Some lab-grown diamonds have murky sustainability claims

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The muffled sounds of hammering and sanding reach the first floor of Bario Neal, a jewelry store in Philadelphia, where rustic works of art that imitate nature hang on warmly lit walls.

Waiting for one of those rings is Haley Farlow, a 28-year-old second-grade teacher who has been designing her three-stone engagement ring with her boyfriend. They care about price and they also don’t want jewelry that affects the Earth or exploits people in mining. That’s why they are planning to buy lab-grown diamonds.

“Most of my friends have grown up in a laboratory. And I think it fits with our lifestyle and, you know, the economy and what we’re experiencing,” Farlow said.

In the United States, sales of lab-grown diamonds increased 16 percent in 2023 over 2022, according to Edahn Golan, an industry analyst. They cost a fraction of the stones that form naturally underground.

Social media posts show millennials and Generation Z proudly explaining the purchase of their lab-grown diamonds for ethical and sustainability reasons. But it is questionable how sustainable they are, as making a diamond requires an enormous amount of energy and many major manufacturers are not transparent about their operations.

Farlow said choosing the lab-grown ring makes her ring “more special and satisfying” because the materials come from reputable companies. All Barium Neal lab diamonds are made with renewable energy or the emissions needed to make them are offset by carbon credits, which pay for activities like planting trees, which capture carbon.

But that’s not the norm for lab-grown diamonds.

Many companies are based in India, where about 75 percent of electricity comes from burning coal. They use words like “sustainable” and “environmentally friendly” on their websites, but they do not publish their environmental impact reports and are not certified by third parties. Cupid Diamonds, for example, says on its website that it produces diamonds “in an environmentally friendly manner,” but 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 use renewable energy in their manufacturing processes.

China is the other major diamond producing country. Henan Huanghe Whirlwind, Zhuhai Zhong Na Diamond, HeNan LiLiang Diamond, Starsgem Co. and Ningbo Crysdiam are among the largest producers. None responded to requests for comment or published details about where they get their electricity. More than half of China’s electricity will come from coal in 2023.

It is questionable how sustainable they are, as making a diamond requires an enormous amount of energy and many major manufacturers are not transparent about their operations.

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

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

“It seems like there are a lot of companies that are capitalizing on the idea that it’s an environmentally friendly product when they’re actually not doing anything that’s environmentally friendly,” Zimnisky said.

HOW IT IS MADE

Lab diamonds are typically made over several weeks, subjecting carbon to high pressure and high temperature that mimic the natural conditions that form diamonds beneath the Earth’s surface.

The technology has been around since the 1950s, but the diamonds produced were primarily used in industries such as stone cutting, mining, and dentistry tools.

Over time, laboratories or foundries have gotten better at growing stones with minimal defects. Production costs have decreased as technology improves.

That means diamond producers can make as many stones as they want and choose their size and quality, which is causing prices to fall rapidly. Natural diamonds take billions of years to form and are difficult to find, making 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 telltale signs in the atomic structure. The Gemological Institute of America grades millions of diamonds annually.

MARKETING COMPETITION

As prices are lower for lab-grown ones and young people increasingly prefer them, new diamonds have reduced the market share of natural stones. Globally, lab-grown diamonds now account for five to six percent of the market, and the traditional industry is not sitting still. The marketing battle has begun.

The mined diamond industry and some analysts warn that lab-grown diamonds will not maintain their value over time.

“In five to ten years, I think there will be very few customers who are willing to spend thousands of dollars on a lab-grown diamond. I think almost everything will sell for $100 or even less,” Zimnisky said. He predicts that natural diamonds will continue to sell for thousands and tens of thousands of dollars in engagement rings.

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

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

“When you buy a natural diamond, it is said that Mother Earth has manufactured it for three billion years. “This wonderful creation of nature… you can’t tell that story with a lab-grown product,” Golan said. “You very quickly make the connection between eternity and the longevity of love.”

“If we really want to get technical here, the greenest diamond is a reused or recycled diamond because it uses no energy,” Zimnisky said.

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

“Jewelry is a powerful symbol… it’s 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 and commitment or identity, it seems contradictory to me. “We only want to work with materials that we think our customers would be proud to own.”

The Associated Press’ climate and environmental coverage receives financial support from multiple private foundations. AP is solely responsible for all content. Find AP standards to work with philanthropic organizations, a list of supporters and funded coverage areas in AP.org.

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