There is currently a lot of debate surrounding natural mined and laboratory-grown diamonds, and which of the two is the greener and more ethical product. With the recent launch of a number of jewelry brands, endorsed by high-end celebrities, who announce that they are only going to use laboratory-grown diamonds on the grounds that they were the sustainable choice, this debate has become increasingly vehement. But where is the truth in all of this?
We, as consumers, should be smart enough not to take all the marketing tactics of jewelry companies at face value.
So, let us compare both categories of diamonds according to the aspects of quality, environmental footprint, and socio-economic impact so that you can make your decision responsibly.
What is the difference？
1) Chemical, physical, and optical characteristics
By definition, diamond is a material composed of carbon atoms crystallising in the isometric system. Both mined and laboratory-grown diamonds are real diamonds and a laboratory-grown diamond have the same chemical, physical and optical properties. A laboratory-grown diamond is not a fake diamond.
|Thermal conductivitiy||Mohs hardness||Density
|Lab Grown Diamond||C||High||10||3.51||0.044|
Table. Physical characteristics of mined and laboratory-grown diamond ( Japan Grown Diamond Association)
But they do form in quite different environments.
2) Production process
Laboratory-grown diamonds are produced in factories and laboratories within a few days to a few weeks, whereas natural mined diamonds are between 3.3 and 1 billion years old and grew at depths greater than 140km beneath the surface of the earth.
There are two principal methods of production for laboratory-grown diamonds.
HPHT (High Pressure High Temperature) process, which simulates the growth environment of natural diamond using a large press, generating temperatures of around 1400 degrees C and pressures reaching 6 GPa.
CVD (Chemical Vapor Deposition) which breaks down carbon rich gases using a microwave plasma, forcing the free carbon to crystallize as diamond on substrates at the bottom of the reactor.
Laboratory-grown and natural mined diamonds have different growth habits. A mined diamond crystal commonly forms as an octahedral, whereas the laboratory-grown diamond crystal will either grow as a cuboctahedron or a flat block, depending on its method of manufacture. However, once the diamond is polished into a gem, natural and laboratory-grown diamonds are both indistinguishable to the naked eye.
🖊Topic ”Carbon-negative diamonds”
SKY DIAMOND in U.K. produces diamonds from CO2 in the air. The company claims that they use only green energy in the production process and that those diamonds,called carbon-negative diamonds, clean the air by their production.
🖊Topic ”Vegan Diamonds”
The average retail price of laboratory-grown diamonds is 45 to 50 % that of mined diamonds (2019) 1).
4) Production and sourced countries
As of 2019, the production volume of laboratory-grown diamonds is around 3.7 % of mined diamonds. From 2020 to 2025 the market of laboratory-grown diamonds is expected to grow by over 7 % of the annual average growth rate.
5) Environmental footprints
It is difficult to collect reliable information on both mined and laboratory-grown diamonds as corporations in the business disclose limited information. Please see the following examples.
Diamond Foundry, a producer of laboratory-grown diamonds in the U.S., provides the data as assessed by a third party, comparing the environmental footprint of both natural and laboratory-grown diamonds along the whole supply chain. The data says that mined diamonds have much bigger environmental impacts regardless of the producing country, as shown below.
On the other hand, research conducted by Trucost5), an ESG risk analysis company, and released by the Natural Diamond Council, compared these two types of diamonds exclusively by greenhouse gas emission. It shows that the environmental footprint (in relation to their GHGs) of laboratory-grown diamonds is over three times higher than that of mined diamonds.
However, given the fact that one set of data was supplied by a laboratory-grown diamond producer and the other by the Natural Diamond Council, it is difficult to say how objective these figures are.
The laboratory-grown diamond does have the potential to be a greener alternative, as it can employ renewable energy, as proven by many of the fresh-faced producers entering the market, but with the majority of laboratory-grown material coming out of China, which relies heavily on fossil fuels for the generation of its electricity, that potential is severely jeopardized.
It is worth noting that the environmental impact of diamond mining extends beyond greenhouse gas emission, as the Diamond Foundry data highlights. The impact on biodiversity with potential disruption or destruction of wildlife habitats, the need to deposit waste material and the use of local water supplies and the associated risks of contamination are equally valid considerations when weighing up the environmental pros and cons.
6) Economic impacts
The table below by Trucost 5) presents the socio-economic impacts of the world’s seven biggest mined diamond producers in 2016. Overall, there is a net positive impact for communities associated with diamond mining, such as the creation of employment opportunities and increased revenue for the diamond producing countries. In the case of Botswana (2013) 7), 30 % of GDP and 90% of export value comes primarily from diamonds. 7)
In addition to large scale diamond enterprises, the report of the World Bank6) says that there are approximately 100 million artisanal miners globally. Artisanal and small-scale production supply accounts for up to 20% of diamond mining. It is widespread in developing countries in Africa, Asia, Oceania, and Central and South America.
Whether industrial or artisanal, mined diamonds are often the major income source of vulnerable or marginalized population in developing countries.
On the other hand, laboratory-grown diamonds provide economic benefit to the countries where they are produced such as China, India, and the U.S.
The global laboratory-grown diamond market size was valued at $19.311) billion in 2020, and is projected to continue growing. The economic impact based on the production volume in each country is estimated to be 10.8 billion USD in China, 2.9 billion USD in India, and 2.5 billion USD in the United States*. These figures are respectively equivalent to the GDP10) of 660,000 people in China, the GDP of 470,000 people in India and 40,000 in the United States.
*The author calculated these based on the production volume which was available at the time of writing the article. The actual economic impact may vary depending on the price per carat.
7) Human rights issues
Along the supply chain of mined diamonds, it is often pointed out that there are human rights abuses specially in countries where the political situation is unstable and related laws or systems have not been installed or working properly.
To eliminate conflict diamonds, the United Nations adopted the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) in 2002 which certifies that rough diamonds are not being used by rebel movements or their allies to finance conflict.
However, the process has its limitations as stones would not be considered as conflict diamonds if government troops used cut or polished diamonds to finance conflicts or to violate human rights, since the KPCS is adapted only for rough diamonds. More details on KPCS are found in the link.
Laboratory-grown diamond producers claim that their diamonds are free from such abuses as they are produced in factories. However, the greatest quantity of laboratory-grown diamonds is produced in China, and their manufacture and sale will thus benefit a government which is far from exemplary in terms of human right and social working conditions, with violations on cultural and religious tolerance, forced labor and limitations of freedom of speech and expression.
Trends on the International Guidelines for Laboratory-Grown Diamonds
The international industry groups are still working on developing the guidelines on laboratory-grown diamonds, given that it has been only a few years since laboratory-grown diamonds came in the market.
The World Jewellery Confederation (CIBJO) responded swiftly and published its guidance for laboratory-grown diamonds in January 2021. The following points are highlighted in terms of environmental considerations13):
- “Consumers must receive complete and unambiguous information about what they are buying (i.e. a natural diamond or a laboratory-grown diamond), so that they can make a consciously informed purchasing decision.”
- “Marketers of laboratory-grown diamonds and natural diamonds shall not make unqualified claims that their products are “environmentally friendly” or “eco-friendly,” unless the product can be shown to have measurably positive environmental/ecological impact in and of itself. Any environmental or ecological impact claim made (for example by brands or distributors/retailers) will have to be substantiated and verified by a credible and independent third party”
- “In particular, claim(s) of carbon neutrality will need to be verified by a credible independent third party and explicitly state whether this status is obtained through carbon-neutral operations or purchase of carbon credits”
- “Marketers of laboratory-grown diamonds and natural diamonds shall also not make blanket claims referring to the products as being “ethical,” “green,” “responsible” and/or “sustainable,” unless such claims have been substantiated and verified by a credible and independent third party. Such verification should be referred to on the company website (if applicable). “
Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC) will publish a Laboratory-Grown Materials Standard in 2022 which will be mandatory for all its members who handle laboratory-grown materials14). It deserves attention too.
Mined and laboratory-grown diamonds both have different environmental as well as socio-economic impacts depending on where and how they are produced and traded, and by whom. It is too short-sighted to say that only the mined diamond industry is subject to human rights abuse and environmental damage and that laboratory-grown diamonds are not. Moreover, mined diamonds often play an indispensable role in the economies of developing countries.
We, as consumers, have the power to transform the diamond industry if we are armed with as much knowledge of the supply chain as we can feasibly gather. We need to be sure we can trust the retailer from whom we are buying, regardless of whether we choose a diamond that is mined or laboratory-grown.
Ask the retailers questions!
Retailers are probably not able to answer all the questions, but your question will trigger the chain of questions which urge responsible sourcing of diamonds along the supply chain.
- Where is this diamond produced/mined and cut?
- Has this diamond caused any environmental impacts?
- Is this diamond related to any human rights abuses?
And you could ask about certifications even though those certifications have limitations; it is one of the indicators which prove the ethical concern of diamonds producers.
- Is this diamond certified by the Kimberley Process?
- Is this diamond supplier a member of the Responsible Jewellery Council and audited against their Code of Practices?
It is important that we, the consumers, understand what the certification stands for in order to be able to make a responsible decision.
- The Global Diamond Industry 2019, Antwerp World Diamond Centre and Bain & Company https://www.bain.com/contentassets/e225bceffd7a48b5b450837adbbfee88/bain_report_global_diamond_report_2019.pdf
- Synthetic Diamond Market – Growth, Trends, and Forecast (2020 – 2025), Research and Markets
- Diamond production, carats – country rankings, TheGlobalEconomy.com
- Market share of lab-grown diamonds worldwide in 2019, by country, Statista
- The Socioeconomic and Environmental Impact of Large-Scale Diamond Mining, S&P Global
- Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining, The World Bank
- BOTSWANA: Systematic Country Diagnostic, The World Bank
- “Break Their Lineage, Break Their Roots”, Human Rights Watch
- 2020 State of the Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining Sector, DELVE
- GDP par capita, World Bank
- Lab Grown Diamonds Market by Manufacturing Method, (HPHT and CVD), Size (Below 2 Carat, 2-4 Carat, and Above 4 Carat), Nature (Colorless and Colored) and Application (Fashion and Industrial): Global Opportunity Analysis and Industry Forecast, 2021–2030, Allied Market Research
- DELVE, A Global Platform for Artisanal & Small Scale Mining Data, World Bank and Pac
- Laboratory Grown Diamond Guidance, The World Jewellery Confederation (CIBJO)
- Laboratory Grown Material Standard Development, Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC)
Front photo: An image of diamonds