You wouldn’t think that crystallized carbon would, in its own terms, shape the history of the world. You wouldn’t think carbon, one of the most common elements on Earth, would, when arranged in a particular atomic structure, inspire breathtaking bloodlust in man. Would you believe a gem so utterly ornamental has the power to fuel the machinery of war?
Perhaps you would, if you knew we were talking about diamonds.
It’s often vicious legacy of slavery, colonialism and exploitation has haunted the world of diamond mining and production ever since deposits were discovered in Africa in the late 19th century.
But Silicon Valley may now be able to provide an ethical alternative to blood diamonds; a product they’re calling “conflict-free” diamonds.
The mystique of diamonds has fascinated us since at least the 4th-century BC, when diamonds were used as precious offerings to divinities in India. And for centuries after, diamonds were only excavated in the Indian subcontinent, famously in the city of Golconda in Central India. From India, diamonds made their way through the Silk Road to China, and via the Persians to Europe.
This changed in the 18th century when the Indian mines in Golconda depleted and the quest for alternate sources began. Although a small deposit was found in Brazil in 1725, the supply was not enough to meet the global demand. Then, in 1866, 15-year old Erasmus Jacobs stumbled upon a 21.25-carat diamond on the banks of the Orange River in South Africa. In 1871, a massive 83.50-carat diamond was discovered on a nearby hill called Colesberg Kopje, leading to the opening of the famed Kimberley Mine.
The market soon flooded with the new diamonds, and its price plummeted to historic lows. By 1919, diamonds had devalued by nearly 50% and were no longer considered luxury items. They were steadily replaced by rarer gemstones like emeralds, rubies and sapphires.
And then in 1947, De Beers, a large international corporation that had come to control 80-85% of the world’s diamond supply, commissioned the services of N.W. Ayer, a leading advertising agency. What resulted was a wildly successful marketing campaign that led to the widespread adoption of diamonds for engagement rings. “A diamond is forever” became the market’s mantra. In today’s fine jewellery market, more than 78% of engagement rings sold contain diamonds.
This increase in demand coupled with De Beer’s decision to deliberately restrict the supply of diamonds in the market, led to a hefty spike in the price of diamonds. Today, despite the abundance of diamonds mined, the cost of buying a diamond remains artificially high.
Because of how profitable the industry is, diamond mining became a lucrative source of income for nations that contained mines. It also became a source of revenue that funded insurgent groups, warlords and civil wars. When exploited in war-torn regions, such as those of Angola, Sierra Leone and Liberia, amongst others, these diamonds began to be called “blood diamonds.”
Mined in atrocious conditions and often by children and slaves, these diamonds found their way into western markets, indirectly funding extreme violence in Africa. A UN-backed study, titled the Fowler Report, definitively drew a link between diamonds and third-world conflicts.
Congolese miners working one of the thousands of artisanal mines that cover the country. COURTESY OF TIME MAGAZINE.[/caption]
As a way to combat the prevalence of blood diamonds, the World Diamond Council adopted a resolution on June 19, 2000, to strengthen the diamond industry’s ability to block sales of “conflict diamonds.” The resolution called for an international certification system on the export and import of diamonds, legislation in all countries to accept only officially sealed packages of diamonds, for countries to impose criminal charges on anyone trafficking in conflict diamonds, and instituted a ban on any individual found trading in conflict diamonds.
However, it is largely acknowledged that this resolution has failed to stop the sale of blood diamonds. Indeed, even diamonds allowed for sale per the resolution cannot be guaranteed as conflict-free.
Silicon Valley: The Future of Diamonds
A startup in Silicon Valley now promises to disrupt this millennia-old industry, and has $100 million in startup capital to show for it. In 2016, Diamond Foundry, a San Francisco-based company, produced 10,000 carats worth of diamonds in laboratories, all while doubling its revenue every quarter.
These diamonds are not only guaranteed to be conflict-free, they have precisely the same crystalline-structure as mined diamonds. Essentially, it is impossible to tell them apart. According to R. Martin Roscheisen, the entrepreneur behind Diamond Foundry, the technology used to create the diamonds is based on a “variant of chemical vapour deposition, which builds the diamond lattice atom by atom in a reactor that creates a plasma akin to the outer core of the sun.”
These diamonds take two to three weeks to create – as opposed to the years that it takes to create mined diamonds. The lab-grown diamonds are catering to a new market of buyers who would not buy a diamond unless it was genuinely ethical, Roscheisen said.
And in June, more barriers of resistance broke down. Pandora, the Danish jewelry manufacturer and retailer and the world’s largest jewelry producer by volume, announced it would use only lab-grown diamonds worldwide by 2022. Pandora is famous for its collectible charm bracelets.
Despite the ethics, however, it is still unclear if the introduction of lab-grown diamonds into the market will catch on and completely replace unethically-sourced diamonds. Only time – and our understanding of a what a diamond really means to us – will tell.
If you could, would you buy a lab-grown diamond or a mined diamond? Let us know in the comments below!