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Everything you need to know about lab-grown vs mined diamonds

Experimental Ukrainian jewellery brand Nomis only uses laboratory-grown diamonds. Whether they’re scattered along pencil-length pins designed to skewer the earlobe, or clustered on “EarOvals” that encircle the ear and rest snug against the skull, all the diamonds in Nomis’s jewels are man-made. “We use lab-grown diamonds because it’s the logical choice,” says founder and creative director Alyona Kiperman. “They’re cheaper, but have the same characteristics as mined diamonds. We’re a new jewellery brand, and they just feel more modern.” The former model doesn’t like to say anything about sustainability. “It all feels like greenwashing. My work is fast-paced and about linking fantasy and reality.” It makes sense that Kiperman uses manufactured diamonds, as well as similarly sourced emeralds and sapphires. She’s selling design and, as with fashion, it’s all about the look.

At Homer, Frank Ocean’s NYC-based luxury brand, American lab-grown diamonds are used in cartoonish, cryptic designs alongside silver, gold and enamel. The Angry Man pendant, in 18-carat yellow gold, is more than nine times pricier than the same necklace in rhodium-plated silver – even though both feature lab-grown diamonds. It goes to show that the value is really in the precious metal, not the stones.

Natural or cultured pearls; an original Matisse or a poster – the analogies used to compare lab-grown diamonds with their natural counterparts keep on coming, yet none of them quite fit. The war of words between the two sectors, chiefly about which better answers the consumer’s growing demand for a more sustainable product, hardly helps clear things up, either. However, it needn’t be a competition – they’re not the same thing.

Lab-grown diamonds – created in factories using one of two methods, each of which requires extreme heat or extreme pressure – are marketed with words such as ethical, sustainable and carbon-neutral. Mined stones, meanwhile, have moved on from De Beers’s 1948 tagline, “A diamond is forever”, to promote positive social impact and natural provenance.

Pandora made waves in May 2021 when it announced the launch of its first-ever sustainably lab-created diamond collection, Pandora Brilliance. Set in sterling silver or 14-carat gold, the pieces are affordable, easy, minimalist and the sort of thing you’d buy for yourself, your kid or your friend. As the mega-brand’s CEO Alexander Lacik put it, “Diamonds are not only forever, but for everyone.”

It’s that democratising of diamonds that most defines the lab-grown sector for Paul Zimnisky, an NYC-based diamond-industry analyst. “Luxury is an emotional purchase,” he says. “A manufactured product that has infinite supply and is relatively low-priced just doesn’t pack the same emotional punch for consumers.” Zimnisky also sees a clear segmentation within the lab-grown diamond market. “I think people will be willing to pay a premium for fully traceable, high-quality, lab-grown diamonds made with renewable energy, compared to the cheapest possible stones grown in factories in China.”

“Created diamonds fit the segment we are in – affordable jewellery for the many,” says Mads Twomey-Madsen, VP for corporate communications and sustainability for Pandora. “Lab-grown has been evolving over many years, and it has come down in price as the technology has become more widely available.” Now, synthetic diamonds tend to be about 30 per cent cheaper than mined diamonds. “Plus, lab-grown means we can provide diamond jewellery that has a very low impact on the environment. One of our smaller rings from the Brilliance collection has a carbon equivalent to a litre of milk.”

The Natural Diamond Council is an elite club of diamond miners, whose seven members – including De Beers Group, Rio Tinto and Lucara Diamond – make up 75 per cent of the world’s natural diamond supply.

The members are on a mission to “advance the integrity of the modern diamond jewellery industry, and inspire, educate and protect the consumer”. Their detractors may say they’re trying to keep on making fortunes, but those fortunes are irrevocably intertwined with some impressive initiatives to do social good for many people. (And let it be said, the lab-grown companies aren’t exactly charities – they’re like any other technology company out there to make money.)

Large-scale diamond mining, mainly on the continents of Africa and Australia, and in Brazil, Canada and Russia, does have a negative environmental impact, but shifting the industry – and with it millions of livelihoods – to lab-grown factories is not the answer, according to Cristina Villegas, director of the Mines to Markets programme at Pact, an NGO specialising in aiding development in impoverished countries and helping resource-dependent communities work more sustainably and effectively. “Walking away from responsible miners in far-flung communities and prioritising jobs in the global north is literally the opposite of responsible sourcing,” she says.

Spearheaded by Feriel Zerouki, senior vice president of ethical initiatives at the De Beers Group, GemFair is an initiative set up to support artisanal and small-scale mining, almost always made up of people from poor communities using basic equipment. Traditionally, too, artisanal miners don’t receive fair prices and are at risk of being exploited due to a lack of more formalised industry connections. De Beers sees it as its responsibility to help these miners access the international market to sell their work legitimately, as well as to improve conditions on the ground. The pilot scheme now has more than 150 mine sites registered in Sierra Leone, providing equipment, training and ongoing mentoring. It has been a labour of love for Zerouki. “There are no legitimate businesses that source artisanal-mined diamonds,” she says. “We want to create a route to market for these miners and ultimately see their stones in jewellery.” In time, hopefully, we’ll have artisan-mined diamonds, legitimately sourced and completely traceable, set in jewellery and sold in stores. It could be the most ethical diamond story of all.

Hi-tech advancements, such as blockchain records, are to be expected as diamond miners respond to demands for transparency. Tiffany became the first major jeweller to provide traceability for all of its rough diamonds in 2020. Anisa Kamadoli Costa, chief sustainability officer for the company, describes how that initiative has expanded since. “Today, our Diamond Craft Journey allows us to share not only the provenance, but also information on where these diamonds are cut and polished, graded and set. The journey of a Tiffany diamond is more than a map of where a diamond has been; it represents the positive impact our operations have on local communities, human rights and the environment,” she says.

Pandora’s lab-grown diamonds are made in factories in Europe and North America, using on average 60 per cent renewable energy. “They will be grown using 100 per cent renewable energy when we launch the Brilliance collection globally next year,” says Twomey- Madsen. “This means no emissions from energy use.”

But, like every other brand I asked regarding how much energy – renewable or otherwise – is used to create a diamond in a lab, Pandora wouldn’t give me an answer. “We don’t have that kW figure,” replies Twomey-Madsen. It also wouldn’t divulge which lab-grown diamond producers they work with, for “commercial competitive reasons”.

Mona Akhavi is the CEO of Vrai, the consumer-facing arm of Diamond Foundry, one of the first companies to create gem-quality lab-grown diamonds at a viable scale. “I can’t give you a number as to how much energy is used because the technology is always changing,” Akhavi tells me over Zoom. Later, via email, I’m told that it’s because they don’t want to disclose proprietary information. Its factory in Washington state is carbon-neutral, using renewable energy powered by the Columbia River.

Vrai’s offering is aspirational, with shapes including half-moons and baguettes, and an online build-your-own-engagement-ring facility that can conjure anything from a dainty solitaire to a 3.44-carat Asscher-cut ring. A choker sporting more than 35 carats of lab-grown diamonds retails for about £60,000. Its website uses statistics from natural diamond mining as a barometer, saying, “For every carat of our Vrai created diamonds produced, we save 65kg of carbon dioxide, 57 kg of air pollution and 227 tonnes of earth.”

The arguments from either side of the divide – more of a ravine, to be frank – don’t help consumers in any way. Mudslinging rarely makes things any clearer, but it can create healthy competition. “The remarkable rise of lab-grown diamonds is putting pressure on the mined-diamond industry,” says Villegas. “What I would like to see is a ‘race to the top’ among producers on social and environmental sustainability efforts. Now that would make for a truly beautiful sector.” Put simply, the diamond industry needn’t be about either zero carbon emissions (lab-grown) or livelihoods (natural) – it can be about both. Let the games begin.

Lab-Grown vs Natural – what you really need to know:

Lab-grown diamond pros:

  • Cheaper by 30 per cent (for now)
  • Can be grown using 100 per cent renewable energy
  • Are chemically identical to natural diamonds

Lab-grown diamond cons:

  • Investment value yet to be proven (some experts predict they will have little to no resale value as the sector grows and supply outstrips demand)
  • They are a product of technology, not nature, which for some people lacks emotional punch
  • They don’t currently have inherent positive social impact nor do they support millions of livelihoods
  • There is a lack of transparency in how much energy they use

Natural diamond pros:

  • Gem quality diamonds are a finite resource, so their rarity is inherent
  • They are ancient, formed within the earth billions of years ago
  • They support tens of millions of people around the world
  • They are a valuable natural resource that can support the economies of entire countries
  • They have some resale value, and in some cases, investment value

Natural diamond cons:

  • Mining is carbon intensive, often relying on diesel-run machinery
  • Diamond mining uses large amounts of water, energy, and earth
  • A small percentage of diamonds mined in unregulated conditions are still making it into the general supply chain

General tip:

Whether it’s lab grown or mined, ask for more information. Where was it grown, or mined? What sort of energy was used? Is the company behind the stone acting responsibly?

This was originally published on Vogue US.

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