Put a Man-Made Ring on It: The Truth About Conflict-Free Diamonds

Article by Anna-Mieke
Anna-Mieke Anderson
Markup from earth-mined diamond jewelers can be as much as 100-200%. That’s the equivalent of paying $200 for a bunch of bananas. If you’re willing to pay that kind of markup for something that grows naturally and in abundance, well, you’re crazy. Of course, the 800 lb. gorillas who dominate the $7 billion a year diamond industry need the general public to falsely believe in the scarcity of diamonds to justify their offensive pricing and practices. Fortunately for consumers, there is an alternative and its consumption is on the rise. Man-made diamonds, also known as lab-grown, lab-created, or cultured diamonds, are 100% real diamonds and they are chemically and optically identical to earth-mined diamonds. However, unlike earth-mined diamonds, they are eco-friendly and conflict-free. Oh also, they retail for much less.
Many traditional diamond jewelers claim their gems are conflict-free, but the hard truth is that the only way to ensure that a diamond is conflict-free is to grow it in a lab. The United Nations defines conflict diamonds, also known as blood diamonds, as “diamonds that originate from areas controlled by forces or factions opposed to legitimate and internationally recognized governments, and are used to fund military action in opposition to those governments, or in contravention of the decisions of the Security Council.”  Over the past decade, under mounting pressure from environmental and humanitarian advocate groups, diamond distributors have adopted stricter policies, but so many loopholes exist that even well-meaning earth-mined diamond retailers are inadvertently selling illegitimate diamonds to unsuspecting customers.  In December 2000, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a landmark resolution supporting the creation of an international certification scheme for rough diamonds called The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS). It’s a United Nations-backed certification program meant to prevent conflict diamonds from entering the global supply chain. However, it is a self-policing pledging system that is open to all countries that are willing and able to implement its requirements. This means that not everyone is required to participate and those who do are operating under the honor code. The KPCS is not a legally binding contract between member countries, the only enforceable laws related to the trade of conflict diamonds are written and enforced internally by each country individually. The KPCS has received much criticism for its inability to enforce its own policies. Moreover, the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme doesn’t even begin to address the severe environmental repercussions from diamond mining.  Because this obvious work-around exists, it’s impossible to verify the origin of an earth-mined diamond. And that means the only truly conflict-free diamonds are man-made diamonds.
On November 9, 2013 De Beers released a booklet to its sight holders (authorized bulk purchasers of rough earth-mined diamonds) titled “Undisclosed Synthetics: What you need to know.” In it, De Beers CEO, Phillippe Mellier warned that using the word ‘diamond’ to describe or identify any object or product not meeting the definition of natural diamond is a violation of the company’s best practices. Here’s why that’s a problem. Although it’s true that, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), distributors and sellers are required to use appropriate modifiers to describe unnatural diamonds, the fact is that man-made diamonds are still diamonds. That statement sure makes it seem Mr. Mellier is intent on propagating a lie to the public that man-made diamonds are not real diamonds. It’s just simply isn’t true and De Beers knows it. After receiving some backlash from the release of the directive, Mellier retracted his previous statement and amended it in December 2013 to say, “Never use the unqualified word ‘diamond’ to describe or identify any object or product not meeting the World Jewelry Confederation (CIBJO) and FTC definition.” By the same logic we should all cease to call the ice that is made in our kitchen freezers ‘ice’ without a qualifier. Ice is ice whether it’s formed in Antarctica or in my freezer. Again, they are chemically and optically identical.
I can’t say I’m surprised by their behavior. I mean, if word gets out that people can purchase real diamonds that are man-made and certified conflict-free for much less than they would pay to the De Beers empire for an ethically questionable earth-mined diamond, well that would really stifle their profit margins, wouldn’t it? What I am surprised by, however, is that De Beers would so unabashedly dismiss the value of man-made diamonds while not so secretly mass producing man-made diamonds themselves.
Creating synthetic diamonds for industrial purposes to coat saws, drill bits, and grinding wheels has been common since the 1950s. And wouldn’t you know it De Beers was in on the creation of man-made diamonds right from the start. You see, in 1946, Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, who famously controlled De Beers in South Africa from 1927 to 1957, created the company Industrial Distributors Limited to focus on the industrial uses of natural diamonds. By 1953, the first synthetic diamonds had been created and by 1960, the company had started manufacturing synthetic diamonds in South Africa. Today, they operate many distribution sites around the world including South Africa, Belgium, The Netherlands and England. I suppose it could be a mere coincidence that these places also happen to be the biggest consumer diamond markets in the world. In 2002, the company rebranded its name to Element Six and changed its business focus to building an enterprise based on advanced material applications and exploring new markets for its materials. That’s an interesting play for a company that made its fortune off the consumer diamond trade. I wonder what their research and development team could possibly be working on when they note in their marketing collateral that they are working on new, proprietary products, to explore and develop novel applications and markets for their synthetic diamonds. Could De Beers be preparing for conflict-diamond blowback by quietly creating lab-grown gems of their own so that when the market shifts they can maintain their global dominance in the diamond trade?
Lab-grown diamonds defined