It’s no secret that diamond mining has a dark side. From blood diamonds to the negative environmental impact, the shimmery gems that we associate with love and celebration can be quite taxing on our world. As times change and more options become available, the diamond industry’s poor reputation has consumers wondering if it’s ethical to purchase diamond engagement rings at all.
In this article, we’ll explore the controversy behind mined diamonds, from the environmental toll to the human rights violations. We’ll also ponder if ethical diamonds truly exist while exploring the wide variety of diamond alternatives such as the lab grown diamond, available in today’s fine jewelry market.
How Do We Get Diamonds?
How are diamonds formed and are diamonds rare? The world’s most coveted gemstone begins its journey thousands of miles beneath the Earth’s surface where it is compressed into crystals over the span of millions of years before forming the deposits that are mined today.
So, how are diamonds mined? Mining is performed using several methods. However, the most popular way to extract these shiny stones is through open-pit, underground, and alluvial mining. Open-pit and underground mining are the two versions that most people are familiar with. These processes are most often performed by world-renown mining companies using state-of-the-art equipment and technology. The third most common method, alluvial mining, is what might come to mind when you think of unethical mining practices. This version of extraction is performed by hand, often resulting in grueling physical labor and poor working conditions that can be easily exploited by the wrong people.
What Is a Blood Diamond?
The term “blood diamond” also known as conflict diamonds, was established in the 1990s by the United Nations to address violent civil wars in western and central Africa. The African countries of Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sierra Leone were the most heavily impacted by this conflict as rebel groups looked to exploit the diamond-rich regions.
When a conflict diamond is mined, the rough diamond enters the supply chain, where it is cut and polished to make it indistinguishable from any other gemstone. Profits from the blood diamond trade are then put back into the illegal operation as rebels purchase weapons and war materiel with the funds.
The Kimberley Process
In 2003, the UN Security Council established the Kimberley Process. A certification scheme used to determine whether a country’s diamonds are conflict-free. The number of blood diamonds available on the U.S. market has dropped significantly since the Kimberley Process Certification was enacted. However, the issue of conflict diamonds has not been abolished, and some regions such as Zimbabwe still export stones that are considered suspect due to international concern over human rights abuses and forced labor.
The Environmental Impact of Mining
Miners don’t mine on lifeless wastelands, they mine where diamonds are. That means that the local communities, wildlife, and ecosystems that might inhabit a future mine site will no longer have a home.
Sourcing natural diamonds is a big job. According to the US Geological Survey, “The average stone in an engagement ring is the product of the removal of 200 to 400 million times its volume of Earth.” What’s more, the waste rock and tailings produced from mining have to be stored somewhere, usually in what’s referred to as a “tailing pond.” Tailing ponds are massive dump sites where mining byproducts undergo chemical reactions resulting in acidic water that is potent enough to dissolve lead, copper, and zinc. Even worse, this dangerous concoction merges with groundwater, contaminating, and often killing, living things that depend on it.
An article from Diamond Nexus Reported the following in regards to habitat destruction, “The removal of millions of tons of rock, and the contamination of water supplies have far-reaching effects on wildlife habitats surrounding diamond mines. In Zimbabwe, waste from diamond mine tailing has polluted the Odzi and Save rivers, where animals who drink from the river lose their fur and die. In Namaqualand, a region in South Africa and Nambia, a full 65% of the coastline has been mined for diamonds. This coastline is home to coastal bird species and endemic flowers, animals, and insects.”
As if all of this isn’t bad enough, the energy required to fuel the mining industry is equally impressive. According to a 2012 statement from the Better Diamond Initiative, the electricity used to mine diamonds could power 1 million U.S. households for an entire year.
Do Environmentally-Friendly Diamonds Exist?
Many jewelers claim that natural diamonds sourced from Canada are less irresponsible than stones imported from Africa. However, this isn’t necessarily the case. Each day, mines in Canada create one million tons of waste rock and 950,000 tons of tailings. In fact, the mining operations in Canada are so huge that the Diavik diamond mine can be seen from space.
Additionally, retailers ship diamonds all around the world. When you purchase a Canadian diamond, you’re still supporting the market for African diamonds. Pricing for Canadian diamonds of equal clarity, color, cut, and size is set at a premium simply due to the stone’s origin.
How Can I Help?
Do Your Research
If you have your heart set on a mined diamond but are concerned about ethical sourcing, the number one thing that you can do is your research. Determine where your stone is coming from and be certain to avoid gems mined in Angola, Zimbabwe, and The Democratic Republic of Congo, all of which are places where human rights violations have been recorded. While Canadian mined stones are nowhere near perfect from an environmental standpoint, they do provide a conflict-free alternative to those in Africa. Canadian mines are committed to producing materials under fair working conditions and environmental procedures.
Buy Lab Grown
PSA: Not all diamonds come from the ground. If you’ve weighed your options and feel uncomfortable purchasing a mined diamond, don’t fret, you can still find the diamond of your dreams. It just might be created in a lab instead. Lab grown diamonds are real diamonds. Just like a mined diamond, a laboratory grown diamond is made from pure carbon and is strong enough to cut glass.
What’s more, a lab grown diamond costs just a fraction of the price of mined diamonds and they’re 100% conflict-free and eco-friendly.
Consider Diamond Alternatives
There are a plethora of diamond alternatives available today that offer durability and sparkle that consumers love. A few examples include Moissanite and diamond simulants. Alternatively, you can opt for a colored gemstone for a unique addition to your forever adornment.
Recycled and Antique Diamonds
If you can’t resist the allure of a mined diamond but are feeling iffy about purchasing one you could consider buying used. Antique diamonds, recycled diamonds, vintage diamonds – whatever you choose to call them, second-hand rings are a more sustainable option for diamond shoppers looking for ethically sourced engagement ring options.
However, one downside of buying from an antique shop or vintage online vendors is that you might not receive proper certification for your stone making it impossible to know its origin and true value.