Producing diamonds in a lab is becoming a sustainable alternative to mining

Synthetic diamonds are paving the way for a greener and more ethical jewelry industry

(Unsplash/ Edgar Soto)

Scrolling through Instagram these past couple of days, I have been seeing lots of people I know getting engaged — couples excited for their future posting pictures of their rings with large diamonds. When I saw the rings, it made me think of where the diamonds came from and the process involved.

Pandora, the jewelry company, announced earlier this month that their company is switching to selling lab-produced diamonds.

More companies such as De Beers are slowly making the switch to lab-produced diamonds because they are less environmentally harmful and don’t contribute to industries that export blood diamonds, which are diamonds mined in war zones which are sold to fund armed conflicts. Even Signet Jewelers, the world’s largest retailer of diamond jewelry, is expanding its line of lab-produced products.

Though these diamonds are more sustainable in some ways, more improvements need to be made to ensure they continue to be through long-term production.

Lab-produced diamonds still have the same physical, chemical, and optical properties as natural diamonds, which is good for those who want close to a real diamond without the environmental and ethical guilt.

The process of artificial diamonds is a lengthy and complicated task. There are two ways to create them; using High-Pressure High Temperature (HPHT) or CVD (Chemical Vapor Deposition).

Diamond seeds are placed in a diamond growth chamber, which then fills up with methane gas and forms a plasma ball of hydrogen with heat ranging from 900 to 1,200 degrees celsius. Once the machine is heated, the methane and hydrogen gases stick to the diamond seeds, allowing the seed to grow and expand. The process takes 21 to 28 days.

Once the seeds finish growing, the 15 to 30 rectangular shaped gems are removed from the machine and sent to a gemologist for cutting and polishing.

This process is a way better option than relying on miners who work in dangerous conditions, or are forced and exploited into working long hours without breaks and are at risk of dying on the job. Hundreds of miners die every year due to these conditions, with 65 per cent of mined diamonds coming from countries across Africa.

Another advantage in selling lab-produced diamonds is that they are 30 per cent cheaper than ones that come from mines. They are priced by the cut, clarity, colour, and carat, otherwise known as the “four Cs”. De Beers created their line of artificial diamonds in 2018, with their price starting at $200.

Although the process is far better for ethical reasons and is cheaper, the downside is that lab-produced diamonds use three times as much energy to produce as mined ones.

Many of the labs that generate these diamonds are in China, Singapore, and the United States. Fossil fuels are their predominant energy source, which create more CO2 emissions that go into our atmosphere.

However, the damage from diamond mining affects more parts of the environment than just its carbon emissions. Diamond mining has caused acid mine drainage, a process where minerals extracted from the rocks leak acidic chemicals into the nearby water supply, polluting the water that local people and wildlife could depend on.

Mining has also caused habitat destruction. In 2016, the Wall Street Journal reported that De Beers had drained a lake at Gahcho Kué, 281 kilometres away from Yellowknife, which resulted in more than 18,000 fish being forced out of their habitat. And in India, mining companies have been blamed for putting endangered tiger species at high risk.

Since lab-produced diamonds are still relatively new, more research needs to be done to see how it affects workers in diamond mines and how to produce them with less energy. These diamonds seem pretty cool for all the right reasons. Even for those who don’t wear too much jewelry, with more options becoming available, they might consider buying one.