In 2018 the market value of the 147 million carats of mined diamonds was $76 billion, and the industry employed some 10 million people in 50 active mines, found mainly in Russia (43 million carats), Botswana (23 million), Canada (23 million), the Congo (19 million), and Australia (14 million). However, while creating wealth and jobs, diamond mining has caused environmental devastation, most notably contributing to soil erosion, deforestation, air pollution, the loss of wildlife habitats, and the destruction of the ecosystem. On average, mining companies move 250 tons of earth for every carat of diamond mined and release160 kg of greenhouse gases for every polished carat of mined diamond. In addition, apart from being underpaid, the miners are often poorly treated, and an estimated 15,000 are killed each year in the sector, with many thousands more being injured and maimed. Also, despite the introduction of the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme in 2003, some 3.5 million people have been killed due to conflict or blood diamonds – diamonds that have been stolen or illegally mined and then sold to raise money for rebel or terrorist groups. On top of all of this, the sector is notorious for child labour, in both the mines and in diamond polishing. As a result, the image of the diamond industry is tainted with “human rights abuses like child labour and forced labour, as well as conflict environmental damage and corruption” says Joanne Lebert, Executive Director of IMPACT, formerly Partnership Africa Canada.
To counteract such problems, there has been a growth in engineered or cultured diamonds. In 2020 some 6 million carats of laboratory-grown diamonds were produced with a market value of $19.3 billion. These are manufactured in the laboratory using processes that replicate the conditions that diamonds are made naturally. Since they are made of the same materials and under the same conditions as natural diamonds, they exhibit the same optical and chemical properties. They can only be distinguished from natural diamonds with tests using specialised equipment and by a certificate identifying them as laboratory grown. Laboratory grown diamonds are just as real as mined diamonds. Often they are of better quality with fewer defects and are more affordable, being approximately 30 per cent cheaper. Importantly, they are environmentally friendly, do not involve harmful processes and do not abuse employees or communities. Additionally, each diamond is trackable, unlike the natural diamond, so it is possible to ensure they are legal and not blood diamonds involved in conflict.
Chelsea Rocks (www.chelsea-rocks .com) is an online start-up diamond house selling fine jewellery made exclusively from laboratory-grown diamonds. It was founded in 2018 by Joanna Park-Tonks who graduated from Durham University in 2000 with an Honours degree in Combined Arts. She has a long-standing interest in diamonds and has worked in the diamond industry, including two years in London and Milan with the world’s leading diamond company, De Beers. There she became fascinated by the interplay between jewellery, fashion and art and eventually decided to set up Chelsea Rocks. Not only are man-made diamonds “lighter on the pocket and the environment,” she says, but “they address many concerns about the sustainability, ecology and affordability of diamonds”. Also, as they are manufactured in the UK, she can trace the components, including the recycled gold used for the settings. While she believes her jewellery will appeal to all sectors of society, her primary target market is the environmentally-conscious young millennials and Generation Z, who are also more au fait with the concept and practice of shopping online, which is growing at the year on year rate of circa 11%.
By 2020 the production of mined diamonds had fallen to 111 million carats with a market value of $68 billion. This contraction is expected to continue as the market for laboratory-grown diamonds increases. Since they have less of an impact on the environment and human well being than natural mined diamonds, Joanna and Chelsea Rock can be seen to be part of a growing entrepreneurial trend that is reducing the impact of mined diamond production and is addressing SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), 13 (Climate Action), 15 (Life on Land), 16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions), 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), 3( Good Health and Well-being). However, they are doing little to end poverty (SDG 1), hunger (SDG2), quality education (SDG4), Gender Equality (SDG5), 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), Reduced Inequalities (SDG10), and Sustainable Cities and Communities (SDG 11). As Urica Primus (President of the Guyana women miners Organisation) points out, “If you start to grow diamonds in a lab, you’re not only taking away a job, but you are also closing down communities”.
What could Joanna and Chelsea Rocks do to address some of these issues, or will the predicted growth in the market for man-made diamonds force the producers of mined natural diamonds to be more environmentally and socially responsible?
- The Kimberley Process is a certification initiative intended to eliminate the trade in conflict or blood diamonds sold by rebel groups and their allies to fund conflict against legitimate governments. It has 59 signatories representing 85 countries.
McClure, T., (2021), All that glitters: why lab made gems might not be an ethical alternative. The Guardian. 24 July.
Oluleye.G., (2021), Environmental impacts of mined diamonds. London: Centre for Environmental Policy: Imperial College.
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