Pandora Jewelry announced this week that it will rely solely on lab-created diamonds (also called lab-grown diamonds) moving forward. Sustainability and affordability are the two factors the jewelry giant pointed to as most influential in its decision. CEO Alexander Lacik said in a statement, “Diamonds are not only forever, but for everyone.” Pandora’s not alone in its march away from mines. Even the world’s largest diamond retailer, Signet, is expanding its lab-created offerings.
Lab-created diamonds certainly avoid the environmental and human costs, including child labor, that mire mining. A 2020 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report finds that most jewelry companies cannot assure customers that their supply chain is free of human rights abuses. HRW also observed that mine workers have faced increased risk of exploitation and abuse during the pandemic.
While having a simpler supply chain, synthetic diamonds also claim identical physical, chemical and optical properties as natural diamonds.
The production of lab-created diamonds does, however, currently requires a lot of energy. The BBC reports that 50 to 60 percent of synthetic diamonds are made in China — where coal energy is predominant — using high pressure, high temperature (HPHT) technology. Despite this energy use, Saleem Ali, professor of energy and the environment at University of Delaware who occasionally advises diamond makers, reassured Vogue Business that synthetic processing wouldn’t be able to reach the carbon impacts of mining activities, which often includes exploration, explosives and heavy machinery.
Bain & Company’s 2020-2021 “Global Diamond Industry” analysis found double-digit growth in synthetic diamond production, with a 10-fold price differential between natural and lab-created diamonds in some cases. The report also indicates that young consumers in particular are considering sustainability when deciding whether to buy diamond jewelry. Companies are responding with increased attention to emissions, water consumption, traceability, diversity, as well as community support, the report notes.
The sustainability of lab-created diamonds gained new traction this year as WD Lab Grown Diamonds became the first “Certified Sustainable” and “Certified Climate Neutral” producer under the provisional Certification Standard for Sustainable Diamonds.
“This accomplishment reflects our wholehearted commitment to safeguarding the environment, protecting the human rights of workers and communities, and providing reassurance to the modern consumer with fully traceable, guaranteed conflict-free product,” CEO Sue Rechner said in a statement.
What “climate neutral” means for the certification, beyond carbon neutrality, is that greenhouse gases, climate pollutants and legacy emissions are all measured, mitigated and offset.
While synthetic diamond makers are proving their transparency and environmental and social friendliness, diamond mines can make a case for their utility as well. If companies do their due diligence by identifying, preventing, addressing and remediating environmental and human rights abuses, mines can offer a healthy economic support to their communities.
Responsible mining expert Estelle Levin-Nally told Vogue Business, “To the person who cares about economic development, buy from the large-scale mine. To the person that cares about poverty, buy from a small-scale mine. […]”
Last year’s Human Rights Watch report, however, found none of the 15 major jewelry companies assessed ranking “excellent” in their due diligence. Tiffany & Co. and Pandora were alone in their “strong” efforts toward responsible sourcing.
At this point, synthetic diamonds only represent at most six percent of total diamond production, according to the Bain report, but they have great potential for growth and innovation. Their price-point reaches a segment of the population that may not have bought a diamond otherwise, at least not outside of a marriage engagement. They can also be adapted for unique market opportunities. Founder and CEO of Forever Companies jewelry brands Gary LaCourt wrote for Forbes that lab-created diamonds have the potential to be customized to a customer’s specifications, even containing an embedded picture or phrase.
Despite potential, the current perception of lab-created diamonds lingers in the negative realm, according to the Bain report, with labels such as “artificial” and “fake.” As companies embrace synthetic diamonds, they will likely brand and rebrand them, altering public perception in the process. After all, the success of diamonds over other gemstones has always been about marketing.
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