Natural diamonds or lab-grown diamonds? This is likely the question haunting those on the search for an engagement ring in 2024. The two types of stones have a sibling-like rivalry — some primarily natural diamond brands position themselves as superior to lab-grown diamond brands, while lab-grown brands use words like "ethical" and "conscious" in their marketing materials, which may imply that the opposite is true for the natural diamond industry.

Lab diamonds are grown in a controlled factory environment, so are naturally less intrusive than the underground mining required to recover natural diamonds. The narratives put forward by both sides of the diamond industry are difficult to navigate given that both want consumers to believe their product trumps the other. The unfortunate truth is that neither stone is perfect, but traditional natural diamond brands often have the funds and marketing know-how to push their narrative further and wider.

Environmental Risks

Aside from energy consumption comparisons between lab-grown and mined diamonds, we know that the natural diamond industry has significant environmental impacts, but painting the picture is devastating. Three of the four classical elements - air, water and land - are severely impacted by the mining of diamonds. Not only are hundreds of gallons of water consumed per carat of diamond mined, the water left behind is known to be polluted and carry diseases - making it dangerous for those inhabiting the local area. The pits where diamonds are mined can collect dirty water, and attract harmful insects like mosquitoes, making it a breeding pit for diseases like malaria and dengue - which if left untreated can be deadly. 

And that’s not all. For every carat of diamond mined, 100 square feet of land is disturbed. This means clearing any trees, vegetation or people in between the miners and the earth. And yes, we did say people. Often diamonds are mined in countries with little infrastructure for the public – like Africa and India – meaning those on the poverty line inhabiting the area have little rights over the land where they live and must make way for the bulldozers.

On top of this, miners must dig into the earth to find areas rich with potential diamonds [around 150-200 km into the ground]. Soil erosion is the gradual deterioration of soil quality, meaning once the land is mined, it can’t be used to grow vegetation or for animals to graze or breed - rendering the land useless and harmful.

The air isn’t left in much of a better state either. The deforestation of the land means less Co2 uptake, and the heavy machinery and fuel needed to dig land at this scale contributes to air pollution - which has been linked to the development of long-term health issues like asthma and lung problems.

Lab-grown diamonds aren’t completely absolved in this respect as they typically rely on mining for resources such as graphite, iron, nickel, or cobalt and some natural gas extraction. In comparison the impacts are significantly lower when compared to diamond mining.

The Trading Loopholes Are Too Big To Ignore

Natural diamonds have a bad rep for these environmental risks, but it’s only half of the story. One of the biggest risks associated with mined diamonds is the exposure to buying or trading potential conflict diamonds, otherwise known as blood diamonds. This refers to diamonds used to fund war in war zones. The industry introduced a framework to fight against this in response to the involvement of diamonds in the Angolan Civil War, called The Kimberley Process. The problem is that the process isn’t exactly airtight and the diamonds verified by this process account for over 99% of the diamonds in the market currently, and so these small loopholes can have huge consequences.

Only countries that are Kimberley Process compliant can trade diamonds with each other. To be compliant with the standards, an invoice document need only say the words "the diamonds herein invoiced have been purchased from legitimate sources not involved in funding conflict and in compliance with United Nations resolutions. The seller hereby guarantees that these diamonds are conflict-free, based on personal knowledge and/or written guarantees provided by the supplier of these diamonds.” What's worse is that a transparency report carried out by The World Wide Fund for Nature found that the KP applies per batch of stones, not per stone. Meaning conflict diamonds could slip through the cracks and end up on the necklace or engagement ring of an unsuspecting wearer who thinks their diamond is compliant with all industry standards.

The Silver Lining

Problem aware brands in the natural diamond industry are finding ways to combat these unavoidable issues, whether it’s brands having their own sustainability goals and community uplift projects, or some using blockchain technology to show a ledger of where the diamond has been. Many are using additional third-party guidelines to ensure they meet a high trading and production standard. But regardless, some of these problems, no matter the argument of natural diamond vs mined, can’t be argued in favour of natural diamonds.

In addition, when it comes to lab-grown diamonds, calculating and acknowledging the harm done is far more achievable. Through programs like Clear Neutral, jewellery brands are able to easily invest in projects that counteract and reduce these impacts while significantly contributing to a brighter future.

Photo by Matthew de Livera on Unsplash