All that glitters: The real cost of diamonds.

Following on from the first blog about gold the next place to visit is the diamond industry.  It is a huge and complicated subject but I will do my best to break it down.

Diamonds are a cultural status symbol, a beautiful treasure to be adored. They are the stuff of legends, love and indeed war. Some stones are more affordable and some reach unfathomable, eye watering prices; but what is the true cost?  

At the moment we, at Hargreaves Stockholm, use non mined diamonds as our first choice when using diamond material. So let's have a look at diamonds, the industry around them and why we sort an alternative. 

Diamonds are created at between 140 and 190km below the earth's surface when carbon is subjected to immensely high pressure and temperature. Those diamonds then, occasionally, hurtle towards the surface, carried along by deep volcanic eruptions. While some diamond deposits are "alluvial" which means over millennia of erosion, the diamonds wash down in to water systems, rivers and ocean floors, the majority of diamonds are mined. There are mines in many places including Africa, Russia and Canada. 

Diamonds are stunning, they sparkle and shine like nothing else and they are cut for the consumer market in precisely worked out dimensions to not only maximise the size but also the fire and sparkle as it bounces light around in the facets and back out to your eye. Their colour is measured on an alphabetical scale with D being the best, clearest of colourless whites, right down through the alphabet through more yellow tones and even true colours like canary yellow and pink. Those stones without natural imperfections inside are also more highly prized. Some of the rarest stones are graded as "flawless" and these have no imperfections at all. The grading scale for clarity goes all the way down from stones that are flawless to stones with imperfections so minuscule they will never be seen by the human eye, down to stones marked clearly with anything from irregular crystal growth to crystal deposits within the stone. A stone is carefully cut to maximise the best attributes of a stone and to maximise the value of that stone. Sometimes quality is compromised to get a larger stone but sometimes a stone will be more valuable when cut smaller if it makes the quality significantly higher. 

We have established what a diamond is and how it is created so how does it get to us? This is where mining comes in. Diamond mining does not have the same level of environmental toll as gold mining but it still causes huge amounts of damage. The human cost has been vast and has bloodied the hands of those in the diamond industry for a long time Many people will have heard of "blood diamonds" which is a term used in the 2006 Leonardo DiCaprio film that looked at Sierra Leone and the civil war and diamond industry. In 2003 Sierra Leone's rural population was displaced in the midst of hideous, violent conflict that saw murder, amputation, rape and destruction all fuelled by diamonds. Landscapes and valuable farming land were stripped and destroyed in the search for diamonds and that land is still to recover. Diamonds are valuable and have funded conflict for generations. The very poorest people, including children, can be found in some of Africa's most profitable mines, earning a pittance doing dangerous, backbreaking work. All to fuel armed rebel conflict and line many pockets. As the millennium dawned, new measures were put in place to try to regulate the flow of conflict diamonds but this is difficult when so many profit from them and so many are working in hideous conditions to try to earn enough money to eat. In 2003 the Kimberley Process was established to try to stop the flow of conflict diamonds and although there has been some success there are many loop holes and it doesn't change the dreadful working conditions of children and adults in mines and cutting factories. At my end of the industry retailers were given a document to sign that, put simply, states that to the best of our knowledge the stones we use and sell are conflict free. When I was training the companies I worked with said it meant they could wash their hands of responsibility. It gave them a way out when a client asked about the provenance of a stone. They could boldly state that the Kimberley Process was there to stop conflict diamonds and that they had signed the document that said that as far as they are aware, their stones are conflict free. Did any of them check or ask where their stones came from? No. Now, they aren't bad people, they too are trying to make a living and the stones they see every day feel so far away from troubles in distant unfathomable countries and communities that it is really hard to connect this beautiful stone with the true cost thousands of miles away. That doesn't mean we should wash our hands of responsibility. 

The cost of diamond mining is vast and far reaching. Coastal strip mining captures those diamonds washed down from the earth through rivers and out to the ocean. Put like that it sounds simple but in reality, swathes of coastlines are dug up, destroying entire eco systems. They dig 40 metres down so there is a lot damage. Coastlines and river beds are stripped and water courses redirected. 

Yakutia Mitny diamond mine -Alrosa Mining company

Yakutia Mitny diamond mine -Alrosa Mining company

Open pit mining is a more well known method of diamond extraction. Mines are vast. Some of them can be seen from space. Some of them are as deep as 2.5km and cover an area at surface level of over 2000 football fields. They can cause the collapse of entire communities and entire ecosystems. Each year over 150 million carats of diamonds are mined and on average, to get 1ct of rough 1750 tons of earth have to be mined. That is a huge amount of land, a huge amount of devastation and a huge cost to people and environments. That is also a huge amount of diamonds to be used in everything from saw blades to Jewellery. It is big business and someone is making a lot of money. Rest assured, it isn't the teenager desperately trying to find a 1ct diamond to earn $100 dollars to feed his family that really benefits.   There is also deforestation and the relocation of entire populations who then don't benefit from the mine that destroys their homeland. As well as human displacement and abuse there is also a high environmental cost of mining. From 1956 to 2003 pollution in African water sources as a direct result of diamond mining went up by 36%. Then what happens to the mine once it is closed? It fills with water and becomes a huge breeding ground for diseases such as malaria. 

There are some new initiatives in place to try to reclaim the land damaged by mining and make it suitable for farming or living on again  but the effects are small scale and slow. Money needs to be invested in to communities to give them a way out of this cycle of risking their lives to find diamonds that barely pay enough for them to live. Destroyed land needs to be repaired and effectively repurposed to give communities the ability to feed themselves free of conflict. They need to benefit from this industry that has taken so much and given back so little.

What are the alternatives to mined diamonds? At Hargreaves Stockholm we currently choose non mined diamonds. Non mined diamonds are also called synthetic diamonds but this is not to be confused with simulant diamonds such as cubic zirconia (cz). Synthetic diamonds are created using technology to replicates the natural process in which diamonds form. Just as in the natural process carbon is subjected to high temperature and temperature to create real diamonds without the human or environmental costs of mining. This process takes huge amounts of energy but more and more laboratories are now run on electricity from reusable sources. The company we choose for the majority of our diamonds uses cutting edge solar technology to produce diamonds with zero carbon impact. So these stones look exactly the same as a mined diamond, they are formed under the same conditions, they are a real diamond but no child was sent in to a pit to dig for it, no water was redirected, no valuable farmland was destroyed, no on was raped or mutilated and no war raged. 

Now, if a client feels they want a stone that has been produced in the firey depths of our earth then we will happily do our best to source Canadian diamonds that have regulated working conditions and work with indigenous populations to try to reinvest back in to local communities. These mines are more responsible than many of their counterparts but they still create vast, destructive craters.  

I was asked recently how using non mined diamonds benefits the impoverished communities desperately trying to make a living. It is a complex situation but I believe that if the industry expects more, expects responsible sourcing, responsible working conditions, a responsibility to work as sustainably as possible and makes sure it chooses methods with the least human and environmental impact then it will have to filter down to all mines. If the world sees the value in a diamond created with no human or environmental price then the mines will have to start paying attention. If we all expect our stones to benefit those individuals and communities that mine them and demand regulated working conditions and demand the land is restored and repurposed after use and we demand money from diamonds is returned back to the populations effected by mining so they can build new, reliable, sustainable industries without conflict and corruption then something will have to change.  

My industry is scared of non mined diamonds. It is terrified they will be on the market and they won't know they are selling them. They won't know because they are exactly the same as a mined stone. My old colleagues criticise my choice and again, distance themselves from it.  Personally, I am proud to use a product that is so forward thinking, that is created by companies that have searched and researched for the most responsible way to produce their stones. I am proud to look at our diamonds and know that they were created by harnessing the power of the sun for a perfect product that hurt no one. The diamonds I choose are graded and certificated by the most highly regarded grading laboratory in the world, the same grading company that grades most mined diamonds. We do not need to compromise on quality when we choose sustainability. 

Jemima Hargreaves