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Are Millennials’ Demands for Conflict-Free Diamonds Doing More Harm than Good?

Gemesis Corp Lab Grown Diamond Facility Inside a lab grown diamond plant (picture courtesy of Gemesis Corp.)

Millennial consumers are known for their commitment to socially responsible products and brands. Sometimes, however, it’s tough for buyers to determine which products fit the bill.

Take the diamond industry. Hollywood portrayals of violence surrounding “blood diamonds” and media attention on unethical mining practices have driven many millennials away from mined diamonds and toward synthetic jewels.

But does this push for lab-grown diamonds create meaningful change in the diamond industry – or simply provide peace of mind for Western consumers?

The history and politics surrounding mined diamonds are difficult to navigate, even for industry experts. Synthetic diamonds allow shoppers to sidestep any doubts about their stone’s “conflict-free” status.

However, in finding an easy fix, consumers may do more harm than good. Here’s a brief overview of synthetic diamonds and the problems they pose to diamond industry regulation and reform:

The Lab-Grown Craze

Synthetic diamonds are the product of lab machinery that takes a tiny piece of real diamond and builds identical carbon atoms around it until a full-sized artificial stone is formed. As such, consumers pay for the cost of the process, rather than the value of the jewel: Artificial stones sell at only 15 to 30 percent less than comparable natural stones.

Nonetheless, 70 percent of millennial consumers report they would consider a synthetic diamond for an engagement ring. Lab-grown diamond sales currently make up a mere one percent of the global market value of natural diamonds, but their market share could grow to up to 15 percent by 2020

Even big name diamond companies are getting in on the lab-grown market. In June 2018, industry behemoth De Beers launched a line of synthetic diamond jewelry at a much lower price point than competitors. Company executives described the line as an affordable option for more casual gifts and occasions.

The Problem with Synthetic Diamonds

Despite the lower price tag, synthetic diamonds are not necessarily a better financial move. In fact, a 2018 New York Times write-up on synthetic diamonds claimed buyers may “lose out in the end.”

That’s because the resale market for synthetic diamonds is nonexistent. Just like the value of a new car plummets when you drive it off the lot, lab-grown diamonds lose their value once purchased. While real diamonds have a healthy resale market, consumers have very limited resale options for lab-grown diamonds.

A more important problem with the burgeoning market for synthetic diamonds is its potential effect on the communities that produce real diamonds. One hundred million people worldwide depend on small-scale mining to survive. For women, in particular, mining often serves as a source of income and independence they couldn’t find elsewhere. Initiatives that divert money from this industry have a direct effect on these workers.

Diamond Development Initiative (DDI), a leading global support organization for miners, has spoken out against synthetic diamonds as a socially responsible alternative:

“Some advertising suggests that [synthetic diamonds] will contribute to ending unethical mining practices in developing countries. The logic in this, however, is doubtful, especially where the world’s 1.5 million independent artisanal diamond miners are concerned…Campaigning against the diamonds they produce simply makes matters worse for them...The lot of artisanal diamond miners will not be improved in any way by synthetic diamonds.”

Organizations like DDI are working to regulate and formalize the diamond mining industry to support the livelihoods of miners and provide the accountability to keep the industry ethical and safe.

One of DDI’s foremost goals is to improve the Kimberly Process – the certification process by which diamonds are labeled conflict-free – to include human rights statutes. While the Kimberly Process has drastically reduced the supply of conflict diamonds since its creation in 2003, the addition of workers’ rights would enhance the measure.

A more robust certification process for mined diamonds would be a boon to consumers, retailers and producers alike. Consumers could confidently select conflict-free stones without making empty investments in synthetic jewels. Retailers would be incentivized to work with ethical producers who treat workers fairly. And miners would see continued income and better working conditions.

A Better Way to Buy

At this fork in the road for the diamond industry, mined diamonds are still the best option for conscientious consumers.

At this fork in the road for the diamond industry, mined diamonds are still the best option for conscientious consumers.

While lab-grown diamonds present an easy way to bypass the complex supply chain questions that conflict diamonds raise, in the end, they provide a lower-quality product that defunds an industry that millions rely on for income.

If you want your purchases to support the greater good, here are a few ways to ensure your dollars support ethical mining:

  1. Buy a Real Diamond: You can’t support ethical mining if your dollars end up in the pockets of lab diamond manufacturers. When you buy an authentic diamond, your purchase supports miners and their families.
  2. Read Up on Diamond Sourcing: Increased regulation and the dwindling supply of surface diamonds make it challenging for underfunded and inexperienced warmongers to wrest control of mining operations in developing countries. This means there are far fewer conflict diamonds entering the market than consumers assume. Read up on contemporary industry standards, and talk to your jeweler about its sourcing practices.

    (Also, read up on the economic and environmental footprints of other products in your home. Chances are your smartphone was produced with the conflict mineral coltan, according to an Amnesty International investigation.)

  3. Support Workers’ Rights Organizations: If you’re interested in making a difference for diamond miners, your support for an organization like DDI will go further than your purchase of a lab-grown diamond. Donate, write a letter, or share the organization’s goals on social media – your voice can help them create meaningful improvements.

Gage Diamond’s Commitment

At Gage Diamonds, we source our diamonds from De Beers site holders, whom in turn source their diamonds from only a handful of the largest diamond miners in the world. We do not believe it’s possible to guarantee that all of our diamonds are completely conflict-free. However, by only sourcing our diamonds from the most reputable site holders, we believe that we can greatly limit the possibility of supplying a diamond that was mined under unethical conditions in conflict zones. By purchasing a real diamond, you are funding an industry that supports millions of individuals in non-conflict zones that rely on the diamond mining industry as their main source of income.