Shine On: The Case For Diamonds That Were Grown In A Lab
Alexander Weindling was born into the diamond industry. A third-generation jeweler, he spent the first part of his career working with major players in the mining business. He wasn't thrilled with what he saw.
"Truth and transparency really don't come first with most diamond people. It's a very murky and opaque industry,” Weindling tells mbg, detailing the environmental destruction required to make large, open-pit mines. Some stretch dozens of football fields across and 20 stories deep, making them big enough to see from space. Even diamonds that claim to be ethically sourced, he says, are difficult to get behind since once a stone is cut and polished, it's hard to know with certainty where it came from. Pair that with the dangerous working conditions many miners face, and it was enough to make Weindling want to switch industries.
"I got out of it when I could, frankly," he says. "I never felt good about the way this was done, and I saw that there was another way. You always have to be on the right side of history once you figure stuff out."
In September of 2017, Weindling polished off a new business, called Clean Origin. It, too, sold diamonds in all shapes and colors—the only difference was they were grown in a lab.
How are lab diamonds made?
The first lab diamonds were created in the 1950s, when companies such as General Electric made them for industrial purposes. It's only in the last few years that companies like Clean Origin have started selling them to the masses as an alternative to traditional stones.
The process to make them is simple enough: It starts off with a small piece of diamond, or a "seed," that is placed in a sterile chamber with methane and hydrogen gases and heated to a high temperature. These conditions are meant to mimic the earth's environment, so the seeds can grow from there. Then they're cut and polished like a natural stone would be. The result is identical to any diamond you'd find from the earth.
"Lab diamonds have the same chemical, optical, and physical properties as natural diamonds, so they exhibit the same sparkle, scintillation, and fire as natural diamonds," Kathryn Money, vice president of strategy and merchandising for Brilliant Earth, another lab diamond company, claims. The Federal Trade Commission agrees, and it recently dropped the word "natural"1 from its definition of a diamond in order to make way for the growing category of lab-grown stones.
Who's buying 'em?
The market for these diamonds seems to be growing rapidly. When asked about it, Weindling from Clean Origin said, "I can only tell you what I know: Our business is up 2,000 percent this January over last January."
Jacques Panis from New World Diamonds, another lab-created diamond company, has also noticed a new increase in demand. "Search volume for lab-grown diamonds has seen tremendous growth, and consumer awareness and trust in the product seems to be increasing at healthy increments," he says. "We believe this is due to a confluence of events that have taken place over the past 12 to 18 months, including the FTC ruling which gave consumers a boost of confidence in knowing lab-grown diamonds are, in fact, diamonds."
According to Brilliant Earth's analysis of Google Search Trends for "lab diamonds," interest in the term has more than doubled from 42 percent in 2013 to 100 percent in 2018. Millennials seem to be leading the charge toward this next gen of diamonds. In one survey by Brilliant Earth, 85 percent of consumers aged 18 to 34 felt positive or neutral about selecting a lab diamond, while 65 percent of older folks did.
"It's clear to me that the millennial generation is willing to pay more if they think it would help the planet last a little longer," says Weindling, though he adds that the company deals with people of all ages—and recently sold a wedding ring to a Tennessee couple, ages 77 and 81, living in an assisted living facility.
"You know who buys lab-grown diamonds?" he asks. "Anyone who learns about them."
How much do they cost?
Besides being made in a more transparent, ethical, and eco-friendly manner, lab diamonds also tend to be less expensive.
"This is the only green technology I've seen that's less expensive to the consumer than what it's replacing," says Weindling. Even though the technology required to make the stones isn't cheap, it's still not as costly as the mining process. According to Reuters, a 1-carat lab-grown diamond is typically around 42 percent cheaper than a traditional stone. Considering the average American spends $6,324 on an engagement ring, the potential savings are nothing to shrug off.
So are lab diamonds the future of jewelry?
While the growth of the lab-grown diamond market shows no signs of slowing, it's doubtful that it will overtake traditional stones entirely. There will always be people who want to buy stones for the brand behind them and others who will go vintage or refurbish family gems. Lab diamonds also don't have the same resale value as traditional stones, which might put off some consumers.
However, those who are interested in exploring the vast world of lab diamonds can likely look forward to an embarrassment of riches over the next few years.
"Because of increased consumer demand, the selection in lab diamonds has grown tremendously, which we expect will continue," predicts Money of Brilliant Earth. "Lab-created diamonds are a great choice for a customer seeking to minimize the environmental impact of a jewelry purchase as they require no mining." To which we say, shine on.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.