Last week, Pandora became the first large jeweller to make a big push into lab-created diamonds, saying it will no longer use mined ones in an unveiling of its new growth strategy.
The Danish company said it will now start selling laboratory-created diamonds – which are identical in terms of visual and chemical characteristics – which are priced at around £250, making them accessible to everyone. Chief Executive Alexander Lacik claims “they are not just forever, they are for everyone.”
Lacik also told the BBC the change was part of a broader sustainability drive. He said the firm was pursuing it because “it’s the right thing to do”.
In 2020, worldwide lab-grown diamond production grew to between 6 and 7 million carats, while the production of mined diamonds fell to 111 million carats last year, having peaked at 152 million in 2017, according to a report from the Antwerp World Diamond Centre (AWDC) and the consultancy Bain & Company.
Lab-created diamonds, otherwise known as man-made or cultured diamonds, are grown in a laboratory using cutting-edge technology that mimics the conditions under which natural diamonds develop. As they are formed from the same material and exposed to the same conditions, lab-created diamonds are optically and chemically identical to the natural variety.
Each diamond starts its life as a tiny carbon seed. It is then exposed to extreme heat and pressure or entered into a deposition process (known as CVD), to mimic the process of natural diamond formation. It then grows within the laboratory, usually in six to ten weeks, and is cut and polished in the same way that natural diamonds are.
Yes, they are! They are still diamonds, just from a different origin. Specialist equipment is needed to tell them apart as they cannot be differentiated by eye.
While lab-created diamonds and mined diamonds are equally as beautiful, lab diamonds can actually be up to 30% cheaper than a natural diamond of the same size and quality.
Diamonds are formed naturally through a combination of heat, pressure and time, growing deep underground until deep-set volcanic eruptions bring them closer to the surface, ready to be excavated.
Diamond mining is complex, involving heavy machinery, transportation and explosives. The average polished mined diamond carat emitted 160 kg of CO2.
The cost savings, as well as the supposed environmental benefits, are well-targeted for a generation struggling with debt and the looming horrors of the climate crisis. In response, the established diamond industry has sought to head off this threat by challenging the idea that it is ruinous for the climate.
Diamonds are grown in labs in countries including China, Singapore and the US, places that lean heavily upon fossil fuels for energy. The huge amount of power needed to create a diamond can lead to a significant output in carbon pollution if the energy source is dirty, a point made in a 2019 Trucost report which found that, on average, greenhouse gas emissions are three times greater for lab-grown diamonds than their mined counterparts.
The Trucost report, however, was produced on behalf of the Diamond Producers Association, a trade group of diamond miners including De Beers. “The report makes a lot of assumptions, it doesn’t look at the full life cycle of mines, the energy use of exploration and so on – once you consider that then the impact is enormous,” says Saleem Ali, a minerals expert at the University of Delaware.
“There is a place for mined diamonds because they provide a lot more jobs than lab-grown. But I’d venture to say the environmental impact is far greater for mined diamonds. If you grow a diamond you can situate the lab wherever you want, move it to Norway and use hydropower perhaps. You can’t do that with a mine.”
The best option is definitely antique diamonds or diamonds that have already been mined or created. If you have an opportunity to repurpose a diamond rather than buy new, this is always the best option.
If a repurposed diamond isn’t an option, lab-made is the next best choice. The most significant difference in regards to production is the minimum water usage. Note that for every carat of a mined diamond, 126 gallons of water are used. On the other hand, lab-grown or artificial diamonds consume 18 gallons of water only. Furthermore, mining diamonds causes water pollution due to the continuous discharge of wastewater in water sources.
Putting pressure on the market to produce more mined diamond puts vulnerable people in a potential position of exploitation and has negative impacts on the environment.
We are led to believe that there is a certain romance in wearing a diamond that has grown in the belly of the Earth for millions of years, but there’s no romance in a stone that has been pulled from the Earth causing irreversible damage to delicate eco-systems and environments or with potential human harm.
On the other hand, we do still need to support mining done in the right way, as a force for good, which lowers the environmental impact and supports communities dependent on it for income. In order to best do this, look for Fairmined, Fairtrade, or Nineteen48 certifications – these apply to the precious metals and gemstones in jewellery.
Lab-grown or mined – they’ll still be a girl’s best friend!