It all shines through: why lab-made gemstones may not be an ethical alternative (2023)

NoDiamonds have long owed a debt to marketing genius. In the 1940s, it was not a popular choice for engagement rings. Then, in 1947,a stroke of brilliance: De Beers 'A Diamond is Forever' campaign. The motto has been achieved. The market has been transformed. Today, diamond engagement rings are ubiquitous and shine in luxury jewelry storefronts.

Earlier this year, there was another shining moment in Diamond PR. Pandora, the world's largest jewelry retailer, has announced it will switch entirely to lab-grown diamonds. It created positive headlines around the world, with the name "moral stance against mined diamonds".

Pandora is not alone. In 2020, De Beers invested in a lab-grown range, launching a facility to produce up to 400,000 diamonds a year. Other retailers advertise their lab stones as "100% ethical and conflict free" o"ethical choice". It's a clear analysis for an industry overshadowed byexploration reports, expertly crafted for millennial consumers concerned about consumer ethics.

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But the reality, experts and workers say, is more complicated. Mass transition to lab jewelrymay have positive environmental elementsand frees companies from reputational risks. But it could deprive the very communities consumers care about — and it comes at a time when ethical, traceable jewelry is more accessible than ever.

'Something is wrong'

“If you start growing diamonds in a laboratory, you are not only eliminating jobs, but also closing down communities and countries,” says Urica Primus. “How are they [miners] going to survive, how are they going to support themselves, their livelihoods and their families?”

Primus, 30, comes from a mining family in Guyana. One ofpoorest countries in South America, Guyana has a history of fueling profits abroad. British slave ownersgot rich from Guyanese slavery. Natural resources – gold, diamonds, minerals, oil and natural gas – are its biggest export, accounting for approx.18% of the population depends onGo toto work.

After years of helping his family in the mine, Primus started mining at his own small-scale mine in Tamakay, a gold and diamond mining area, at the age of 18. Today he is your presidentGuianaOrganization of Mining Women.

Small-scale mining is hard work, especially for women. Many mines are extremely remote, in what Primus calls “raw bush – just jungle and trees”. Miners live with the risks of assault and armed robbery, women with added risks of sexual assault. During the rainy season, some mines are at risk of collapsing, killing the miners inside. But mining is also a critical source of income, development and education funds. Businesses concerned about ethics should invest in improving standards and not disappear, he says.

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“These companies have made millions and millions of dollars from mining. Now, what percentage of the profits are they willing to give back and support the growth of the industry that basically kept them alive for decades?”

Her concern isn't just for the miners, says Primus. "It's the government's ability to finance the country's development through the contributions and GDP it receives from the mining industry, it's the miners' families... the entire mining ecosystem will be affected by this change."

The rise of "ethical" marketing for lab-made gemstones is also occurring as certified fair-mined gemstones and gold products are on the market. “We seem to have given up before we even tried,” says Primus. “If you haven't tried this approach to supporting miners in ethical gold mining, then how do you know it won't work? ... If your first choice is to put millions of people out of work around the world, then something is wrong."

smallSynthetic diamonds are physically the same as mined diamonds. They are created in the laboratory from a tiny diamond “seed”, created in a high heat and high pressure chamber or by the circulation of gases, which are decomposed into atomic parts. They are dramatically cheaper - approx.a third of the priceof a mined equivalent. While diamonds are prominent, other gemstones are also grown in labs.

Internationally, the market for synthetic stones is booming. The pandemic has hurt sales of mined diamonds, but even before 2020 these were in decline – production has fallen by around 5% a year since 2017. Meanwhile, the lab-grown market, while still only a small part, has increased, 15- 20% in 2019 according toBain Diamond Report.

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He concluded that the mining market faced two main factors: the growth of lab-grown gems; and greater consumer focus on ethics and sustainability.

“They're framing this in terms of 'this is a moral decision,' when in my opinion it's the exact opposite,” says Cristina Villegas, director of mines at the nonprofit development organization Pacto. "It completely eliminates the social aspects of sustainability."

Villegas works internationally with small mining communities. “When you move, prices go down, you move out of whole communities,” he says.

The “Blood Diamond Effect”

Diamonds' reputation issues were hit in 2006 with the hit film Blood Diamond. In recent years, NGOs andjournalists highlighted the challenges of mining,including child labor, environmental degradation and hazardous conditions.

“A lot of people saw the movie Blood Diamond,” says Sam Johnson, a spokesman for Novita Diamonds, which sells lab-grown stones. The company's website calls them "the only truly ethical diamonds on the market."

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He says business has grown by around 400% in the last 18 months, and many customers are raising concerns about child labor or the ethical implications of diamond mining. “Lab-grown diamonds are [created] in a high-tech lab with high-tech equipment. There are no children involved,” he says.

But experts say the cover-up and dramatized reports can backfire, stigmatizing mining communities.Miningand society expert Professor Saleem Ali says that large parts of the sector have been reformed – but public perception has not. “We had the episode in Sierra Leone and we had problems with the DRC, but that was 10, 15 years ago and there was clear legislation to deal with it,” says Ali.

While parts of the mining sector still face major problems, boycotts are not helping mining communities. “We should try to solve the problem instead of just 'cutting the umbilical cord' so we don't have to deal with the problem,” says Ali.

Villegas claims that around 80% of diamonds are now traceable – and points to other certifications such as Fairmined Gold. “If you're going to defend morality, why not lean into reform efforts?” Villegas asks. “Efforts coming from miners who are… on the road to doing the right thing instead of walking away?”

Market Transformation

While it has made big headlines, Pandora's buying spree will be small. In 2018, less than 1% of its stones were mined. ,

But the world's greatest jeweler has clout. In announcing the move to labs, Pandora said she intended to "transform the market". in an interviewcomBloomberg, Pandora CEO Alexander Lacik said of the move: “We are rolling out the marketing. We're all in."

Asked whether labeling the lab as more "ethical" was misleading, Mads Twomey-Madsen, Pandora's vice president of corporate communications and sustainability, said: "Well, we didn't actually make that claim."

He said the company's focus was on environmental sustainability and part of a broader shift to make the company carbon neutral. “For Pandora to become a low-carbon company, this is the right path for us,” he said.

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Those who sell synthetic stones also argue that they are expanding the pie rather than taking a slice. Pandora says synthetic stones are cheaper and will create a new market for diamonds. “Keep in mind that we will not have any impact on the market for mined diamonds because the amount we have been using has been so small that I doubt you will see any ripple effects from this,” adds Twomey-Madsen. . If the market expands, says Ali, "it doesn't have to be a zero-sum game."

The claim that lab-made gems are more environmentally sustainable iscomplex. ONEreport commissioned by the diamond mining sectorCompletion of mining produced less CO2 than synthetic – but did not include the full impact of mine creation. Pandora claims that if produced with 100% renewable energy, lab-made stones will generate just 10% of the emissions of a mined diamond.

Ali says synthetic diamond companies are tougher on environmental claims: lab-grown diamonds have the potential to be produced with 100% renewable energy.

“I think they can make the environmental case and that's fair enough,” he says. “On the social side, I think they have to be very careful. They don't provide as many jobs as the diamond mining industry. And they're not delivering them to the places where they're needed most."


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