Lab-grown diamonds come at a great price, but many of them have vague claims about sustainability

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The muted sounds of hammering and sanding drift into the first floor of the Bario Neal jewelry store in Philadelphia, where rustic artwork that mimics nature is hung on the warmly lit walls.

Haley Farlow, a 28-year-old second-grade teacher, is waiting to design her three-stone engagement ring with her boyfriend. They care about price and also don't want jewelry that negatively impacts the earth, or exploits people in mining. So they plan to buy lab-grown diamonds.

“Most of my friends have all grown in a lab. I think it fits our lifestyle, you know, the economy and what we live in,” Farlow said.

In the United States, sales of lab-grown diamonds jumped 16% in 2023 compared to 2022, according to Aidan Golan, an industry analyst. They cost a fraction of the stones that formed naturally underground.

A man looks at a polished lab-grown diamond at Greenlab Diamonds, in Surat, India. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)

Social media posts show Millennials and Generation Z proudly explaining the purchase of lab-grown diamonds for reasons of sustainability and ethics. But how sustainable they are is questionable, because making diamonds requires a huge amount of energy and many major manufacturers are not transparent about their processes.

Farlow said choosing a lab-grown ring makes her ring “more special and satisfying” because the materials are sourced from reputable companies. All of Barrio Nile's lab-grown diamonds are either made from renewable energy or contain the emissions that go into making them with carbon credits, which pay for activities like planting trees, which capture carbon.

But this is not the norm for lab-grown diamonds.

Many companies are based in India, where about 75% of electricity comes from burning coal. They use words like “sustainable” and “eco-friendly” on their websites, but they do not publish their environmental impact reports nor are they certified by third parties. For example, Cupid Diamonds says on its website that it produces diamonds “in an environmentally friendly way,” but it did not respond to questions about what makes its diamonds sustainable. Solar energy is expanding rapidly in India, and there are some companies, such as Greenlab Diamonds, that are using renewable energy sources in their manufacturing processes.

China is the other major diamond manufacturing country. Henan Huanghe Whirlwind, Zhuhai Zhong Na Diamond, HeNan LiLiang Diamond and Starsgem Co., Ltd. And Ningbo Crysdiam is among the largest producers. None of them responded to requests for comment or published details about the source of the electricity. More than half of China's electricity will come from coal in 2023.

In the United States, one company, VRAI, whose parent company is Diamond Foundry, runs what it says is a zero-emissions foundry in Wenatchee, Washington, powered by hydroelectric power from the Columbia River. The energy VRAI uses to grow diamonds is “about a tenth of the energy needed for mining,” Martin Rochesne, CEO and founder of Diamond Foundry, said via email.

But companies that are transparent about their supply chain and use renewable energy like this “represent a very small fraction of production,” said Paul Zimnisky, a diamond industry expert.

“It seems like there are a lot of companies that are relying on this environmentally friendly product when they're not doing anything environmentally friendly,” Zimnisky said.

How is it done?

Laboratory diamonds are often created over the course of several weeks, exposing carbon to high pressure and temperature that mimic the natural conditions under which diamonds form beneath the Earth's surface.

This technology has been around since the 1950s, but the diamonds produced were mostly used in industries such as stone cutting, mining, and dental instruments.

Over time, laboratories or foundries improved at growing stones with minimal defects. Production costs decreased as technology improved.

This means that diamond farmers can manufacture as many stones as they want and choose their size and quality, causing prices to fall quickly. Natural diamonds take billions of years to form and are difficult to find, which makes their price more stable.

Diamonds, whether natural or lab-grown, are chemically identical and made entirely of carbon. But experts can distinguish between the two, using lasers to identify clear marks in the atomic structure. The Gemological Institute of America grades millions of diamonds annually.

Marketing competition

As prices for lab-grown diamonds fall and are increasingly favored by young people, new diamonds have reduced the market share of natural stones. Globally, lab-grown diamonds now make up 5% to 6% of the market, and the traditional industry cannot do without them. The marketing battle continues.

The mined diamond industry and some analysts warn that lab-grown diamonds will hold no value over time.

“Five to 10 years in the future, I think there will be very few customers willing to spend thousands of dollars to buy lab-grown diamonds. I think almost everything will be sold for $100 or even less,” Zimnisky said, and he expects that to continue. Natural diamonds sell for thousands and tens of thousands of dollars for engagement rings.

Some cultures view engagement rings as investments and choose natural diamonds for their long-term value. This is especially true in China and India, Zimnisky said. This also remains true in rural areas of the United States, while lab-grown diamonds have become more widespread in cities.

Paying thousands of dollars for something that most of its value depreciates in just a few years can make the buyer feel cheated, which Gollan said is an element currently working against the lab-production sector.

“When you buy a natural diamond, there's a story that it took Mother Earth three billion years to create it. This wondrous creation of nature… you can't tell that story using a lab grown,” Golan said. “You very quickly associate eternity with the longevity of love.” ”

“If we really want to get technical here, the greenest diamonds are reused or recycled diamonds because they don't use any energy,” Zimniski said.

Paige Neal said she co-founded Bario Neal in 2008 to “create jewelry with lasting value that will have a positive impact on people and the planet.” All materials in their jewelery can be traced throughout their supply chain. The store offers both lab-grown diamonds and natural diamonds.

“Jewellery is a powerful symbol… it is a keeper of memories,” she said. “But when we use materials that have caused harm to other people and the environment to create a symbol of love, commitment or identity, to me it seems contradictory. We only want to work with materials that we feel our customers would be proud to own.”

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