Lab grown diamonds have become a huge part of the diamond market. With advances in the technology used to create diamonds in a lab, producers have been able to create larger and higher quality diamonds than ever before.
What are lab grown diamonds exactly?
Lab grown diamonds (aka synthetic diamonds) have the same chemical composition and physical properties as natural diamonds, but are man-made in a lab, rather than originating from the earth.
Natural diamonds formed between 1 and 3 billion years ago deep within the earth, under extreme heat and pressure. Volcanic processes pushed them up closer to the surface.
The extreme heat and pressure needed to form diamonds in nature is mimicked in a lab with either the CVD (chemical vapor deposition) or HPHT (high pressure high temperature) process to form rough diamonds that are then cut, polished and set in jewelry the same way that natural diamonds are.
When these processes first developed, it took an extreme amount of energy to produce only small, lower quality diamonds. However, the technology has advanced, and larger, higher quality diamonds are possible to produce.
I understand the appeal of lab grown diamonds, which typically cost about 60-70% less than comparable natural diamonds at retail. Lab grown diamonds have the same hardness, sparkle and brilliance as natural diamonds but are much cheaper. Because they are produced in a lab, it eliminates the entire mining process to obtain a new diamond.
The mining industry has been fraught with hardship and turbulence. Diamond mining exploded as an industry in the 1870s in South Africa, with competition between foreign countries to dominate and control the market. While the diamond industry created lots of jobs in diamond-producing nations, it is demanding and laborious. Because diamonds are small, portable and valuable, they could be smuggled and illegally used to fund rebellious and corrupt groups. Unfortunately, diamonds, gemstones and gold, due to their material value, have been used as ‘treasure’ to fund nefarious pursuits, or plundered by foreign countries to bring wealth to their own countries for centuries.
As time went on, mining areas became increasingly controlled by larger corporations who had the capital to invest in large-scale machinery and production processes.
Illegal activity infiltrated the industry to use diamonds to fund corrupt governments. So, in 2003, the Kimberley Process was established to prevent conflict diamonds from entering the market. It is an agreement between diamond-producing countries and the international diamond industry and governments to regulate diamond production. Members (today 81 countries) must adhere to strict regulations including import/export controls, national legislation, sharing of data, agreement to only deal with other Kimberley Process members, and including certification paperwork in international shipments.
The Kimberley Process has worked to lower crime and the amount of money and supplies that rebel groups in Sierra Leone and Angola received, as well as hugely limiting the amount of conflict diamonds in the market- about 99.8% of natural rough diamonds in the market are accounted for by the Kimberley Process.
However, there are still illegally mined diamonds that can infiltrate the market, and the public is wary of the diamond industry in general because of that. In March 2023, the International Peace Institute (IPI), Botswana and the UN held a forum to discuss the successes and challenges of the Kimberley Process in the 20 years since it was established. The Kimberley Process has been successful in saving lives, preventing conflict diamonds from entering the market and in creating jobs, but still has more work to do to regulate environmental and working conditions in the industry.
There is more work to be done to regulate both the natural and lab grown diamond industries. Lab grown diamonds require a lot of energy to produce. There are now companies that promise to use renewable energy in their production in the US, such as the Diamond Foundry in San Francisco. However, most lab grown diamonds are produced in mass quantity in China. China and Russia, the two largest lab grown diamond producers in the world, both have issues in ethics, fair labor practices and environmental regulations.
Just like any product you buy, where and how it was produced have implications on the environment. The product you purchase supports that company’s practices.
As a lover of antique jewelry and nature, I appreciate natural diamonds. I love old cut stones, cut by hand before modern technology took over. Today diamond manufacturing is highly mechanized, with ideal proportions determined by machine and cut by laser. Old European and old mine cut diamonds were cut before this technology existed, with more variations in faceting. This gives the stones character. The inclusions in diamonds also give them character. The technology in lab grown diamond production has improved to produce diamonds with higher color and clarity on the diamond grading scale. Lab grown diamonds typically do not have as many interesting variations as natural diamonds.
All this being said, diamond production, along with manufacturing in all industries, has environmental and ethical implications. If you are purchasing a diamond for an engagement ring, the most ethical and environmentally friendly choice is purchasing in the secondary market. Unlike clothing or other products, diamonds are strong, durable and last for generations! There is a reason diamonds are the leading choice for engagement rings and jewelry. They have high brilliance and luster and are durable enough to wear every day. If you want to choose something that doesn’t require mining or producing in a lab, choose a diamond that already exists. Buying diamonds at auction, through estate buying companies and dealers, or handed down from a family member eliminate these steps and have a history and story of their own.