A diamond is forever (and sustainable?)

The allure and promise of diamonds often paints an image of everlasting love and commitment to someone special. “A diamond is forever”, as many would say. But is the industry of mining diamonds here to stay too? Perhaps there are many reasons as to why it probably won’t.

Deforestation. By Dikshajhingan [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Mining have a notorious reputation of causing detrimental environmental impact. Irresponsible diamond mining has caused soil erosion, led to deforestation, and forced local populations to relocate. Dams were constructed and rivers re-routed in order to expose riverbeds for mining, causing disastrous effects on fish and wildlife. In extreme cases, diamond mining can cause entire ecosystems to collapse. These mining pits have also created a public health issue. When the pits fill with stagnant rainwater, they become infested with mosquitoes, spreading mosquito and other water-borne diseases.

Mining Pit. By Staselnik [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
The social impact of diamond mining is equally adverse, in some cases the practice is outright illegal, conjuring the infamous term ‘Blood Diamonds’. These gemstones are often produced in operations that do not abide international laws on labour rights or fair trade, and are severely exploitive to diamond miners. Blood Diamond operations often use slave labour of men, women and children, and are attached to bloody and criminal military activities. Blood diamonds are smuggled into the international diamond trade and sold as legitimate gems, making consumers unable to conscious choose their stones based on ethical grounds. Furthermore, even legal diamond trade is often criticised for violating labour rights, creating wealth inequality, and continuing practices of neo-colonialism.

Photo by Gunnar Salvarsson on Flickr

Truly, a diamond is forever, but so is its irreversible impact to poorer parts of the world. Many would consider the diamond mining industry to epitomise environmental and social unsustainability, so what could diamond consumers do to negate the impact?

Fortunately, synthetic diamonds or lab grown diamonds have been around since the 1950s, providing us with a more sustainable and ethical alternative.

What is the difference between lab diamond and natural diamond?

Can you tell these diamonds apart? By Mario Sarto [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons
Lab grown diamonds, or synthetic diamonds are diamonds made synthetically in laboratory conditions instead of being mined from the earth. Both natural and synthetic diamonds have the exact same crystal structure as well as chemical composition. Therefore, they look the same, sparkle the same, and have the same hardness.

The only perceivable differences between the two is perhaps price. Lab grown diamonds are grown in a controlled and reproducible process, guaranteeing higher quality and less cost of production. On the other hand, natural diamonds are formed organically within the earth’s crust, and tend to be always imperfect. This difference between the two implies that high quality lab diamonds are more readily available, and cheaper.

How are lab diamonds made?

There are many ways to ‘grow’ diamonds. The most popular and earliest method of growing diamonds is by using high temperature and high pressure. This process mimics the natural environment diamonds are formed in the earth.

A diamond (carbon) lattice. By original uploader: Brian0918 [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
It all starts out with a diamond seed, made of repeating network of carbon atoms, just like natural counterparts. This diamond seed is subjected to extremely high temperature and pressure inside special machines in a lab. Temperatures and pressures can reach as high as 2200°C and 7.7GPa to stimulate the naturally occurring heat in the earth required to create a natural diamond. The outcome – a colourless diamond.

No one has estimated the environmental impact of growing diamonds in labs yet, but it’s certainly less problematic than diamond mines. More importantly perhaps, synthetic diamonds are a strong competitor on the market due to their price, and they can potentially upset the status quo of the unsustainable diamond mining industry, ending the plight of ‘blood diamonds’ once for all.

The verdict

Photo by Bridget Flohe on Unsplash

Other than being cheaper, lab grown diamonds are just like natural diamonds, but largely without consequences of unsustainability. So, the next time you’re thinking of getting your sweetheart (or mum) a diamond accessory, consider these man-made gemstones. Alternatively, opt for diamond simulants. These are stones such as cubic zirconia and rhinestones. Although they are not true carbon crystals, they look aesthetically similar to diamonds.

Save earth, save lives, wear ‘fake’ diamonds.


2 Responses to “A diamond is forever (and sustainable?)”

  1. Isabelle Foo says:

    Hey there, yes they definitely are! Synthetic diamonds were originally used for industrial purposes, such as high-precision cutting tools due to their hardness. Thanks to their carbon properties, they are also widely used in optic, thermal, and electronic devices.

  2. codya says:

    Intresting article. I did not know you could grow diamonds! Are these lab grown diamonds usable in other contexts i.e. Drills and other more complicated devices that currently use regular diamonds?

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