Dear Dot: Should I Say “I Do” to a Lab-Grown Diamond?

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I would like to propose to my girlfriend but can’t afford an expensive engagement ring. Besides, we both care about the ethics around diamond mining. I’m considering a lab-grown diamond ring. What is the environmental impact of lab-grown diamonds? Is it an ethical alternative?

—Andrew, Regina, Saskatchewan

The Short Answer: Lab-grown diamonds manage to skirt a lot of the negatives of conventional sparklers, such as the environmental degradation from mining and the harm often brought to communities proximate to diamond mines, including war and conflict. But lab-grown diamonds require enormous heat and pressure so Dot proposes finding a company that uses renewable energy in their production and then, if diamonds are what you want, saying an enthusiastic ‘yes’. 

Dear Andrew,

Congratulations to you and your girlfriend on stepping confidently toward a life-long commitment. I was as naive and wide-eyed as a fawn three decades ago, when I whispered “I do” in front of friends and family. My brother had consulted the wisest people he knew in order to impart sage insights to my betrothed and me. In a wedding speech to all assembled, he concluded: Marriage is hard. 

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I know of no truer words, though I am staunch in my conviction that a marriage can both be hard and still sparkle with beauty. Not unlike a diamond, Andrew.

But you have a ring to purchase and a question that deserves an answer before you ask that other question that we trust (Dot’s fingers and toes are tightly crossed) will elicit a thoroughly delighted “yes!”. Let me metaphorically don my lab coat and pull out my loupe.

As you point out, Andrew, diamonds, those dazzling social symbols of love and commitment (and, ahem, wealth), typically have a less-than-sparkly provenance. 

There are two main issues associated with their procurement — the environmental impact from diamond mines, and the conflict connected to the mining of diamonds. The conflict, in particular, has led to the gruesome moniker “blood diamonds,” referring to the violence surrounding those caught up in the diamond economy in places like central and western Africa, where the money from diamonds is used to fund rebel groups in war zones. The diamond industry tried to clean things up with the Kimberley Process, something we covered in an earlier Dear Dot, but some assert that, however good its intentions, it’s failing miserably. 

Lab-grown diamonds are indeed a fascinating alternative, completely skirting issues of both mining and human rights abuses, and evidently 70% of Millennials are open to purchasing them.

And let’s be clear: a lab-grown diamond is a diamond — chemically, physically, and optically. But while a geologically created diamond requires heat and pressure over one to three billion years, a lab-grown diamond can be achieved in days. 

There are two processes for creating a diamond in a lab — high pressure/high temperature (HPHT), and chemical vapor deposition (CVD). You can see them sketched out pretty clearly here.

But for our purposes, suffice it to say that when lab-grown diamonds are produced, no wars are waged, no land is ravaged, no wildlife is displaced, no miners are killed.

But while that might make them more socially just, does it make them environmentally sound? The answer to that question isn’t exactly clear-cut. 

The mining of regular diamonds is, historically, a dirty task that produces, on average, 160 kg (~350 pounds) of greenhouse gasses per polished carat of mined diamond. And, not surprisingly, it disrupts ecosystems, pollutes water, and harms wildlife. And, while the diamond industry has attempted to polish its image in recent years — pointing to the number of people employed, for instance — there’s no question that extracting diamonds from the Earth has significant negative impacts.

But producing a diamond in a lab also requires enormous amounts of heat and pressure, necessitating the expense of significant energy — one analysis puts it at 250 million joules per carat (though mined diamonds use 538.5 million). It’s difficult to get firm figures and the conventional diamond industry says it’s working on carbon capture initiatives, which will lower their footprint. However, if the energy for lab-grown diamonds comes from renewable sources, then that’s an even heartier “I do” for the planet. (Diamond Foundry relies on 100% hydroelectric, while Fenton uses 100% solar energy. There are others getting on the renewable train, more all the time.)

So, if diamonds are a definite yes, then lab-grown, especially those created using carbon-free energy, is a better choice. And given your budget Andrew, it is a more affordable option, costing at least 30% less than mined diamonds. But note too that, at this juncture, lab-grown diamonds don’t retain their value the way conventionally mined diamonds do. That may change if the industry continues to shift toward lab-grown and they lose some of their stigma, but, for now, don’t count on reselling the diamond should your bride run away with your best man, which surely she’ll never do to a stand-up guy like you. 

And please, Andrew, don’t forget to look also for rings made of recycled metals

Which brings us full circle: The ring on Dot’s own finger is vintage. So let us take note: An old ring (or partly old ring) that’s given a new story can shed the ugly past of its mined origins and usher in, perhaps, the happiest ever after. 

Dazzlingly,

Dot

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