Setting the record straight on diamonds

The mining groups that mine diamonds have undoubtedly remained discreet in their communications for too long. The arrival of synthetic diamonds on the jewelry market has prompted them to come out of the closet with a lively and sometimes erroneous discourse. The Natural Diamond Council (NDC), which represents a large proportion of them, has decided to provide some answers in the form of an in-depth report. Based on numerous sources – surveys by independent experts and authoritative organizations (NASA, Bain & Company, GIA) – the report provides precise, quantified information, shattering the main preconceived ideas.

 

The mining groups that exploit diamonds have no doubt remained discreet in their communications for too long. The arrival of synthetic diamonds on the jewelry market has prompted them to come out of the closet with a lively and sometimes erroneous discourse. The Natural Diamond Council (NDC), which represents a large proportion of them, has decided to provide some answers in the form of an in-depth report. Based on numerous sources – surveys by independent experts and authoritative organizations (NASA, Bain & Company, GIA) – the report provides precise, quantified information, shattering the main preconceived ideas.

 

Yes, you can tell the difference between a natural and a synthetic diamond

 

Nobody can tell the difference between a natural and a synthetic diamond“. This is probably the most common misconception. It’s true that, to the naked eye, the two stones are similar, since they have the same chemical, physical and optical properties. Both are formed from carbon atoms that have been transformed into diamonds by a combination of high pressure and very high temperature.

 

But the comparison stops there. But why? The first reason is that all synthetic diamonds can be detected using professional verification instruments. Produced in the laboratory in just a few weeks, unlike the billions of years required to form a natural diamond beneath the earth’s surface, they have specific characteristics linked to rapid growth in an artificial environment. Even though synthetic manufacturers are making constant progress to approximate the structure of natural diamonds as closely as possible, the difference is still detectable. To guarantee this transparency of origin, the Natural Diamond Council created the ASSURE program in 2019, which continuously tests the performance of detection devices for unnatural stones.

 

What the earth gives us

 

There’s another reason why the two types of stone are incomparable. On the one hand, synthetic diamonds are rapidly mass-produced. On the other, natural diamonds depend on what the earth gives us. And yet, the principle of a luxury product – and jewelry is a singularly important part of this – is to offer a value linked to the nobility and rarity of the raw materials used. The growing production of synthetic diamonds (7 to 9 million carats by the end of 2022, compared with less than 7 million in 2020), mainly in countries with low labour costs, is at odds with the increasingly complex extraction of natural diamonds, whose resources are not inexhaustible. Diamonds are expelled from the earth’s core, where they are formed, to the surface by volcanic activity. As volcanic activity becomes increasingly rare, the quantity of rough diamonds is inexorably diminishing. The figures reported by the NDC are indisputable. Global extraction of natural diamonds peaked in 2005 and has fallen by over 30% in the last 16 years.

 

Each year, the total extraction of 1-carat diamonds does not exceed, by volume, the equivalent of a Pilates ball.

 

 

The rarity of the source is an integral part of the stone’s intrinsic value, and this is reflected in its price. While the price of natural diamonds has risen by an average of 3% a year over the past 35 years, with cyclical variations of course, the price of synthetic stones has been falling steadily. Expert Paul Zimnisky observed that from 2016 to 2023, the average price of a 1.5-carat synthetic diamond had fallen by more than 74%, a decline that boutique prices are far from reflecting.

 

Did you say sustainable?

 

Many press articles claim that synthetic diamond manufacturing methods are more “sustainable” if they are based on laboratories using renewable energy. This is true of some of them, but far from the majority. The manufacturing process, spread over several weeks at very high temperatures (close to 1,500° for some furnaces), is particularly energy-intensive. It can reach heats close to 20% of the sun’s surface temperature! What’s more, over 60% of synthetic diamonds are mass-produced in China and India, where the electricity grid is 63% and 74% coal-fired respectively, and air pollution control is rather opaque.

 

An analysis of publicly available research shows that the claim that synthetic diamonds systematically have a low, neutral or negative carbon footprint is therefore false. It all depends on the energy, chemicals and materials used, as well as water and waste management at the production site. However, data on these subjects is not widely available, as the study points out in its concern for transparency.

 

A less-than-transparent carbon footprint for synthetic diamonds

 

The carbon footprint of the manufacturing and transformation process for synthetic diamonds therefore remains poorly documented, and experts have taken up the issue. Sphera (a company specializing in environmental, social and governance risk and performance management software) estimates that average emissions per carat of polished diamond produced using the CVD method vary in India, for example, from 260 kg to 612 kg of CO2 equivalent. For a natural diamond, the figure would be around 106.7 kg.

 

 

 

The natural diamond industry has been committed to decarbonization for several years. Bound by objectives to reduce carbon emissions, Natural Diamond Council members are developing renewable energy projects, often in developing countries where it is more difficult to find this type of energy, carbon offset projects and investments in carbon sequestration programs. One original initiative, the Carbon Vault project, uses kimberlite, a rock containing diamonds, to trap carbon emissions. In addition, companies in the De Beers group have pledged to become carbon neutral by 2030, and Rio Tinto, another major mining group, to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

 

Measuring social and economic impact

 

In addition to these initiatives, which still receive too little media coverage, aimed at protecting the environment from carbon emissions, other actions are carried out for the benefit of mining communities, enabling them to reap the benefits of mining activity through an entire economic, social and infrastructure ecosystem (roads, clinics, some of which are mobile, in isolated regions, schools, vocational training beyond mining activity alone, etc.). Yet another preconceived notion has been debunked: that local populations do not benefit from diamond mining.

 

Once again, the figures are in: the natural diamond industry supports 10 million people worldwide. Up to 80% of the value of rough diamonds can stay in local communities in the form of local purchases, jobs, social programs, infrastructure investment, as well as taxes, royalties and dividends paid by the industry to the respective governments. NDC members make 85% of their purchases locally and paid on average in 2019 up to 64% more than the average national wage.

 

In Canada, the natural diamond industry contributes 24% of total GDP in the Northwest Territories (NWT), with $17 billion going to NWT businesses and $7.5 billion to NWT Aboriginal businesses. In Botswana, where diamonds accounted for 33% of GDP in 2021, revenues from natural diamonds help fund a school system offering free education to all children.

 

 

As for safety standards, they are regularly audited. Working conditions are never easy in a mine, whatever the sector. But diamond mining is mainly carried out by companies using modern mining equipment and practices. They guarantee the latest safety standards. What’s more, all NDC members have adopted the “zero injuries” objective in the workplace.

 

Biodiversity in question

 

The world of natural diamonds protects the biodiversity of an area almost four times the size of the one it uses, equivalent to the size of the cities of New York, Chicago, Washington and Las Vegas combined. With its vast “Diamond Route” project, the De Beers Group is protecting essential wildlife habitats in South Africa and Botswana.

 

As far as discharges into nature are concerned, 99% of waste from diamond mining is rock, and 84% of the water used to recover diamonds is recycled. Before a single diamond is mined, governments must grant environmental permits, with legal obligations for ongoing monitoring, reporting and closure plans.

 

Recently, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and the European Union decided to take a tougher stance against misinformation about sustainable development. Asking companies promoting the sustainability or eco-responsibility of their products to provide evidence and data to back up these claims is the least they can do.

 

In the UK, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has published its Green Claims Code against greenwashing. In France, companies engaging in greenwashing are liable to fines. Some producers of synthetic diamonds have been forced to reformulate their sustainability messages.

 

Greenwashing, false allegations and preconceived ideas that circulate with a certain complacency are a real and unfair threat to natural diamonds. Not only do they discredit the players involved, but above all, they can mislead customers and undermine their trust. So it’s time to restore some transparency to the debate, to which the NDC report provides valuable input.

 

The debate is also taking place in public. On July 3, the NDC and its CEO David Kellie brought together journalists, parliamentarians, federations, jewellers and diamantaires in Paris to exchange views with leading figures in the field of responsible diamonds. Livia Firth, Founder and Director of Eco-Age, moderated the discussions, which were also attended by Marie-Claire Daveu (Chief Sustainability Officer, Kering), Iris van der Veken (Executive Director at Watch & Jewellery Initiative 2030), André Messika (Founder of André Messika Diamonds LTD) and Kesego Kereemang (Safety, Health & Corporate Responsibility Manager, Lucara, Bostwana). Actress Lily James, NDC’s global ambassador, was also on hand to talk about her experience in the diamond mines of Bostwana, where she interacted with the local population and witnessed the positive spin-offs for the country.

 

 

Click here to view the full report.

 

Read also > Tag Heuer introduces synthetic diamonds in its new watch

 

Featured photo : © Press
Picture of Isabelle Hossenlopp
Isabelle Hossenlopp
Isabelle Hossenlopp is a journalist specialized in jewelry. A graduate of Sciences Po Paris, she has over 30 years of experience in the luxury industry, including 11 years at Chanel. She is also a consultant in editorial content and storytelling and teaches in luxury MBAs in management and communication schools.

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