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A diamond in the rough: Are lab-grown gems going to replace the real thing?

It seems that a quiet revolution is dawning on the decades-old industry as artificial diamonds begin to challenge the world’s most popular gemstone. Despite having been around since the 1950s, the boom in lab-grown gems has been all but recent with jewellery giants like Pandora, De Beers, Vrai and Kimaï adopting artificial diamonds into a previously homogenous market. 

Let’s begin by setting the record straight: lab-grown diamonds are real diamonds, they are physically, chemically, and visually identical to their mined counterparts. Cut, polished, and graded in the same way the two stones are indistinguishable, so much so that a specialised microscope would be required to differentiate them. 

Extreme pressure and heat are required for the creation of both natural and artificial diamonds. For the former, this process takes place roughly 100 miles below ground, deep within the Earth’s upper mantle. Conversely, the latter uses one of two production methods:

High Pressure, High Temperature (HPHT) was the first system developed to manufacture diamonds. The procedure uses a flat slither of another diamond, commonly referred to as a ‘seed’, which is positioned amongst pure graphite carbon, pressurised to over 850,000 pounds per square inch and exposed to temperatures of about 15000°C. 

Technological advances have made the growth of diamonds through another mechanism, Chemical Vapour Deposition (CVD), possible. During CVD, the seed is heated to roughly 8000°C in the presence of carbon-rich gas. Due to the high temperatures the carbon in the gas sticks to the seed, growing it into a diamond one carbon atom at a time. 

While the formation of natural diamonds can take up to 3.3 billion years, both HPHT and CVD diamonds can be manufactured in under 3 months. Alongside this astounding difference in timescale, numerous other factors are fighting in the lab-grown corner.  

Costing between 60% to 85% less than a natural diamond of the same size and quality, artificial diamonds are cheaper for both consumers and producers alike. 

With buyers no longer turning a blind eye to the environmental, social, and economic impacts of supply chains, artificial diamonds arguably provide a more sustainable option for conscious consumers.

study by Imperial College London in 2021 revealed that the average carat has a carbon footprint of over 100 kilograms of CO2, yet the environmental impact of diamonds doesn’t end with greenhouse gas emissions.

For a single carat of mined diamond approximately 250 tonnes of earth are shifted creating crater-like mines so big that, with the help of satellite technology, they are observable from space. Naturally, what follows such a large excavation of land is a significant loss of habitat for both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

When considering social conditions, it is no secret that the diamond industry has long been plagued by an abundance of humanitarian concerns. These issues extend beyond the pay and working conditions of miners to include trade conflicts and corruption caused by improper regulation within the industry. 

Despite the chequered history of mining, the ethics of lab-grown diamonds is also questionable. A clear lack of transparency exists within the industry, causing significant issues when assessing the specific environmental and social impacts of artificial gems. 

Both HPHT and CVD require considerable amounts of energy for extreme heating while vast amounts of water are necessary for stabilisation and cooling processes. To add fuel to the fire, the common belief that lab-grown diamonds are mining-free is simply not true. The synthesis of these gems requires an abundance of machinery, the majority of which are made of high-grade steel, a metal that possesses significant amounts of embodied carbon. 

Although research available to the public claims a low, neutral, or even negative carbon footprint for lab-grown diamonds, questions have been raised over the credibility of these assertions. 

Determining whether the sustainability of lab-grown diamonds is all bark, all bite or somewhere in-between depends wholly on the maintenance of individual factories, more specifically, the energy, material, waste, chemical and water management. With the majority of artificial gem producing failing to disclose such information, it is nearly impossible to gauge just how eco-friendly these new gems are and to hold organisations accountable for malpractice or wrongdoing.

As the saying goes, complex problems never have simple solutions. The diamond industry needs to contend with a myriad of issues from environmental to ethical but the expectation of an easy fix, in the form of artificial gems, is far from perfect.

This begs the question of whether lab-grown gems really are a diamond in the rough or just another rock in the world’s shoe, hindering attempts to shake out unsustainable practices. 

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