Diamonds weren’t always a girl’s best friend. Before the 1930s, they were no longer synonymous with weddings than opals, rubies, and sapphires, which had been routinely used in engagement rings for centuries. It was only when DeBeers – the South African mining company that in the past controlled around 85 percent of the international diamond market – launched its “A Diamond Is Forever” marketing program in the 1940s that the demand for sparkling stones skyrocketed.
An estimated 142 million carats of rough diamonds were dug out of mines worldwide in 2019 – often at reprehensible costs for the environment and people. To pull just one carat of diamond out of the ground, workers have to move around 100 square feet of ground, resulting in nearly 6,000 pounds of waste material and up to a ton of carbon dioxide released. Strip mines such as the Mir Mine in Eastern Siberia can be seen from the ISS.
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“I don’t need science to say that [lab-grown diamonds] is less bad than [the Mir mine in Siberia]”Diamond dealer Alexander Weindling told The Guardian in March last year.” My eyes tell me that this is much worse for our planet. We no longer have to dig those huge holes in the earth that are visible from space. We hunted whales. We don’t do that anymore, do we? “
In Africa, where 65 percent of the world’s diamonds are produced, mines routinely employ child and youth laborers for slave wages in dangerous working conditions. The practice has become so egregious in recent decades that the international community had to institute the Kimberly Process in 2003 to prevent so-called “blood diamonds” – those made in war zones and the sale of which funded these fighting efforts – from reaching the market. However, there are loopholes in the process that have largely distorted its enforcement.
“Today, when you have a kid who works for $ 3 a day looking for diamonds waist-deep in a river, it’s called ‘artisanal mining,” “Ryan Shearman, founder and CEO of Aether Diamonds, said in a recent statement Interview with Engadget. “It’s not called child abuse, and it’s going through the Kimberley Trial because the proceeds from that diamond sale were not used to fund a local warlord.”
The natural diamond industry has also faced a number of economic challenges in recent years, including a 2019 inventory glut – although diamond values are constantly touted due to their “rarity” – and the COVID-19 pandemic that saw demand for high quality prices 1-carat stones still rose about 12 percent year over year in 2020. For diamonds of lower quality and smaller size, however, the values fell between 15 and 27 percent over the same period.
“When you are in that upper range, the demand is still there because people who choose these types of goods are less feeling the pressure of the market downturn,” Gus Simbanegavi, CEO of Bluerock Diamonds BRD.L, told Reuters.
That seems to be a big problem for a material whose atomic composition we have known since 1797 and which has been able to grow under laboratory conditions for almost 70 years. General Electric was the first company to commercialize the process. In 1941, GE partnered with Norton and Carborundum and managed to heat carbon samples to 5,430 degrees Fahrenheit at pressures in excess of 510,000 PSI before temporarily halting the project for World War II. The program was resumed in 1951 and by 1954 it had been possible to produce the first commercially viable laboratory-grown diamond. These first batches were sold as electronics heat sinks for use in research. Lab grade diamonds in gem quality didn’t arrive in jewelry displays until the 1980s.
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Today diamond laboratories around the world are growing more than 100 tons of the mineral annually. “They are identical [to natural diamonds] at the atomic level, ”said Sharman. “They have exactly the same chemical, mechanical, and optical properties, and there is no human on the planet who can tell the difference. The only way to do this is by essentially doing some chemical analysis – and lab grown diamonds are actually purer than what comes off the ground. “
The products from Aether are particularly unique due to the innovative manufacturing method. “We use direct air capture technology to extract harmful atmospheric CO2,” Shearman explained. “We then run that through a bit of modern alchemy and the proprietary manufacturing process we developed to turn them into gem-quality diamonds.”
Each of Aether’s air capture reactors can reportedly hold up to 50 tons of carbon dioxide per year. However, the company is committed to sucking out 20 tons of CO2 – that’s more than the 16 tons the average American makes in a country a year – for every carat of diamond it produces. It takes about 12 weeks to grow such diamonds from start to finish.
“The problem with most lab-grown diamonds, other than ether diamonds, is that they still have to get their carbon from somewhere,” Shearman said. “This often comes from fossil fuels obtained through drilling and fracking. And as much as laboratory diamond brands claim to be sustainable, I fear a lot of it is greenwashing language because even if they use environmentally friendly energy (which most of them aren’t), they are. ‘We still rely on fossil fuels for their carbon and that is a finite resource. “
The company pays attention to where it sources the rest of its materials, from the metal used to set the stones to the packaging in which they are shipped. “We either use ultrasound, which is made from plant biomass, or we use New Zealand wool for inserts in our ring boxes,” added Robert Hagemann, CFO of Aether. “And then [we use] All FSC certified cardboard structures for our parts. We also make CO2 offsets for logistics. “
The ether diamonds are not only more environmentally friendly, but also around 40 percent cheaper than their natural counterparts. That means that even on the lower end of the market, a diamond solitaire ring that would cost anywhere from $ 5,000 to $ 6,000 in the Zales at your local mall would only pay you back $ 3,700 for the gems in Aether’s lab would be produced.
Aether’s efforts could disrupt the global diamond market, an externality the company is hoping for. “If we gain more market share, these types of companies that abuse these people will be taken out of business,” Hagemann said. “That is good and bad. It’s good because it ends something that probably shouldn’t have happened from the start, ”but bad because the formerly exploited workers are now unemployed.
To counter this, the company is trying to partner with NGOs and nonprofits on retraining efforts, or perhaps “create a footprint for solar power generation … there are many different ways we can achieve positive benefits in areas where this has been the case.” can this historical negative impact, ”said Hagemann. “That’s a big goal for us.”
Looking ahead, Hagemann and Shearman hope that Aether’s entire operations – not just its diamonds – will become carbon negative by 2023. To this end, the team plans to vertically integrate the various stages of production. “The more we control our supply chain, the better we can limit our overall carbon footprint,” said Shearman. The company also hopes to use wind as a power source. “Integrating sustainable on-site power generation is something we’ve been talking about since the company’s earliest days.” Ultimately, Aether wants to achieve a level of efficiency where the company can feed excess power back into the local community grid.