Guest Opinion: The Environmental Impact of Lab-Grown Diamonds

Guest Opinion: The Environmental Impact of Lab-Grown Diamonds

Diamonds are diamonds wherever they come from, right? Depends on whether you’re asking a jeweler, a bride-to-be, or someone concerned with the sustainability practices of mining and manufacturing. While it may be difficult to tell a lab-grown diamond apart from a natural diamond, there are some major differences in their origins that might influence the purchase you choose to make, and from whom you choose to purchase it.

How Are Lab-Grown Diamonds Made?

Sustainable diamonds. That term has a nice ring to it. In general, lab-manufactured diamonds compare favorably to the methods used to mine natural diamonds. They don’t cause the same level of environmental damage as mining, which requires the removal of earth and consumes freshwater and fossil fuels. Air pollution and acid mine drainage from mining can contaminate water sources, and unethical diamond mining practices can result in human rights abuses and destroy ecosystems. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that for each diamond recovered by mining, 200- to 400-million times as much rock must be extracted.

However, when looked at as a standalone industry, the methods used in a diamond manufacturing lab also raise concerns.

Manufacturers market their lab-grown diamonds as sustainable, suggesting they are a more responsible option for some consumers. But how accurate are these designations? Greenwashing can happen in any industry, even diamonds, and when a company uses the term “environmentally friendly,” the definition can be vague. You want to ensure that the company you’re buying from can legitimately stand behind its sustainability claims.

Here is what’s happening in the controlled environment of a diamond lab:

  • The process that takes millions of years underground and uses the natural heat and pressure of the environment to create a natural diamond is mimicked in a lab in mere weeks.
  • While the factories don’t usually have assembly lines, the machinery requires constant energy, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to produce the gems. The source of this energy is important to the ultimate sustainability of the gem.
  • Labs use enormous microwave-heat generators to replicate the earth’s process through high pressure, high temperature (HPHT) production that requires maintaining a temperature above 300°F or chemical vapor deposition (CVD) that relies on temperatures as high as 1500°F.

The process is relatively straightforward – and so is the impact on the environment. If the diamond maker uses renewable energy, the process is more sustainable than diamonds made using fossil fuel energy.

Photo: Adobe Stock

Pros and Cons of Lab-Produced Diamonds

If you are considering the purchase of a sustainable diamond, we applaud your conscious decision to minimize your footprint. After all, when you’re giving someone a piece of jewelry you hope they’ll be wearing for decades to come, you want to feel good about seeing them wear it. It helps if you know that you made an informed decision about where to purchase it.

How a lab-produced diamond is created matters, because some lab practices may not be any better than traditional diamond mining side effects, as awful as they can be. Here are the items that many consumers consider in their search:

  • Pro: They cost less. Lab-grown diamonds cost 10% to 30% less than what Mother Earth creates, so you can get a bigger stone if that’s what you’re looking for, upgrade clarity and color to have a truly unique stone, and enjoy fewer impurities.
  • Pro: They are real diamonds. Lab diamonds are nearly identical to the physical, chemical, and cosmetic characteristics of mined diamonds. They may even have better clarity, which makes them brighter. They are not fake.
  • Con: They’re not as valuable. Manufactured diamonds might look pretty, but they aren’t going to get you much in resale value. Many people do not believe lab-grown diamonds are real diamonds because they don’t come from the earth, but manufacturers promise they are visually and chemically identical.
  • Con: Their carbon footprint isn’t great. If the manufacturing process for lab-grown diamonds uses energy generated from fossil fuels, it may even create more carbon dioxide emissions than natural diamond mining; most factories still rely on fossil fuels to power the reactors.

A study comparing lab-grown and mined diamonds by consultancy Frost & Sullivan found that mining diamonds produces 4,383 times more waste than manufactured gems, uses 6.8 times as much water, and consumes 2.14 times the energy per carat produced. Lab-brown diamonds also avoid all the sulfur oxide and more than half the nitrous oxide emissions associated with mined diamonds.

The Clean Origin Waverly Bridal Set
The Clean Origin Waverly Bridal Set features a half-carat of lab-grown gems.

Are You Actually Buying a Sustainable Diamond?

Just because a diamond is grown in a lab does not automatically mean it is sustainable. Don’t hesitate to ask questions of a jeweler, gemologist, or manufacturer about their production process or where they source their carbon. Companies that focus on environmental responsibility will have these answers readily available because they work to improve their manufacturing practices every day.

If lab-grown is your choice of gem, keep the following in mind:

  • Look for a jeweler who is happy to document the sources of their stones.
  • Find out if the diamond source is making efforts to reduce its carbon footprint.
  • Learn about the manufacturing process for your diamond and whether it is as energy-efficient as possible.
  • Remember that a recycled diamond may not have been sustainably or ethically sourced in the first place; in fact, its source may be unknown.

Do your research and only work with a jeweler you trust. Diamonds are a large, important purchase, and though you may want the most sustainable gem, its origins may not be as straightforward or as environmentally responsible as they are portrayed. There is always an argument to be made that lab-grown diamonds are more sustainable than traditionally mined diamonds. But who you buy the diamond from and the unique practices they use to track the origin of their gems will tell you the true story of the diamond’s production.

The Environmental Impact of Diamonds

The amount of energy required to create lab-grown diamonds is immense, albeit consistently found to be half that of mined diamonds. Some companies are working to use renewable energy and capture CO2 from the atmosphere to make their gems, but more need to make this transition to reduce their climate impact.

Similarly, among traditional diamond mining companies, some have made efforts to offset the industry’s social impacts. These include building schools and remediating environmental impacts in regions where diamonds are mined. Given the long history of the diamond industry’s indifference to human impacts, it is better to take the mine out of the process.

There is something to be said about the one-of-a-kind stone forged from the earth – that’s what makes them so rare, valuable, and expensive. For people who are committed to sustainability in all aspects of their life, they may find themselves deciding not only between natural diamonds and lab-grown diamonds — but whether they are willing to purchase any kind of stone at all. If you do opt for a diamond, choose lab-grown stones made using 100% renewable energy to lower your jewelry’s environmental impact.

Editor’s Note: Originally published on August 23, 2021, and updated in May 2024, this article was submitted by Clean Origin, which sells environmentally friendlier lab-grown diamonds and engagement rings.


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