All the sparkle without the ethical drawbacks, lab-grown and recycled diamonds are becoming more and more popular.
Roman author and philosopher Pliny, who wrote the encyclopaedic Naturalis Historia, said in the first century AD: "Diamond is the most valuable, not just of precious stones, but of all things in this world."
Our modern fascination with diamonds began in Golconda, in the western part of Hyderabad city, India – the birthplace of diamonds. Mined from rivers and streams, historians state that the subcontinent had been trading the precious gems as early as the fourth century BC, according to Gia Education.
Indian diamonds made their way to Western Europe via the Silk Road, a network of trade routes connecting India and China with Western Europe that was used to carry the majority of these early precious stones as well as other exotic goods. Diamonds became fashionable amongst Europe’s elite, creating a surge in demand, one which India could not keep up with, and by the 1700s, their resources began to dwindle.
The story of how the modern diamond industry came to exist has deep roots firmly embedded in African soil. In 1867, diamonds were discovered in Kimberley, South Africa. The news garnered international interest, but the real “diamond rush” began two years later.
Word spread to Europe of a shepherd boy discovering an 84-carat diamond along the banks of the Orange River. Sold for 500 sheep, 10 oxen and a horse, the massive rock was called ‘The Star of Africa’ and had diamond prospectors flocking to the area. Soon after, in 1888, British entrepreneur Cecil Rhodes established De Beers Consolidated Mines Limited, and by the turn of the century, the corporation had control over an estimated 90% of the world’s production of uncut diamonds.
Although our obsession with these precious stones is relatively recent – from extravagant engagement rings to fine jewellery as anniversary gifts – it is mostly owed to the clever marketing tactics that have tied diamonds to love and relationships.
The word "diamond" stems from the Greek word "adamas," which means "invincible." Formed from pure carbon, diamonds are the most enduring of all gemstones and is the hardest natural substance known to man. Playing on these facts, De Beers revolutionised the diamond industry in 1947 with their slogan, "A diamond is forever," tying its resilience and clarity to the sanctity of relationships making diamonds one of the most romantic purchases to date.
More recently, a very iconic, sparkling yellow diamond was used in a Tiffany & Co. campaign titled ‘About Love’. The visuals featured Beyoncé, elegantly posing with her rapper husband, Jay-Z, wearing a black floor-length gown and sheer matching gloves. The large rock resting on her chest weighs 128.54 carats and has only been worn by three other people since its discovery in 1877, with Beyoncé being the fourth and also the first black woman to wear it.
The campaign caused quite the stir online because the diamond unearthed in Kimberley is thought to have been mined using slave labour, making it a blood diamond.
Pop culture was responsible for one of the most startling uncovering in connection to the industry. The 2006 film Blood Diamond portrayed a dramatised version of how warlords in Sierra Leone used diamonds to fund their civil war, shedding light on the industry and the working conditions of the miners, shocking the Western world.
Since then, people have strived to be more mindful of ethical diamond sourcing. Brilliant Earth states that “Despite abundant natural resources, many artisanal miners live in abject poverty and endure terrible working conditions every day. Thus, spurring the desire for lab-grown and recycled diamonds.
In 2003, the Kimberley Process was implemented, according to the website, it “unites administrations, civil societies, and industry in reducing the flow of conflict diamonds – ‘rough diamonds used to finance wars against governments’ - around the world.”
However, The Gem Society claims that there’s “little oversight and no way to know which mine a diamond came from.” This is because once the gems are cut and polished, they change hands numerous times and may get mixed with conflict diamonds along the way.
If you want to be sure the glimmering rock at the centre of your engagement ring has an ethical background, opt for a lab-created diamond. Colour, clarity, and cut of lab-created diamonds vary, much like genuine diamonds, each one is distinctly unique. The significantly lower price tag is also a huge selling point, coming in 50-60% cheaper than natural diamonds, according to the website Diamonds Pro.
This is because the process is not left up to the unpredictability of nature. Instead, these rocks are grown in highly controlled laboratory environments using complex technological processes that mimic the conditions under which diamonds naturally originate. Brilliant Earth states that “Lab-created diamonds display the same physical, chemical, and optical characteristics as natural diamonds, and exhibit the same fire, scintillation, and sparkle.”
The demand for ethically sourced and environmentally friendly jewellery is growing globally, and jewellers are responding to the demand.
Pandora, which is the world’s biggest jeweller, revealed earlier this year that they have switched to lab-made diamonds and will no longer sell mined diamonds. This is due to their concerns about the environment and the working conditions in the mining industry.
Talking to the BBC, the jewellers chief executive, Alexander Lacik, said the change was part of a broader sustainability drive for the brand and also because they believe it is the right thing to do.
"We can essentially create the same outcome as nature has created, but at a very, very different price."
Lacik explains they can be made for as little as "a third of what it is for something that we've dug up from the ground."
Tiffany have also responded to the demand and have developed deep, sustainable jewellery policies. These include being transparent and providing their clientele with the origin of their newly sourced diamonds.
There’s also the option of a recycled diamond. These may have previously been set in silver and gold jewellery but have re-entered the supply chain after use.
The Jenna Clifford website says that they often make their second or third entry into the market because their previous owners are hoping to sell them for a profit or as part of an estate auction or equitable distribution after divorce. However, it is impossible to tell distinguish between a recycled diamond and one that was recently unearthed. Therefore, the pricing is very similar.
Both recycled and man-made diamonds are gentler to the environment. Ethica Diamonds reports that the most common method for sourcing natural diamonds is pit mining which entails using heavy-duty explosives to blow large pits in the ground before extracting the diamonds.
“It’s dirty work that results in irreversible ecological damage to the landscape, burns hundreds of millions of gallons of fuel, and leaves pits up to 600 metres deep, and as long as there is more resource to find, the hole just continues to enlarge. Often, after a diamond company has pillaged the Earth for every stone they can, they are asked to rehab the land, although that doesn’t always happen.”
This article first appeared in Saturday Insider, September 18, 2021