Like many things we buy, we want to ensure that our diamond purchases have both ethical and environmentally-friendly origins.
The mined diamond industry has attempted to polish their image through use of the Kimberley Process, a certification that is supposed to prove a diamond is “conflict-free.” Jewelry stores are advertising their mined diamonds as “ethically-sourced” when they carry this certification. The problem is, because the channels mined diamonds have to pass through between mining and a jewelry counter is vast and sometimes corrupt, there is no way of truly assuring customers that their mined diamond is ethical. Trust is built on transparency and transparency gets lost in the process.
Global Witness, a human rights organization, was the first to bring awareness to the myriad abuses in the diamond industry with their 1998 report, A Rough Trade. The report not only focused on diamond mining, but highlighted a global secretive problem within the entire diamond industry. The report exposed the diamond industry as a vehicle through which diamonds could be sold to fund bloody civil wars, which, to date, have resulted in the displacement of millions and the deaths of over 4 million people throughout countries in Africa.
Blood Diamond, the movie, brought the world’s attention to the problem and has helped in the effort of human rights groups to drive change within the diamond industry. In various African countries, over a million people practice artisanal mining, a largely non-unionized and unsafe style of informal diamond mining. In the 1990s many artisanal mines were taken over, or initiated, by dangerous rebel forces. Illegal sales of the diamonds these miners extracted have funded devastating civil wars in Angola, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe. Unbeknownst to many, however, and despite the Kimberley Process put in place to prevent it, conflict diamonds continue to be sold today, fueling civil wars in several African countries. Global Witness and many other organizations continue to press the World Diamond Council to strengthen the Kimberley Process’ Code of Practices and recommend strict Supply Chain Due Diligence. Although the COP was updated in 2019, many worry that it does not go far enough and doesn’t push for changes quickly enough to protect innocent lives.
What makes matters worse is the digital economy makes selling conflict diamonds easier than ever. With tools like WhatsApp, Facebook, and Messenger traders, middlemen, and smugglers can still slip tainted diamonds into the international diamond market. Transparency may be the goal, but it is not the reality and because of this, buying a conflict diamond is a real possibility for anyone.
Conflict diamonds are certainly worrisome, but so are the conditions under which many artisanal miners work. Most are paid less than a dollar a day, children as young as five are a part of the workforce, and all workers toil in deplorable conditions for six to seven days a week. Much of their time is spent digging in stagnant water: water that is a breeding ground for disease and disease-carrying insects, like mosquitos. Healthcare is not generally available and accidents abound. Additionally, communities where artisanal mining is carried out often do not understand the true value of the gemstones they extract, resulting in miners being exploited and underpaid for their strenuous and dangerous labor. Unfortunately, along with the physical dangers inherent in artisanal mining, some workers also experience physical abuse, including rape.
Unethical working conditions in artisanal mining are clearly a problem, but what about the harm done to the local environments? Diamond mining is conducted in three areas: on land, in rivers and streams, and in oceans.
In open-pit mining, craters are dug down miles into the earth, displacing enormous amounts of dirt which causes deforestation and topsoil runoff. Every carat of diamond requires approximately 1700 tons of dirt to be moved. Additionally, acid mine drainage can contaminate drinking water and disrupt growth and reproduction of aquatic plants and animals.
In diamond alluvial mining, streams or rivers are first diverted, then the beds are dredged for diamonds, disrupting precious ecosystems. The accompanying pollution can wreak havoc for fish, animals and humans alike.
So, how does one know if the diamonds they wish to purchase are truly ethically sourced? How can we be satisfied that they are not conflict diamonds? If we go into a store that sells mined diamond jewelry and ask them to provide us with a certificate that guarantees the diamond’s source, they won’t be able to. A certificate of origin, which would show a chain of warranty throughout the journey that a diamond has taken, would be wonderful. Such an assurance of transparency could help alleviate our fears about purchasing a tainted stone; unfortunately, it’s just not an industry standard.
A Supply Chain Due Diligence certificate, which is supposed to track each diamond, is made available to stakeholders, but not to the public. And as long as there are people within the industry who are willing to bypass normal channels or take part in corruption, there is always the potential for darkening the transparency these certificates are meant to reflect. The possibility of co-mingling the diamonds of various origins by the multitude of hands mined diamonds pass through still poses a real problem.
But, even if there could be a real assurance that the diamond we purchase for our loved one is a “conflict-free” or “ethically-sourced” diamond, we still have to grapple with the environmental devastation that is inherent in the diamond mining industry.
The only way to guarantee an ethically sourced diamond is to purchase a clean, lab-grown diamond. Lab diamonds are chemically, structurally, and optically the same as mined diamonds, just without the negative human and environmental impacts. Lab created diamonds are not simulated (imitation) diamonds, like Cubic Zirconia or Moissanite. The FTC has ruled that diamonds grown in a lab are real diamonds.
The same conditions and mechanisms that created diamonds inside the earth over millions of years are recreated in a lab, in a fraction of the time, to create lab diamonds. Chemical Vapor Deposition, or CVD, is a technique whereby diamond seeds are placed into a chamber with carbon-based gases, then heated to 800 degrees Celsius. The heat causes the gases to break down, the carbon atoms separate, then fix themselves to the diamond seed which slowly crystallizes, forming a raw diamond gemstone. This is the preferred process for creating diamonds and the one many jewelers insist on.
Purchasing an ethically grown lab diamond allows us to make a decision that reflects our values and principles. We have more choices than ever before and we can be proud to choose a diamond with the highest standards. When we resolve to buy a lab-created diamond, we no longer need to wonder if the diamond we selected helped to fuel civil unrest across the world or contributed to human rights abuses or wrecked the environments of these same areas. We are not obligated to do things the old way.
Lab-grown diamonds are the true ethical option and a new beginning for the diamond jewelry industry.