By: Jessica Byrne
The world has woken up to the socially and environmentally destructive practices of the natural diamond industry. Thanks to science, many customers are opting for lab-grown diamonds which offer the same product, minus the eco and ethical price tag.
Diamonds are forever, so they say. But so are the scars left behind on the planet and people involved in the very process of unearthing them.
The diamond industry has long been exposed for its unethical practices, with many mines historically located in regions where unregulated trade has been carried out by rebel fighter groups. These rebels enlist local civilians to work in highly unsafe and inhumane conditions, digging for hours for precious stones.
Diamonds are an inherently lucrative product due to their finite and rare nature. This has opened the door for corruption and illegal trading to become common. If you’ve ever seen the film Blood Diamond, you’ll know that violence and abuse of power can run rampant in areas where the search and sale of them is taking place.
Though the EU has put in place its Kimberley certification scheme to halt the trade of ‘blood’ or ‘conflict’ diamonds sourced from places such as Angola, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau during the 19th-century, the true source of most precious stones remains difficult to pin down.
As such, there can never be a total guarantee that someone – or many people – haven’t suffered for the sake of owning a beautiful gem. Not exactly the vibe most people would want to carry around on their engagement ring, I’d imagine.
That said, humanity’s love for beautiful, sparkly gems is unlikely to fade. Thanks to science, we no longer have to obtain diamonds the come at the cost of human lives and the planet’s resources.
Lab-grown diamonds are now booming in popularity, due to their near-exact similarity to natural diamonds and lower cost. Plus, they are guaranteed to be free of a steep ethical price tag.
Comparing natural and lab grown diamonds
The process by which natural and lab-grown diamonds are made is exactly similar. The only difference is one is made in nature and one is made (you guessed it) inside a lab.
In nature, a chemical reaction happens in an environment of immense underground pressure, where carbon, nitrogen, and sometimes boron are present. This unique cocktail of pressure and chemicals starts the process of diamond formation.
Obtaining them is an environmentally taxing process, due to volume of extraction required. In most cases, the damage done to the landscape during mining is irreversible. It often leaves behind deep, irreparable holes in the Earth’s surface that can be captured by satellites in space.
This human-driven activity disrupts surrounding natural habitats, while posing a huge threat to wild animal species, biodiversity, soil quality, and forest health. In areas where intensive mining takes place, land erosion and sinkholes are common.
Unearthing natural diamonds is also a water-intensive process. For every 1-carat diamond unearthed from the ground, around 126 gallons of water is needed. By stark contrast, a 1-carart lab grown gem only requires 18.5 litres of water.
The increasingly popular process by which lab-grown diamonds are formed is called Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD). It’s energy efficient, low-cost, and requires less time than the alternative lab method called High Pressure and High Temperature (HPHT).
The process of CVD involves placing a tiny ‘seed’ diamond inside a chamber, where it is subjected to extremely high temperatures (around 800 degrees Celsius). Added into the chamber is an ionised, carbon-rich gas that molecularly attaches to the diamond seed.
The carbon then builds and bonds with the diamond seed over time, causing it to expand into a suitable size for jewellery, rings, and other accessories. Before they are ready to be sold, lab grown diamonds undergo the same process a natural stone would.
They are professionally cut to the desired shape by experts and meticulously polished to produce the sparkle and brilliance you’d expect from a diamond. And on the upside, the price of a lab grown diamond sits anywhere from 30-85 percent cheaper than a natural one, due to its far less restrictive and finite nature.
As members of society has become more conscious of our individual environmental impact, consumers have started opting for products made intentionally by science more frequently.
Last year, lab grown diamonds accounted for almost 10 percent of all diamonds sales. They accounted for £4.7 billion of the global diamond market, which experts say is a 500 percent increase in sales in just 4 years time.
It’s also encouraging to see that sales for natural diamonds fell by 12 percent in 2022. It seems that the industry is being shaken up, in favour of the greater good.
Lab-grown stones are real diamonds, despite common false narratives which claim that they aren’t comparable to those found in nature.
It is true that even the most seasoned gem experts have a hard time telling a CVD diamond apart from a natural diamond, because lab-grown diamonds are diamonds.
They have the exact same chemical, physical and optical properties, and can even pick up the similar flaws while forming or during wear. The only major difference is human exploitation and land degradation are wiped away from the picture.
So the saying rings true. Pressure does make diamonds, regardless of where they’re grown – and I think we can all agree they’re far more beautiful when they’re guilt-free.
Senior Writer & Media Coordinator London, UK
I’m Jessica (She/Her). Originally from Bermuda, I moved to London to get a Master’s degree in Media & Communications and now write for Thred to spread the word about positive social change, specifically ocean health and marine conservation. You can also find me dipping my toes into other subjects like pop culture, health, wellness, style, and beauty. Follow me on Twitter, LinkedIn and drop me some ideas/feedback via email.