Which is more ethical: natural diamonds have been mined from the earth or lab-grown diamonds that have been created by man? If you’ve seen any advertising from the new lab-grown diamond brands that have popped up in the past few years, you might think you know the answer to that question.
But are lab-grown diamonds really better for the earth or for us? Before you make a decision, there are a lot of facts about diamonds and lab-grown diamonds that you can’t learn from glossy sales pitches. Whether these products are called “lab-grown diamonds,” “laboratory grown diamonds,” “created diamonds,” “cultured diamonds,” “grown diamonds,” “synthetic diamonds,” “man-made diamonds,” or “cultivated diamonds,” understanding more about the manufacturing process and the differences between mining and manufacturing may change your opinions on which option is better and whether you want to shop lab-grown or natural.
Here are eight surprising facts that lab-grown diamond producers don't want you to know.
1. It Takes a Lot of Energy to Grow Diamonds
Consumers in America and across the world are looking for more environmentally-friendly products. And you may have heard that man-made diamonds and diamond rings are more “environmentally-friendly.” But the claim that man-made diamonds are better for the environment leaves out one important fact: making diamonds requires a huge amount of energy. The presses and reactors that are used to manufacture created diamonds operate at very high heat and high pressure for very long periods of time while the synthetic diamond crystalizes.
The environmental impact of that energy use depends on how energy is produced. If a diamond plant uses solar or hydropower it would be much cleaner than coal, obviously. But either way, the energy used has a significant environmental impact. And most laboratory-grown diamond producers don’t even tell you where their products are manufactured or how much energy they use.
2. Lab-Grown Diamonds Aren't "Eco-Friendly"
It takes extremely high pressures to create diamonds and those high pressures come with high energy needs. But in addition to the environmental cost of the energy, it takes to manufacture diamonds, the raw materials used (including diamond seeds) are mined, as are the metals used to make the machinery and the chemical catalysts used during the process.
Diamonds cannot be created out of anything. While pure carbon exists on its own, the unique diamond crystal structure (diamonds are pure carbon that has been crystallized in an isotropic, 3D form) must be created. Both of today’s two lab-grown diamond creation processes, high-pressure high-temperature, and chemical vapor deposition, require sourcing materials and the use of energy to create this diamond crystal structure. And though chemical vapor deposition doesn’t require quite as much pressure energy as the high-pressure high-temperature creation process, it requires more chemicals.
According to Dr. Saleem H. Ali of the University of Delaware, a definitive study that compares the ecological impact of man-made and mined diamonds is not currently possible, due to the lack of data on the raw materials used in the lab-grown diamond manufacturing process.
Compared to most of the mining industry, diamond mining has a relatively small environmental footprint and no chemicals are used. Many operations are working on projects to move towards carbon-neutral status. (De Beers is working on technology that can sequester excess pure carbon in decommissioned mines.) According to the Diamond Producers Association, the carbon footprint of a 1 carat polished, natural diamond is smaller than that of most CVD synthetic diamonds of similar size.
In addition, the reuse of previously mined diamonds, used over and over in fine jewelry for generations, means that the environmental impact of diamond mining can be amortized over decades and sometimes even centuries of use and reuse. It’s not clear that lab-grown diamonds will become heirlooms in the same way.
But even if lab-grown diamonds do have a less environmental impact than mined diamonds, they can’t legally be called “eco-friendly.” According to the Federal Trade Commission of the United States’ Green Guides, comparative claims are not enough to justify environmental benefits. Lab-grown producers can’t say that their product is good because another product is less good: they need to document actual benefits to the environment that they are creating. Which of course, they don't because they can’t. You would do more to benefit the environment by planting a tree than buying a lab-grown diamond.
3. Switching Away From Mined to Lab-Grown Diamonds Puts Millions of Jobs at Risk
The diamond industry provides a livelihood for 10 million people globally, including 1.5 million artisanal and small-scale miners and their families in Africa and South America, who uncover 15% of the world’s diamonds. Diamond mining contributes approximately $7.6 billion per year to Africa. Botswana, which has risen out of poverty, has become a showcase of democracy and development thanks to mined diamonds, which account for 71% of export revenue, 16% of government revenue and 16% of the gross domestic product.
Mining is a major source of employment in many developing nations around the world without very many other options for employment. And, today, diamond mining companies make a concentrated effort to only mine diamonds in conflict-free areas and make an effort to be transparent with consumers about their conflict-free, ethical sourcing practices that protect the safety of their many employees and ensure consumers know they aren’t buying “blood diamonds.” For the natural diamond industry, social responsibility is as important ethically as environmental responsibility.
In contrast, manufacturing synthetic diamonds doesn’t generate very many jobs or fuel economic development. The new De Beers sponsored lab diamond brand Lightbox plans to open a 60,000-square-foot diamond factory in Oregon this year. De Beers’ Lightbox lab-diamond factory will produce 500,000 rough carats a year but will employ only 60 people.
4. Man-Made Diamonds are Manufactured in a Factory, Not Created in a "Lab"
Close your eyes and picture a laboratory. Pristine clean rooms, white coats, guys with beakers, right? Now picture a factory: dirty, noisy, lots of heavy equipment and drums of chemicals, metals and other materials. Of course, the man-made diamond industry wants you to think they are scientists working on high tech research, that’s why they call their products “lab-grown,” “lab diamonds,” or “lab-created diamonds.” But man-made, so-called “lab-created diamonds” are really manufactured in big huge factories just like a lot of other industrial products. So, these man-made diamonds aren’t “lab-created diamonds,” they’re factory-created diamonds. And where are those factories? A lot of the time they are in China and other low-wage countries where the energy used doesn't come from clean sources and the by-products aren't disposed of properly.
5. Lab-Grown Diamonds May Have Been Treat to Improve Color
After created diamonds are lab grown, they’re often treated to improve the way they look. They are most often irradiated or heated under pressure to improve color or create fancy colors. If they were natural diamonds, those treatments would make them much less valuable. Any treatment in a natural diamond would have to be disclosed to you on the invoice and on any grading report. But lab-grown diamond producers don’t say anything about treatment, so you have no way of knowing whether a man-made diamond has been subjected to any treatment. It’s simply impossible to tell if a diamond has been treated by using the naked eye. Why does this matter since they come from a factory anyway, they say. But here’s the thing: because natural stones are less valuable when they are treated, you might be able to get a treated natural diamond for less than a treated created diamond.
6. Lab-Grown Diamond Prices Have Been Dropping (And Will Probably Drop More)
Lab-grown diamonds are a relatively new product without a long track record. But since they have been introduced, prices have continued to decrease with improved equipment and increased competition. A recent report by the American consulting company Bain & Co says that prices for man-made diamonds have declined 70% in the past two years.
Most people in the diamond and fine jewelry industry expect that the value of these manufactured products will continue to decrease over time, which is something you should consider before you shop lab-grown. While this likely price decrease might not matter if you’re buying a fun $800 pink one-carat lab-grown diamond necklace, it might be a bit more disappointing if you’re buying a one-carat $5,799 laboratory-grown diamond engagement ring (especially because you can buy a natural diamond engagement ring for the same price on RockHer!). While many people think that laboratory-grown diamonds will be inherently cheaper, with a low exclusive offer type price, they’re actually often priced similarly to natural diamonds, which doesn’t necessarily reflect how they’ll hold value over time.
Most analysts agree that natural diamond production has peaked and natural diamonds will become increasingly rare in the future. Scarceness and increased demand from rapidly growing markets like China and India make it likely that prices for natural diamonds will continue to increase.
7. Some "Man-Made Diamonds" Aren't Even Diamonds
When you search for lab-grown diamonds on Google, you’ll find a lot of results that link to brands like Diamond Nexus and Charles & Colvard who aren’t selling lab-grown diamonds at all, they are selling imitation diamonds, also known as diamond simulants.
Hey, there’s nothing wrong with diamond simulants like cubic zirconia, diamond coated cubic zirconia, and moissanite when they are identified properly. But they certainly aren’t diamonds and FTC rules specifically prohibit marketing them as man-made diamonds or implying that they are the same as diamonds. Despite that fact, many vendors continue to skirt the rules and intentionally confuse customers into thinking their simulate products are real diamond rings or other diamond jewelry.
Before you consider a lab-grown purchase, you must carefully read the language to make sure that what they are selling is actually a man-made diamond, not an imitation that merely looks similar to the naked eye.
8. There is No Established Resale Market for Lab-Grown Diamonds
Selling your diamond engagement ring has never been easier, with sites like TheRealReal, Worthy, True Facet, Circa, IDoNowIDont, and WP Diamonds, among others. The better the gem quality of the diamond in your diamond ring, the more of its value it retains. Why? Truly fine real diamonds are rare and always in demand.
But the resale market for lab-grown diamonds is not yet established. With prices currently volatile, no one wants to commit to holding inventory that could be worth much less in a year. So your lab-grown diamond may sell for less than you paid for it next year, even if it has a high gem quality. If production increases dramatically, maybe a lot less.
And what about passing down that diamond? Are lab-grown diamonds going to hold their value? Will your kids look at it as a precious gem that was ahead of its time or inexpensive costume jewelry like we look at CZ today? No one really knows. But we do know that the earth isn’t making more real diamonds. Which do you think will be a better long-term investment?