Ok, you want to know how to get a bunch of jewelers to immediately argue? Bring up lab diamonds. These puppies are beloved by some, hated by others, and misunderstood by many. So, in part one of our Ethical Sourcing series, I thought I would hash out the complicated details of what exactly these gems are and why we choose to offer them at our store.
Lab grown diamonds came into development in the 1950’s primarily as alternatives for industrial use. The first lab grown diamonds were brown and small – perfectly fine for diamond drills and micro-chips, certainly not to be used in fine jewelry. Contrary to what many people think, lab diamonds are actually quite difficult to create with excellent color and clarity grading. Inclusions and color variation still exist in lab diamonds and until recently, lab diamonds had a reputation for having a rather greyish tinge. After decades of development, though, gem-quality lab diamonds have entered the market and shaken up the jewelry industry – for better or worse, it depends on who you ask. Between 2016 and 2019, the market share of lab grown diamonds jumped from one percent to two – three percent of the $14 billion rough diamond market (and the trend shows no signs of slowing down). Today, you can find dozens of online retailers (including De Beers, which previously swore off ever selling these gems) offering diamond jewelry lines composed exclusively of lab created diamonds and, of course, mass-market jeweler Brilliant Earth grew explicitly out of a market objective of bringing lab created diamonds to the engagement ring sector. This is possible only because the technology behind lab diamonds has improved immensely, with gem-quality diamonds being created in large, marketable sizes (think one – three carats) with good color grading and clean of inclusions.
One very, very important thing to know about lab diamonds is that they are materially identical to natural diamonds. Both gems are composed nearly exclusively of carbon and share the exact same qualities that have made natural diamonds so perfect for jewelry: they are incredibly hard, can be colorless or near-colorless in tone, and they can be cut in a variety of shapes with unbeatable durability against scratching, chipping, and heat affects. Visually and practically, they are indecipherable. The only way to truly test a lab diamond for its properties is by screening it in a special tester which can determine how the material was formed due to atomic markings in the gem’s makeup. Due to this, lab diamonds are typically inscribed with a laser in order to tell jewelers of their providence (in fact, if you send a diamond to GIA for grading and it turns out to be a lab diamond, GIA will always inscribe it).
There are two major reasons why lab-created diamonds have suddenly become so popular. The first, of course, is price: in 2019, a one carat, medium quality diamond grown in a lab would sell for about $3600, compared with $6100 for its natural counterpart – a discount of about 40 percent. In 2017, that discount was closer to 18 percent. While the price drop is tapering off some, it is likely to continue due to increased production and technological improvements which will bring even more lab-created diamonds into the market. So, lab-created diamonds are certainly more affordable. Secondly, lab diamonds are often marketed as a more “green” or ethical option for consumers. It is this element that needs further examining, though, in order to really understand what that option means.
When consulting with clients on ethical diamond sourcing I usually use a “choose your own adventure” analogy. No matter which route you enter, there will be moral, political, and environmental factors at play that make that option more or less appealing to you. With lab diamonds it is important to note that they completely circumvent the environmental impacts of large-scale diamond mining (which can entail anything from disrupting acres of sea floor to scavenge for rough material to deep-mine development like the Mir Mine, a now-abandoned open pit mine in Eastern Siberia which is visible from space). That being said, the energy required to create diamonds in a lab is huge in scale. Labs report using up to 77kWh per carat to product a single carat, though these rates vary greatly. This means that creating a lab diamond isn’t exactly environmentally friendly, but it certainly could be argued that it is a less environmentally impactful option (and increasingly so, as technologies improve and alternative energy sources become more commonplace).
Lab diamonds are marketed as a more ethical option from a human rights perspective as well. This requires a complicated answer, too. As pretty much everyone knows, diamonds don’t have the best track record from a human impact perspective. Diamond mining relies on largely underpaid labor working in difficult, often dangerous zones with little labor representation. And yet, diamond mining makes up a huge portion of many developing economies – $8 billion a year to Africa alone, and much of this goes to very poor communities with little to no alternative industry. This isn’t to say that diamond mining is necessarily beneficial, but it does merit pointing out that even small changes in demand can affect these laborers’ ability to feed their families. To me, that means that the ethical answer is much more complicated than simply supplanting natural diamonds with lab diamonds: serious work needs to be done to develop alternative markets for fragile economies that have become so exclusively reliant upon a rather exploitative system.
So, taking these factors into account we choose to offer lab-created diamonds as an option at our shop. We don’t market them as “green” or “clean” or whatever bingo buzz word you’ll find out there, but we do carefully explain to our clients what they are and how they do address very real problems in the natural diamond industry. I personally believe it is incumbent upon jewelers and gemologists like myself to remain educated on these factors and address them thoughtfully, which is what we try to do. And, truthfully, there is still even more to the picture that I haven’t even gone into (I won’t bore you with my thoughts on diamond valuation and its 10-year projected model – come to my shop if you want to talk about that). If you have any questions, please feel free to send them my way – we’re here as your local resource on a global commodity, no big deal 😉
Alexandria & Company is an Old Town-based workshop and design studio specializing in creating and restoring fine jewelry and silver hollowware. They are the in-the-know jewelers of Alexandria and have been serving clients out of their small workshop for decades. Tucked in their historic building on South Royal Street, the team at Alx&Co. brings a personalized, modern approach to their craft – this is not your average stodgy jeweler or antique shop. Visit them during their walk-in hours or online to view their collection of handmade fine jewelry or to drop off a repair project; or, if you’re feeling creative, make an appointment to talk about that custom design project you’ve been imagining.
121-B South Royal Street
Alexandria, Virginia 22314
Design Studio Walk-In Hours (all jewelry services): Wednesday – Saturday 12-6pm
Silver Workshop Walk-In Hours (all silver repair and restoration services): Wednesday or Friday 12-6pm, or by appointment
Appointments encouraged for custom design.