Long a staple of the industrial diamond industry, laboratory-created diamonds only represent about 2% of the jewelry market. Increasingly, however, they are becoming a force to be reckoned with: some producers have achieved "type IIa" quality, the purest form produced in nature. Only 2% of the global production of mined diamonds qualify for this rating.
These jewels, which are created when a small diamond seed is placed in an carbon-rich environment, grow atom-by-atom, layer-by-layer. Because of the conditions under which they're produced, the companies making these "cultured" diamonds can market them as "100% conflict free", and can claim that they are significantly better for the environment than naturally mined diamonds. Quantifying this, however, is difficult: because synthetic type IIa diamonds have only been achievable in the last few years, there is limited data available to directly compare them with mined diamonds.
Despite this, one Stanford University graduate was able to carry out research comparing the energy intensity of mined diamonds at BHP Billiton's Ekati mine in Canada against the lab-created diamonds produced by Gemesis in the US.
According to the research, Gemesis' lab-grown diamonds produced less than one-fifth of the carbon dioxide emissions that result from diamond mining at Ekati. Extrapolating this out, the paper claimed that replacing the Ekati mine's annual diamond production with lab-grown diamonds would save the equivalent of around 483m miles' worth of auto emissions.
Gemesis says that current diamond mining operations are "not in pace with increasing consumer consciousness". By comparison, the company claims, its diamonds are "grown in a controlled environment, resulting in a smaller carbon footprint" with "very little overall environmental impact" compared to mined diamonds.
Across the pond, Deluxe Diamonds, the first company to open up laboratory-grown diamond operations in the UK, assures its customers that "growing diamonds" produces around half the carbon footprint of mining them. What's more, they point out, lab-grown diamonds are "totally conflict free, without the problems of child forced labor and other disturbing facts to worry about with mined diamonds".
In fact, Deluxe Diamonds claims that environment and ethics underlay the company's development. "Having lived in Africa and witnessing the destruction inflicted by blood diamonds on innocent people and children's lives, in addition to the carbon footprint mining leaves on the surrounding areas, I decided to start a jewellery brand which is 100% conflict free and ecologically friendly," says Deluxe Diamonds founder Johanna O'Brien.
Many major players in the diamond industry aren't convinced that lab-grown gems are an ideal solution to the ethical and environmental shortcomings of the diamond trade. The best option, some suggest, is to build a responsible mining industry. To that end, NGOs, ethical consumers and even major jewellery retailers, such as Tiffany's and Boucheron, have been putting more pressure on mining companies over the past decade.
Earlier this month, major mining firm Rio Tinto pulled out of the controversial Pebble mine project on the grounds that it didn't "fit with our strategy". The company donated its 19.1% share in the project to two local Alaskan charitable foundations.
This isn't to say that Rio Tinto has completely shut the door on Alaskan development: the company's copper chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques said that "Rio Tinto has long and historic ties to Alaska and we continue to see Alaska as an attractive location for potential future investment." Rather, Tiffany's CEO Michael Kowalski speculates, the Rio Tinto's decision might be "partially driven by recognition of the huge potential environmental costs associated with the project".
Kowalski is familiar with the costs and benefits of traditional mining: Tiffany's was the first company to sign up to the No Dirty Gold campaign in 2005 and has been involved with the development of the Pebble mine. However, it still supports and commends the mining industry in its efforts to tackle the challenges ahead. "We're a long way away from broad industry-wide acceptance of the key commitments that would define no dirty mining generally. But in principle there is industry acceptance that we can move in that direction," says Kowalski.
"It's going to take a while and we will probably see certified mines come on stream slowly but surely in the coming years. But I absolutely think [a responsible diamond mining industry] is possible," he adds.
Kowalski says that, while mining has a "long and sad association with human rights and environmental abuses", it can also have a positive effect on developing communities. In some of the world's poorest countries, he says, "mining is the only viable engine for social and economic growth."
Because of this, Kowalski argues, abandoning conventional mined products isn't necessarily a perfect solution: "I would think long and hard before making an assertion that [switching to man-made diamonds] is necessarily ethically superior," he says.
However, some experts are suggesting that we may not have a choice. The Global Diamond Report 2013 estimates that rough-diamond production will peak at 169m carats in 2018 and drop to 153m carats in 2023, on the back of a growing demand from an increasing global middle-class population.
"Although the market will be balanced from 2013 through 2017, demand from 2018 through 2023 is expected to exceed supply," the report predicts.
This, O'Brien says, is where the man-made diamond industry can pick up demand: "When natural diamond resources start to deplete the prices of mined diamonds will be out of reach to the average consumer – they will have no choice but to buy man-made."
While this is a potential concern for the diamond mining industry, it's a win for consumers, mining communities and the environment, says O'Brien.
Kowalski agrees that there "may be a time when mining is not possible or becomes uneconomic" but conventional mining "done responsibly is something that we can absolutely achieve".
"It is in our financial long-term interest to insist on more responsible mining practices, because that's what our customers want. And it is therefore essential for the long-term health of our industry," says Kowalski.
Leigh Stringer, the sustainability editor for edie.net, specializes in corporate sustainability, climate change and the environment
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