All that glitters: why lab-made gems might not be an ethical alternative (2023)

Diamonds have long been in the debt of marketing genius. Until the 1940s they were not a popular choice for engagement rings. Then, in 1947, a stroke of brilliance: De Beers’ “A Diamond is Forever” campaign. The slogan was a hit. The market transformed. Today diamond engagement rings are ubiquitous, winking from the windows of upmarket jewellers.

Earlier this year came another glittering moment in diamond PR. Pandora, the world’s largest jewellery retailer, announced it would be switching entirely to lab-made diamonds. It generated positive headlines around the world, dubbed an “ethical stand against mined diamonds”.

Pandora is not alone. In 2020 De Beers invested in a lab-grown line, launching a facility to churn out up to 400,000 diamonds a year. Other retailers tout their laboratory stones as “100% ethical and conflict free” or “an ethical choice”. It is a neat resolution for an industry shadowed by reports of exploitation, deftly crafted for millennial consumers concerned with the ethics of consumption.

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But the reality, experts and workers say, is more complicated. Switching en masse to lab-made gems may have environmental upsides, and relieve companies of reputational risks. But it could disfranchise the same communities that consumers are concerned for – and it comes at a moment when traceable, ethically mined gems are more accessible than ever.

‘Something is wrong’

“If you start to grow diamonds in a lab, you’re not only taking away a job, but you’re also closing down communities and closing down countries,” says Urica Primus. “How will [miners] survive, how will they sustain themselves, their livelihoods, their families?”

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Primus, 30, is from a mining family in Guyana. One of the poorest countries in South America, Guyana has a history of fuelling profits overseas. British slave-owners grew rich off Guyanese slavery. Natural resources – gold, diamonds, minerals, oil and gas – are its largest export, which about 18% of the population rely on for employment.

After years helping her family mine, Primus started extracting from her own small-scale pit in Tamakay, a gold and diamond-mining region, at 18. Today she is president of the Guyana Women Miners Organisation.

Small-scale mining is tough work, particularly for women. Many mines are extremely remote, in areas Primus calls “raw bush – just jungle and trees”. Miners live with the hazards of attack and armed robbery, women with additional risks of sexual assault. In the rainy season some mines are at risk of collapse, killing miners inside them. But mining is also a crucial source of income, development, funds for education. Companies that care about ethics should invest in improving standards, not disappear, she says.

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“These companies have made millions and millions of dollars from mining. Now, what percentage of the profits are they willing to give back, and support the development of the industry that has basically kept them alive for decades?”

Her concern is not only for miners, Primus says. “It’s the government’s ability to finance development of the country by way of the contributions and GDP received from the mining industry, it’s the families of miners … the entire ecosystem of mining will be impacted by that shift.”

The rise of “ethical” marketing for lab-made gems also comes when there are certified fair-mined gems and gold products on the market. “It seems as though we have given up before we even tried,” Primus says. “If you haven’t tried that approach of supporting miners in ethically mining gold, then how do you know it’s not going to work? … If your first option is to globally put millions of people out of a job, then something is wrong.”

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Synthetic diamonds are physically identical to mined. They are created in a lab from a tiny diamond “seed”, built up either in a high-heat, high-pressure chamber or from circulating gases, broken down into atomic parts. They are dramatically cheaper – around a third of the price of a mined equivalent. While diamonds are prominent, other gemstones are also being grown in labs.

Internationally the market for synthetic stones is growing. The pandemic cratered mined diamond sales, but even before 2020 they were in decline – production had fallen by about 5% each year since 2017. Meanwhile the lab-grown market, while still only a small portion, has grown, up 15-20% in 2019 according to the Bain Diamond Report.

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It concluded that the mined market faced two major disruptors: the growth of lab-grown gems; and consumers’ increased focus on ethics and sustainability.

“They’re framing it in terms of ‘this is an ethical decision’ when in my opinion it’s the complete opposite,” says Cristina Villegas, mining director of development nonprofit Pact. “It’s just completely walking away from the social aspects of sustainability.”

Villegas works with small mining communities internationally. “When you walk away, prices drop, you’re abandoning whole communities,” she says.

The ‘blood diamond effect’

Diamonds’ reputational problems hit overdrive in 2006 with the blockbuster movie Blood Diamond. In the years since, NGOs and journalists have highlighted challenges in mining, including child labour, environmental degradation, and dangerous conditions.

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“A lot of people have watched the movie Blood Diamond,” says Sam Johnson, spokesperson for Novita Diamonds, which sells lab-made stones. The company’s site calls them “the only truly ethical diamonds in the market.”

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He says business increased about 400% in the last 18 months, and many customers cite concerns about child labour or ethical implications of mined diamonds. “Lab-grown diamonds [are] created in a hi-tech laboratory with hi-tech equipment. There’s no children involved,” he says.

But experts say the coverage and dramatised accounts can backfire, stigmatising mining communities. Mining and society expert Prof Saleem Ali says large parts of the sector have reformed – but public perception hasn’t. “You had the episode in Sierra Leone and you had DRC issues, but that was 10, 15 years ago, and there was clear legislation passed to address it,” Ali says.

While parts of the mining sector still have major problems, boycotts don’t help mining communities. “We should try to solve the problem rather than just kind of ‘cutting the umbilical cord’ so that you just don’t have to deal with the problem,” Ali says.

Villegas argues that about 80% of diamonds are now traceable – and points to other certifications, like Fairmined Gold. “If you’re going to claim ethics, why not lean into the reform efforts?” Villegas asks. “Efforts that are sourcing from miners who … are on the path to doing the right thing, instead of walking away?”

Transforming the market

While it generated outsized headlines, Pandora’s own purchasing shift will be small. In 2018, less than 1% of its stones were mined. ​

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But the largest jeweller in the world is influential. Announcing the switch to lab-made, Pandora said it aimed to “transform the market”. In an interview with Bloomberg, the Pandora CEO, Alexander Lacik, said of the move: “We are applying the marketing muscle. We’re going all in.”

Asked whether the framing of lab-made as more “ethical” was misleading, Mads Twomey-Madsen, vice-president of corporate communications & sustainability at Pandora, said: “Well, we actually haven’t made that claim.”

He said the company’s focus was on environmental sustainability, and part of a wider shift to take the company carbon neutral. “For Pandora to become a low carbon company, this is the right way to go for us,” he saod.

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Those selling synthetic stones also argue that they are expanding the pie, rather than taking a slice. Pandora say synthetic stones are cheaper, and will create a new market for diamonds. “Bear in mind that we will not even make a dent in the market for mined diamonds, because the amount we use was so small that I doubt that you’ll be able to see any ripple effects of that,” Twomey-Madsen adds. If the market does expand, Ali says, “it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game”.

The claim lab-made gems are more environmentally sustainable is complex. A report commissioned by the mined diamond sector concluded mined produced less CO2 than synthetic – but failed to include the full impact of creating a mine. Pandora says if produced using 100% renewable energy, their lab-made stones would create just 10% of the emissions of a mined diamond.

Ali says that synthetic diamond companies are on firmer footing with environmental claims: lab-made diamonds have potential to be generated with 100% renewable energy.

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“I think they can make the environmental argument, and that’s fair,” he says. “On the social side I think they need to be very careful. They do not provide as many jobs as the mined diamond industry does. And they do not provide them in places where they are needed most.”


Are lab made gems ethical? ›

There is a clear answer to the question, “Are lab grown diamonds more ethical?” that is on every consumer's mind: yes, they are. Lab created diamonds are ethical, affordable, sustainable, eco-friendly, and socially aware stones.

Why are lab made diamonds more ethical than mining? ›

Lab-Grown Diamonds

Since these stones are not mined, they're considered sustainable. Fulton says, “Lab-grown diamonds are real diamonds that have been grown in a lab—essentially, the millions-years long process of heat and pressure involved in creating a natural diamond underground is mimicked in a lab.”

Are lab grown gems bad for the environment? ›

It is true that the resources necessary to produce a laboratory gem are often less than the damage from natural mining operation, but the comparison is relative – lab-grown diamonds still require tremendous resources and can be responsible for significant environmental destruction.

Why are people so against lab-grown diamonds? ›

As outlined, we believe that lab-grown diamonds may not be a good financial choice because they may not retain value in the future. We also think they lack the romance and allure of natural diamonds while not necessarily providing any environmental benefits (this is still up for debate).

Are gemstones more ethical than diamonds? ›

Sapphires are properly regulated when compared to diamonds. In all situations, they are more ethical and eco-friendly. It is hard to vouch that any diamond on the market doesn't have a dark past, as it is almost impossible to guarantee origin. The same can't be said about sapphires: they are actually traceable.

Are ethical diamonds really ethical? ›

Because of the Kimberley Process, 99.8% of diamonds are now certified conflict-free and there is much greater accountability and transparency in the diamond industry. Unfortunately, just because a diamond has been certified by the Kimberly Process does not necessarily mean it is ethical or even conflict-free.

Are lab created diamonds conflict free? ›

Lab grown diamonds, also known as man made, lab created, or cultured diamonds, are 100% real diamonds and they are chemically, physically, and optically identical to earth-mined diamonds. However, unlike earth-mined diamonds, they are guaranteed conflict free. We like to think of it like ice.

What are more ethical alternatives to diamonds? ›

5 ethical alternatives to traditional diamonds
  • Lab grown diamonds. If you still want to keep the traditional diamond aesthetic without the ethical implications you can opt for a lab grown diamond instead. ...
  • Montana Sapphires. ...
  • Moissanite. ...
  • Sri Lanka rubies and sapphires. ...
  • Lab grown emeralds.

Are lab created diamonds just as good as mine diamonds? ›

Oh yes. Lab Grown Diamonds are just as real as diamonds that are mined from the earth. They have shape, size, color and clarity grades, just like Natural Diamonds. Both Natural and Lab Grown Diamonds have the same physical and chemical properties and both come with diamond certifications.

What are the negative impacts of gemstone mining? ›

The main issues surrounding gemstone mining are: Land degradation and possible rehabilitation. Water quality, spills, and floods. Effects on wildlife and biodiversity.

What gems are unethical? ›

Conflict Gemstones to Avoid

Myanmar supplies many of the world's rubies, sapphire, jade, garnet, lapis lazuli, and moonstones, among others! Purchasing any of these stones means there is a possibility you are helping fund genocide.

Should we stop mining diamonds? ›

The industry's devastating impact on the environment is another reason why diamond mining should be banned. 2 During any mining process, the soil, water, and air surrounding a mine become polluted. Diamond mining is no different. Large quantities of soil must be removed, reducing available natural land resources.

Why are diamonds unethical? ›

Blood diamonds, also known as conflict diamonds, are defined as diamonds mined in war zones sold to finance armed conflicts against legitimate governments. These diamonds are often mined using forced labor and are traded illegally to fund violent conflicts and human rights abuses.

How do you know if gems are ethically sourced? ›

1. Traceability: An ethical gemstone should have a transparent supply chain - where it was mined, who cut it, and all the hands it passed through before getting to you. 2. Origin: Gemstones that are truly ethically sourced should have an origin stated.

What are the most ethical stones? ›

Undoubtedly, the most ethical stone to present to your loved one is a lab grown diamond. But not just any lab grown diamond; not all lab diamonds are created equal and it is important to choose one that is sustainably grown.

What is ethical mining of gemstones? ›

Ethical Gemstones are gemstones that are extracted from the earth using environmentally friendly methods by miners who are treated fairly and not subjected to harsh working conditions, and the profits generated from the sale of these gemstone are not used to support activities like war, terrorism, or political ...

What are the disadvantages of lab-grown diamonds? ›

Here's the Short Answer

Lab-created diamonds are chemically the same as natural, mined diamonds. They are more affordable, but their value likely will not hold up over time. They will also never have the same rarity, uniqueness and meaning as a natural stone that was formed over billions of years deep in the earth.

What are ethical diamonds called? ›

Today conflict free diamonds are often called ethical diamonds to reflect a broader change in the diamond industry. Such as the fair treatment of miners, economic development of the communities in mining area and environmental protections.

What is ethically made jewelry? ›

As mentioned above, ethical jewellery refers to jewellery that is fully traceable to its source, leaving no negative impact on the people or the environment in which it is produced. This can cover a variety of aspects: Limiting environmental impact through the use of 100% recycled silver.

Will lab created diamonds lose value? ›

As with a natural diamond you can expect your lab grown diamonds to significantly drop in monetary value after purchase. Some estimate that lab grown diamonds can drop to 10% of their original price or lower, while more generous estimators put them nearer to natural diamonds at 30% of the original price.

How do blood diamonds cause conflict? ›

blood diamond, also called conflict diamond, as defined by the United Nations (UN), any diamond that is mined in areas controlled by forces opposed to the legitimate, internationally recognized government of a country and that is sold to fund military action against that government.

What is the difference between ethical and conflict free diamonds? ›

For the purpose of this article, we'll distinguish between conflict-free diamonds and ethical diamonds. Conflict-free refers to diamonds which have not financed civil wars. Ethical diamonds go further, ensuring fair pay, safe working conditions, environmentally sound practices, and no human rights abuses.

What is the difference between ethical and natural diamond? ›

Ethics – lab grown diamonds are often thought to be more ethical than natural diamonds, as being created in a lab, they are entirely traceable – and provide an ethical alternative to naturally mined diamonds. Cost – typically, lab diamonds are around 30% less expensive than natural diamonds.

How are ethical diamonds made? ›

Conflict-free diamonds vs ethical diamonds

Ethical diamonds are more than conflict-free; they are produced without child labour, by adults working in safe conditions for fair pay, and with due care for the environment.

Are Tiffany diamonds ethical? ›

Tiffany & Co. only offers conflict-free diamonds. We have taken rigorous steps to assure that conflict diamonds do not enter our inventory. As global leaders in sustainable luxury, Tiffany & Co. is committed to sourcing natural and precious materials in an ethical and sustainable manner.

How much cheaper are lab diamonds? ›

Lab diamonds are typically 40% to 60% cheaper than natural diamonds. This is because the process of creating a lab diamond is more efficient and cost effective than the process to mine a diamond.

What is the main difference between lab and natural diamonds? ›

Carbon is the main element in both Natural and Lab Diamonds. The only chemical difference between Lab Diamonds vs Natural Diamonds is that most Natural Diamonds contain tiny amounts of nitrogen, and Lab Diamonds do not. This lack of nitrogen is one way gemologists can identify Lab Created Diamonds vs Natural Diamonds.

What are 3 negative impacts of diamond mining? ›

Diamond mining also has many detrimental impacts on the environment including soil erosion, deforestation, and ecosystem destruction. A major political effect of the diamond commodity chain, specifically at the mining level is blood diamonds.

What are 5 negative effects of mining? ›

Across the world, mining contributes to erosion, sinkholes, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, significant use of water resources, dammed rivers and ponded waters, wastewater disposal issues, acid mine drainage and contamination of soil, ground and surface water, all of which can lead to health issues in local ...

What are 3 negative impacts of mining? ›

Some of the negative impacts of mining are loss of vegetation cover, mass destruction of water bodies, loss of biodiversity, land-use changes and food insecurity, increased social vices and conflicts, high cost of living, and air pollution.

What is a negative gem? ›

A negative Gems/Diamonds balance may occur if a refund is requested on a used Gem/Diamond Pack offer. When the refund request gets approved, the respective in-game currency is automatically deducted from the account.

What is unethical mining? ›

Bluntly, the practicalities of mining are unethical – in terms of ecological destruction, pollution, employee safety, land conflict, etc.

Is there such thing as ethical mining? ›

Whether mining metals, diamonds or other gemstones, an ethical mine must uphold good safety standards and pay its workers a fair wage. It should also invest in the tools, equipment and training needed to safeguard its workers as much as possible. Ethical mines also present a lower environmental impact than other mines.

Is diamond harmful to humans? ›

As diamonds are made of carbon. Carbon itself is not poisonous. Moreover, diamonds do not contain any toxic elements. It is a total myth that licking a diamond cause death.

How is mining bad for the earth? ›

Mine exploration, construction, operation, and maintenance may result in land-use change, and may have associated negative impacts on environments, including deforestation, erosion, contamination and alteration of soil profiles, contamination of local streams and wetlands, and an increase in noise level, dust and ...

How many diamonds are left to mine? ›

Worldwide reserves are estimated to be some 1.2 billion carats. Russia has the largest reserves, estimated at some 650 million carats.

Are blood diamonds illegal? ›

However, there's sometimes a hidden, darker side to many of these dazzling gems. Before purchasing a diamond, it's imperative that you ensure it's conflict-free. Diamonds that are not conflict-free are known as blood diamonds, which means they are illegally sold in order to finance devastating wars and terrorism.

Are lab grown sapphires more ethical? ›

Lab-grown sapphires are more ethical and can be significantly cheaper than mined sapphires. This makes them affordable and a feasible gem for an engagement ring or your next anniversary gift.

What is the most ethical stone? ›

Undoubtedly, the most ethical stone to present to your loved one is a lab grown diamond. But not just any lab grown diamond; not all lab diamonds are created equal and it is important to choose one that is sustainably grown.

How do you identify ethically? ›

Ethical decision-making is based on core character values like trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and good citizenship.

What are the pros and cons of lab grown sapphires? ›

There are pros and cons to both natural and lab-created sapphires. Natural sapphires are more expensive and difficult to find, but they are also more unique and have a higher value. Lab-created sapphires are less expensive and more readily available, but they may not have the same sentimental value.

Are lab grown gems better? ›

Lab Grown Diamonds are just as real as diamonds that are mined from the earth. They have shape, size, color and clarity grades, just like Natural Diamonds. Both Natural and Lab Grown Diamonds have the same physical and chemical properties and both come with diamond certifications.

Are lab emeralds ethical? ›

Precious Gemstones that are Made, Not Mined

Our stunning lab-grown emeralds are the ethical and affordable alternative to their earth-mined equivalents.

Is it ethical to buy gemstones? ›

A gemstone is ethical if you can trace each and every point along the production process. Without this, we would have no idea of where it was mined or cut.

Are sapphires conflict free? ›

While sapphires are generally a low-conflict stone with low environmental impact, standards vary widely around the world, between mines, and between gemstone dealers.

What is the most ethical metal? ›

As such, if a customer would like to use ethically sourced, newly mined precious metal that you can be completely sure has not contributed to human rights issues – even many years ago – then our advice would be to opt for white gold instead of platinum.


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