Diamond mining is big business. It kind of boggles the mind when you think about it. Globally, an estimated 130+ million carats of natural diamond are mined, processed, and then sold to various buyers and industries. Where do all these diamonds come from? How are they found in the first place? Is it ethical to buy diamonds? These are great things to ask, but first, we have to start with the most basic of questions.
What are Diamonds?
In a word, diamonds are carbon. They are considered to be a naturally occurring mineral that’s relatively rare. Diamonds are fascinatingly versatile and durable, which is why they are used in everything from jewelry to industrial tools.
There are three main categories for diamonds. They can either be natural gems mined for jewelry, industrial diamonds mined for tools, or lab grown diamonds typically used in fine jewelry, engagement rings, wedding bands, or even created and sold as loose stones.
Where are Diamonds Found?
So, are diamonds rare? and how are diamonds formed? Natural diamonds are formed deep under the earth’s surface or earth’s crust, in the mantle, roughly 150 to 250 kilometers down. These diamonds can be between 1 to 3.5 billion years old and must be mined to be obtained. Other diamonds can be found in alluvial deposits via Kimberlite rocks that are carried there in the water, such as streams, rivers, and waterfalls.
There are about 35 different countries that are well-known for diamond mining. Out of that list, South Africa, Botswana, and Canada are considered the largest gemstone diamond producers. Gemstone diamonds are the types of diamonds that are used in jewelry. They are typically colored diamonds and are very rare to mine. Naturally colored diamonds include brown diamonds, yellow diamonds, blue diamonds, and more. Currently, only 25-30% of mined diamonds cut the mustard as ‘gemstone’ quality and are sold to the jewelry market.
The remainder of the diamonds that are mined are used for industrial purposes. Australia is well-known for producing industrial-grade diamonds. Industrial diamonds are used for cutting, polishing, drilling, and grinding because of their amazing physical properties. Diamonds are very hard, have no electrical conductivity, and are great heat conductors.
Gemstone diamonds are typically mined from areas where residents don’t buy diamond jewelry and are then sold to countries that can clean and process the gems. The USA, India, and China are some of the world’s largest buyers of diamond jewelry. They also have some diamond mines spread across several countries.
That being said, those amounts are much lower than what Africa produces. South Africa is recognized as the ‘birthplace of the modern diamond industry.’ Since the 1870s, it has been the primary source of diamond mining. Over 80% of gemstone diamonds and 40% of industrial diamonds used to be solely produced in South Africa.
South Africa held that top spot in the diamond mining industry until the 1920s. Then the Democratic Republic of the Congo replaced it. Even though South Africa is no longer the leading producer of diamonds, it still produces a few million carats of gemstones every single year.
One of the many sources of these diamonds is the beautiful coastline of South Africa. Erosion moves diamonds away from various inland positions, while rivers transport diamonds to coastal beaches. Diamonds are then found on the shorelines along with sediment.
Another important source used to be the Big Hole Diamond Mine, which is a 42-acre mine that’s 800 feet deep. However, today it’s no longer an active mining site. Despite no longer being active, it’s still considered the largest hand-dug excavation site in the entire world and was active between the years 1871 to 1914. During that time, a whopping 14,000,000+ carats of gemstone diamonds were mined there.
Speaking of mines, the biggest mine in the world is the Aikhal Mine in Russia. The Aikhal mine was birthed in 1961 and has a depth of 230 meters. Annually, it’s estimated that the mine produces a whopping 1.3 million carats of diamonds a year. In 2020 alone, Russia produced over 31 million carats of diamonds.
While this number is astonishing, this value is actually a 14 million decrease from previous years. Furthermore, this is the lowest recorded amount that Russia has mined since 2003. Insane, right?
What are Conflict Diamonds?
What is a blood diamond? Conflict diamonds are more commonly known as ‘blood’ diamonds. They are primarily rough diamonds, still in rock form, that require further processing. Blood diamonds are mined in war zones.
Once sold, the money is used to fuel military rebellion against a central government. Conflict diamonds are a product of civil unrest and are the source of multiple human rights violations.
In May of 2000, the United Nations, the European Union, and the World Diamond Council came together to find a solution. That’s when the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme came into existence.
The main point of the Kimberley Process is to check how rough diamonds are mined. That means that anyone selling rough diamonds has to prove where and how the respective diamonds were mined.
Since its implementation, many human rights organizations have questioned how helpful the Kimberley Process is due to the unfortunate fact that the current rough diamond market still has blood diamonds. In fact, it’s hard to calculate how many blood diamonds are still present in the market today.
Where are Conflict Diamonds Found?
Blood diamonds are mainly mined and sold from parts of central and western Africa. Until its independence in 1961, Sierra Leone used legitimate, safe, and legal diamond mining and selling processes.
Sierra Leone: a Little History
After its independence was obtained, the government rapidly started to fill up with corrupt leaders. Many of them used the diamond industry to manipulate and bribe their citizens. Armed rebel groups tried their best to push the leaders out of government.
Finally, in March of 1991, the rebel group Revolutionary United Front gained control of Sierra Leone. They were in power for 11 years, and 90% of the industry was in their control. They used the diamond industry to fuel their rebellion.
Over 60% of those blood diamonds were sold to the United States of America. The more diamonds that were sold, the more in power the group became.
Between 1991 to 2002, Sierra Leone was the biggest exporter of blood diamonds, and in 1998, approximately 4% of rough diamonds in the market were mined and sold from there. The United Nations intervened in January of 2002 to try and end the sale of blood diamonds from Sierra Leone.
Liberia: a Little History
The neighboring country of Liberia also has a history with blood diamonds. In 1990, it came under the control of a rebel group. Around the same time, Sierra Leone was gaining international attention for blood diamonds, Libera started to follow in its footsteps.
And when the United Nations finally stopped the sale of blood diamonds, Sierra Leone smuggled its blood diamonds to Liberia. Charles Taylor, the President of Liberia at the time, willingly allowed the exchange of blood diamonds from Sierra Leone for arms and training from Liberia.
In 1998, Al-Qaeda bought diamonds from Liberia. At that time, Al-Qaeda also lost access to all its assets due to them getting frozen. To counteract that, they bought diamonds from Liberia to sell and used that money to purchase ammunition and more bombs. In 2001, the United Nations also got involved with Liberia, to ban all blood diamond mining and selling.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo: a Little History
The Democratic Republic of Congo also has a history of blood diamond mining. It is estimated that today only 200kg of the diamonds sold there are legal. A large amount of the diamonds mined are smuggled into nearby countries, which illustrates that blood diamonds are still mined and sold even now.
Global Witness is an NGO that specializes in human rights violations. They were one of the first organizations to question the Kimberley Process. As a result, many NGOs like them are now working hard to eliminate all blood diamonds from the market.
The reality is that the blood diamond industry has boomed on the back of countless human rights atrocities. It’s one of the reasons so many people are now looking deeper into where their diamonds come from and are using their dollars to make their voices heard.
Sustainable diamonds are becoming more popular by the day. What is a sustainable diamond? These are naturally mined diamonds only from companies that adhere to strict ethics and morals in their mining and production processes or through supporting and purchasing from companies that specialize in lab grown diamonds.
Some––when learning where diamonds are found and how––are even choosing to buy recycled gems so that no new ones need to be mined in the first place. Who says only new diamonds can be a girl’s best friend? In today’s jewelry world, vintage is in, and sustainable engagement rings are cool.
Alternatively, especially eco-conscious consumers are opting to dump mined diamonds altogether choosing a lab grown diamond or a diamond alternative instead. Lab grown diamonds are real diamonds as they consist of the exact same chemical makeup as their natural counterparts. And to top it off, a lab grown diamond can cost up to 40% less than one that was mined making these gems appealing to the younger generations of today.