With so many options on the market today, what are the differences between a man-made, aka lab grown, diamond and a natural diamond? Is one a better option when it comes to ethics and impact?
What are Lab Grown Diamonds Exactly?
Lab grown diamonds share the same physical, chemical, and optical properties as mined diamonds and only differ in that they are grown above ground. In fact, jewelers and gemologists cannot tell the difference between the two without using special tools to understand how the diamond was grown.
Basically, lab grown diamonds are produced via technological processes and natural grown diamonds are made through geological processes. They are not simulants or fake diamonds - which are stones that are created to look like diamonds but do not share the same properties.
A lab grown diamond can be appealing to a customer who is interested in conflict-free or ethical diamonds. Additionally, lab grown diamonds can be less expensive than mined diamonds. However, there is much more complexity in the synthetic diamond industry than meets the eye.
Is purchasing a lab grown diamond ethical?
When reviewing options, it’s important to note where the diamond was grown and who grew it. “In the space of a few short years, lab-grown has exploded from 0 per cent of the total global diamond jewelry market to about 8 per cent to 10 per cent. Over the next five years, it could claim a share as high as 15 per cent, according to Paul Zimnisky Diamond Analytics.”
Lab grown diamonds are often less expensive than natural diamonds and often don’t have the same environmental, political, and ethical impacts that frequently come with the mining process. Therefore, they can position themselves as “conflict-free” when it comes to political implications.
However, when it comes to purchasing a lab grown diamond, understanding its provenance is directly correlated with how ethical it truly is when comparing it to a natural diamond. As is true in many cases, purchasing a lab-grown diamond from a smaller and transparent company provides more impact than purchasing one from a giant factory that is simply taking a “better than mining a diamond” approach rather than investing in the research, development, and technology needed to offset and minimize energy requirements.
How much energy is used to create a lab grown diamond?
Creating diamonds requires a tremendous amount of energy. The source of the energy and how much is used to create a diamond - directly impacts whether the process is any more sustainable than mining for a diamond while also considering the labor conditions. Additionally, in order to maintain the ethical advantage, the labs must also work to find sources of cheap and clean power. The source of energy, how it's used, and how much is used are the key factors in understanding the environmental impact of a synthetically grown diamond factory.
“The champions of mined, or natural, diamonds note that by far the most manufactured diamonds are produced in China, followed by India, and that neither nation is known for promoting high environmental and labour standards.” Of course, some factories and labs are faring better than others, but it can be difficult to understand where a lab-grown stone is from – as it's an industry also suffering from traceability issues. Lab grown diamonds are not always traceable. When purchasing a lab grown diamond, you may not fully know or understand the source of the energy or the employment conditions during production.
Lab Grown Diamonds VS. Natural Diamonds
So, is one “better” than the other? Are lab grown diamonds ethical? There are pros and cons to both lab grown diamonds and natural diamonds. If purchasing a lab grown diamond is important to you (due to price or ethical motivations), fully understanding the provenance of the stone is just as important as it is with naturally mined stones. And, of course, making sure the stone is from a company that is transparent when it comes to the total impact of a stone’s journey is also key.
In short, simply purchasing a lab-grown diamond doesn’t necessarily mean it is any better than a mined diamond, especially if you don’t know the energy used to create it and the labor conditions of the workers and cutters in the factories.
It also might depend what type of diamond characteristics you are looking for…
If you are looking for uniquely colored, one-of-a-kind, or interestingly cut diamonds (like salt and pepper rose cuts - one of my favorites), lab grown diamonds are not be the best fit. These unique physical characteristics like color variation and inclusions aren't being created in the lab. While these diamonds are each unique with one-of-a-kind inclusions and growth patterns, they are typically not the kind that are visible to the naked eye.
The lab is an intentionally sterile place creating optimal growing conditions for the perfect diamond, removing the inconsistency of Mother Nature and the chance that something could go “wrong”. But it's those “mistakes” that make the truly unique and one-of-a-kind stones many of us love. Additionally the market for traditionally cut diamonds is just too large and spending time on one-of-a-kind cuts doesn't currently fit into their business model.
A carbon neutral lab grown diamond does exist!
At Fail Jewelry, I offer my clients larger lab grown diamonds from Diamond Foundry, a carbon neutral diamond lab based in Washington State. Diamond Foundry sustainably grows its diamonds above ground with hydro power and without cartel pricing and the other negative environmental, wildlife and community impacts of traditional mining.
Unfortunately at this time I do not have a carbon neutral option for the smaller melee diamonds that I use in my collections, but the search always continues!
As the lab grown diamond industry continues to both progress and grow, I am hopeful that the technology offerings and eco-conscious energy sources expand as well as more interesting and unique stone offerings. This will allow a conscious consumer to truly feel confident when striving to purchase a genuinely sustainable stone.
If you are considering a custom piece that speaks to your values I would love to work with you one-on-one. It's paramount to understand what is most important to you when it comes to finding a stone and crafting a piece of jewelry, and I am committed to full transparency on your options and the possible tradeoffs you might make to achieve your goals.
Contact me here to learn more.