employees and contractors, as well as another $ 6.8 billion. US dollars. benefits from “local procurement of goods and services”. DPA CEO Jean-Marc Lieberherr said it was a story that diamond miners should do better by telling.
“The industry has undergone such changes since the Blood Diamond movie appeared ,” he said, referring to the 2006 blockbuster featuring Leonardo DiCaprio, which attracted worldwide attention to the conflict diamonds issue. “And yet the perception of people has not changed. I think that the main reason is that we didn’t have a voice, we didn’t communicate. ”
But conflicts and human rights violations are not the only problems that plague the diamond industry. There is also a long-term environmental impact of mining itself. In the case of large-scale commercial mines, this usually entails the use of heavy equipment and explosives to penetrate deep into these kimberlite pipes in search of gems.
Some, such as Maya Kopleva, a geologist at the University of British Columbia, who studies the diamonds and stones in which they are found, see this much better than many other types of mining. “The ecological footprint is the trail of digging a hole in the ground and crushing [stone],” Kopleva said, noting that there is no need to add strong acids or heavy metals such as arsenic (used in gold mining) to release precious stones.
However, these holes can be huge. Mine Mir, and now an abandoned quarry in Eastern Siberia, is so large, reportedly stretching 3.900 feet wide and 1700 feet deep — Here the Russian government declared it a no-fly zone thanks to the pit’s ability to create dangerous air currents. This is visible from space.
Although companies often rehabilitate other lands to offset the impact of mines, kimberlite mining itself usually leaves a “permanent dent on the surface of the earth,” according to a 2014 report by research firm Frost & Sullivan.
“For me, this is a huge influence,” said Kevin Kraick, senior science news editor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, who wrote a book on discovering diamonds in northern Canada. Kraik noted that in remote mines, such as the Far North, you need to consider not only the physical hole, but also all the development necessary to reach the previously untouched area, including roads and runways, roaring planes and diesel trucks.
Diamonds grown in factories obviously have less physical area. According to the Frost & Sullivan report, they also use less water and generate less waste. It is for these reasons that Ali believes that diamond mining “will never be able to compete” with diamonds grown in the laboratory from an environmental point of view.
“The mining industry should not even try to do this,” he said.
Of course, this is capitalism, so trying to compete is exactly what DPA is doing now. The same recent report, which highlighted the economic benefits of the mining industry, also states that mined diamonds have a carbon footprint three times lower than laboratory-grown diamonds, on average. The figures behind this conclusion, however, do not tell the full story.
Growing diamonds from the ashes of people or pets requires significant energy. However, the exact amount can vary greatly depending on the specifics of the growth process. These are details that manufacturers usually do not want to disclose, but Payne from Ada Diamonds says that, according to his estimates, the most efficient players in the game today use about 250 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy to cut a diamond; roughly what the US household consumes in 9 days. Other ratings are higher. Citing unnamed sources, industry-specific JCK Online reported that modern HPHT can use up to 700 kWh per carat, while cardiovascular disease production can operate in the north up to 1000 kWh per carat.
Based on these and several other publicly available estimates, as well as information on where modern laboratory diamonds are grown in the world, as well as on the energy balance that feeds the electrical networks of producing countries, a DPA commissioned study showed that your typical laboratory growing results diamonds of approximately 511 kg of carbon emissions per polished carat. Using information provided by mining companies on fuel and electricity consumption, as well as other sources of greenhouse gases at the mine, he found that the average carat produced was only 160 kg of carbon emissions.
One limitation here is that the carbon footprint estimate in mining was focused only on diamond mining, and not on the years spent on mine development. As Ali noted, mine development can require a lot of energy, especially for those located in remote places where the equipment needs to be transported over long distances by truck or aircraft.
There is also the question of how representative energy consumption estimates are for diamonds grown in the laboratory. Although he would not have given a specific number, Coe said De Beers, the diamond producer Element Six, possibly the world’s most advanced diamond miner, grown in the laboratory, has “substantially lower” carat energy requirements than those listed in heading numbers. new report. When asked why this was not included, Rick Lord, an ESG analyst at Trucost, the global S&P group that conducted the analysis, said that he decided to focus on energy assessments in a public report, but that after a private consultation with Element Six he did not believe their data will “significantly change” the emission estimates in the study.
Finally, it is important to consider the source of carbon emissions. While a new report says that about 40 percent of emissions from diamond mining are from fossil fuel-powered vehicles and equipment, emissions from growing diamonds come mainly from electricity. Today, about 68 percent of the lab-grown diamonds come from China, Singapore, and India combined, according to Zimnitsky, where energy is used primarily from fossil-fuel networks. But at least it’s possible to switch to renewable energy and reduce carbon emissions. “The reality is that both mining and manufacturing consume energy, and probably the best we can do is focus on reducing energy consumption. «
And some companies seem to be trying to do this. MiaDonna’s Anderson says the company only produces diamonds at US plants, and that it is increasingly trying to work with renewable energy producers. A laboratory-grown diamond company, Diamond Foundry, grows stones in plasma reactors operating “as hot as the outer layer of the sun” on its website, and although it will not offer any specific numbers that are supposed to consume more energy than your usual operation works at lower temperatures. However, E-Hui spokesman Goldenson said that her “megakarat factory” in Washington was named next to a well-kept hydropower source so that diamonds can be mined using renewable energy sources.
Currently, Lightbox diamonds come from British Element Six companies. However, the company is building an object worth 94 million dollars. The US is near Portland, Oregon, which is expected to be launched by 2020. Coe estimates that about 45 percent of his capacity will come from renewable sources.
“The reality is that both mining and manufacturing consume energy, and probably the best we can do is focus on reducing energy consumption,” Coe said. “This is what we focus on in Lightbox.”
Despite this, Lightbox is somewhat noteworthy among diamond jewelry brands that, according to Morrison, «do not claim to be an environmentally friendly product.»
“Although it is true that we are not digging holes in the ground, energy consumption is not negligible,” said Morrison Earther. «And I think we felt very awkward promoting it.»
The battle over how personal memorial diamonds grown in the laboratory can and should sell themselves is still heating up.
On March 26, the FTC sent letters. Eight companies grown in laboratories and diamond manufacturing companies warn them against unfounded claims about the environmental benefits of their products — this is the first real enforcement action after updating jewelry guides last year. Letters first received by JCK News Director Rob Bates at the request of the Freedom of Information Act also warn companies that their ads may falsely assume that the products are mined diamonds, indicating that although the agency now claims to be grown in laboratory diamond is a diamond, the specific origin remains critical. For example, a letter to Diamond Foundry notes that the company occasionally advertised its stones as “above-ground real,” without qualifying them as “laboratory-made.” It’s easy to understand how consumers can miss the point. ADVERTISEMENT
But in a way, that’s what it all means: the struggle for what is real. “This is the nuanced reality we are in. They are a type of diamond. ”
Another letter sent to FTC lawyer Rina Kim on April 2 by the non-profit trade organization Jewelers Vigilance Committee, clarifies that many in the industry still believe that this term should be reserved exclusively for gems formed on Earth. A letter received by Earther from the FOIA encourages the agency to continue to limit the use of the terms “real”, “genuine”, “natural”, “precious” and “semi-precious” to diamonds and gemstones mined on the ground. The letter states that even the use of such terms in combination with «laboratory grown» will create even more confusion in the already confusing and developing market. «
JVC President Tiffany Stevens told Earther that the letter was a response to a footnote in an explanatory paper on recent changes to the FTC jewelry guide, which suggested that the agency consider removing the clause on real, precious, natural and genuine gem modifiers. mined from the earth.
“We felt that, given the current commercial environment, we did not think it was time to take the next step,” Stevens told Earther. According to Stevens, changes recently made by the FTC, including expanding the definition of diamond and setting up descriptors that companies can use to label lab-grown diamonds as such, have already been «wildly misinterpreted» by some lab-grown diamond growers who are larger Do not make «necessary disclosures.»
When asked if the JVC lab-grown diamonds were considered real diamonds, Stevens objected.
“We are in the nuances of reality,” she said. «This is a type of diamond.»
Change is happening in the diamond world. Mining of mined diamonds may already have peaked, according to a 2018 Bain & Company report. Laboratory diamonds are here to stay, although where they go is not entirely clear. Zimninsky expects that in a few years, when the new Lightbox enterprise appears on the network and the mass production of laboratory diamonds continues to grow abroad, the industry price will drop by about 80 percent compared to the mined diamond. At this moment, he wonders if the diamonds grown in the laboratory will begin to lose their radiance.
Payne is not too worried about the price cut that he says is happening in the diamond industry and which he expects will be “linear, not exponential” by the lab. He points out that the market for laboratory-grown diamonds is still limited in supply, and that the largest laboratory-grown gemstones remain quite rare. Both Payne and Zimniski see the market for laboratory-grown diamonds turning into cheaper, mass-produced gems and premium stones sold by those who can support a strong brand. The feeling that they are selling something genuine and, well, real.
“So much is connected with consumer psychology,” said Zimniski.
Some will ever see genuine diamonds only if they formed inside the Earth. They are attracted, as Catherine Money, vice president of strategy and merchandising at Brilliant Earth, put it, to the “history and romanticism” of diamonds; to the feeling that is caused by holding a piece of our ancient world. Essence is more than function.
Others, such as Anderson, view laboratory-grown diamonds as the natural (to use the loaded word) evolution of diamond. “In fact, we are running out of [mined] diamonds,” she said. “The end is visible,” Payne agreed, describing what he sees as an “impending death spiral” for diamond mining.
Mined diamonds will never disappear. We have been digging them since ancient times, and they seem to never lose their splendor. But most large mines are depleted. And with technology that facilitates the cultivation of diamonds, just as it is becoming increasingly difficult to extract from the Earth, the impressive impression of the diamond industry grown in the laboratory about its future does not seem completely unreasonable.
There is a reason why, as Payne said, «the mining industry as a whole is still very afraid of this product.»