Unconventional Sparkle: Lab-Grown Diamonds, Blood Diamonds, and The Quest to Retrieve Africa’s Lustre
We explore the growing industry of lab-grown diamonds and multi-dimensionally compare them to natural diamonds, reviewing if they may one day serve as a viable market alternative.
Diamonds are one of the most sought-after gemstones in the world and are renowned for their characteristic hardness, durability, and brilliance. It is no surprise that they are a luxury class of jewellery often associated with beauty and elegance, frequently found adorning engagement rings and exquisite wearable pieces.
The aesthetic appeal diamonds possess often make them extremely valuable in terms of market price, due to their demand and relative scarcity. Diamonds have typically been mined naturally but in recent years, a fascinating synthetic competitor – lab-grown diamonds – has emerged, defying traditional extraction and processing methods of obtaining diamonds, and somewhat introducing disruption to conventional sourcing procedures.
The rise of lab-grown or man-made diamonds has sparked global discourse. Indeed, many jewellery buyers are shifting more and more towards purchasing these synthetic diamonds because they offer comparable lustre and dazzle while being budget-friendly. With global communities also advocating for a greener and more sustainable world, as well as humane mining practices, the positive environmental impact associated with lab-grown diamonds is very appealing.
A solution for unethical mining
One important conversation on a global scale revolves around the ethical sourcing of diamonds. For numerous years, there has been a negative connotation attached to mining natural diamonds. When mined in regions of turmoil or oppressive regime control, they earn the labels, conflict diamonds or blood diamonds. Conflict diamonds signify that such diamonds have been illegally traded to fund conflict in war-torn and unstable regions. Given that the sourcing of naturally mined diamonds is not always accurately determined, the emergence of lab-grown diamonds appears to eliminate the possibility of unethical sourcing.
What role does Africa have to play in diamond sourcing and extraction? The continent is blessed with abundant diamond reserves in countries like Botswana, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and South Africa. Statista reports Botswana as having the second-highest production volume of diamonds in the world, as of 2022. In fact, seven other African countries are also featured in the top ten list.
Despite Africa’s immense contribution to the global diamond market, there is this association of certain diamond-producing African countries with conflict diamonds. Although Botswana is regarded as an affluent and stable diamond-producing country, the same cannot be said about other countries. DR Congo is a notable example of the resource curse: the country possesses substantial mineral reserves, yet citizens see little to no improvement in their quality of life, even with significant revenue generation from mineral extraction.
The major players in the global diamond industry also contribute to this narrative by purposely capitalizing on the unrest in unstable regions. They do so by manipulating factors like labour wages and taking advantage of the poverty of artisanal miners. In many instances, these workers find themselves in dire circumstances. So, do lab-grown diamonds directly address the dark side of natural diamond mining? To gain more insight into this, we need to understand the synthesis behind these man-made diamonds and just how they compare to their naturally occurring counterparts.
The case for lab-grown diamonds
Natural diamonds form deep below the earth, arising from conditions of extreme temperatures and pressures, making them the hardest known natural mineral on earth. On the other hand, lab-grown diamonds are synthesized in a controlled lab, replicating the formation conditions of natural diamonds. Such a process may be completed in weeks, resulting in a synthetic diamond that is hardly distinguishable from a natural diamond. This is because lab-grown diamonds exhibit the same optical, physical, and chemical properties found in natural diamonds.
Although the lab synthesis process is generally perceived to be costly, the prices of lab-grown diamonds are on the lower end compared to their natural counterparts. Unlike the latter, which are often priced based on their rarity, lab-grown diamonds are typically valued based on the four Cs: colour, cut, clarity, and carat. The associated disadvantages of lab-grown diamonds revolve around their diminished rarity, leading to potential value depreciation over time, as well as their limited contribution to job creation. On a competitive scale, however, lab-grown diamond sales are surging.
Apart from affordability, consumers and buyers are nowadays concerned about the origins of their jewellery purchases. Younger generations are more informed and thus have a heightened environmental awareness, likely stemming from education on ethical mineral sourcing and the ugly side of diamond extraction. It is then possible to envision how lab-grown diamonds can in some significant way, address the issue of conflict diamonds. Yet, another question arises: Is Africa embracing the popularity of lab-grown diamonds, and if this is the case, what are the social and economic implications for the continent and its inhabitants?
The widespread enthusiasm for lab-grown diamonds doesn't seem to have sparked much interest among diamond-producing companies in Africa. However, the South African De Beers Group appears to be taking a pioneering stance in this regard. De Beers is the world’s largest diamond-producing company and has operations running in countries like Namibia, South Africa, Botswana, and Canada. De Beers operates the subsidiary, Element Six, responsible for exploring synthetic diamonds not just in the context of luxury jewellery but also in a vast array of other applications. In 2018, Lightbox Jewellery, a brand dedicated to synthetic diamonds, under the De Beers Group was launched, showcasing its involvement in this growing industry.
Breaking down the social and economic implications of establishing a lab-grown diamond industry across Africa for its inhabitants is not very straightforward. In Africa, prioritizing revenue generation might outweigh the sentimental attachment to diamonds. Also, given that numerous African nations are global leaders in diamond production, there could be apprehensions about the rise of synthetic diamonds on the global market, as they are a competitor for these countries’ source of revenue.
Nonetheless, it could work out in Africa’s best interest to diversify its diamond extraction activities by tapping into the lab-grown diamond domain. This approach could yield not only economic benefits but also bring about positive environmental outcomes for the continent while mitigating the undesirable inhumane consequences of partaking in conflict mineral mining.