Dirty no more
Identical dark green cylinders, standing in neat rows like soldiers at attention, emitted a low throbbing hum that filled the whole room. Squinting through a narrow opening in one of these machines, one sees what looks like a white mist hovering over a tray of glowing red cubes. Workers, dressed like medical workers in hairnets and yellow lab coats hurried around, eyes glued to iPads, studying numbers that indicated the temperature, pressure and other readings meaningless to the layman, within each cylinder.
They were monitoring diamond production, but this is no conventional diamond mine. Instead of a giant hole dug into the ground, all the diamonds are found in a clinical 200,000 sq ft concrete building located in the industrial estate of Jurong, Singapore. The cylinders are diamond greenhouses optimised to artificially imitate the environment, including the heat and pressure that diamonds require to grow in nature. The cubes within these cylinders, glowing red hot, are diamond seeds in the process of growing and the white mist above them, carbon atoms “raining” onto the diamond seeds.
The facility, run by IIa Technologies, is the largest of its kind in the world. Using the abovementioned process, which is known as Microwave Plasma Chemical Vapour Deposition (MPCVD), the firm can grow a diamond in about two weeks. It produced 300,000 carats of diamonds last year and sold them at a price about 30 per cent lower than that of conventionally mined diamonds. The competitive pricing was despite all of IIa Technologies’ gems being type IIa diamonds, the purest, and thus most colourless grade of the gem.
A large output, lower prices and 100 per cent precision in producing top-quality diamonds – all this, achieved without the environmental and human rights issues that usually surround mining companies. Could IIa’s capabilities and its commercial success mark the beginning of a new era for the gem trade?
Some figures certainly seem to indicate so. According to market research consultancy Frost and Sullivan, the global supply of mined diamonds is predicted to fall from 134 million carats in 2014 to just 14 million carats by 2050. Demand, however, is likely to rise to 292 million carats in the same period. This might mean a shortfall of 278 million carats in supply. The demand that cannot be satisfied by the conventional mines might have to be plugged by lab grown diamonds. This is on top of the environmental advantage the latter already has over the former – when taking into account factors like land disturbance, dangers to the employees and energy usage, lab grown diamonds have less than seven times the impact of mined diamonds.
Traditional mines are not operating without help, however. Organisations such as the Responsible Jewelry Council (RJC), Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM) and Fair Jewellery Action are working hard to close the gap in environmental impact and lead the mining industry towards a more sustainable future. Gemfields, one of the world’s biggest supplier of coloured gemstones, is one firm that operates according to the guidelines set out by these organisations, namely RJC.
Indeed, sustainability has high enough priority at Gemfields to warrant an individual department headed by Jack Cunningham, the sustainability manager. “All our mine staff receive health and safety training, personal protective equipment, and must report accidents to their managers,” he assures. “Each team has dedicated employees qualified to give first-aid, and each mine site has an ambulance and clinic.”
Besides providing gainful employment for the locals in the regions it mines, Gemfields also refills and replants old pits, or fill them with water and introduce fish populations to these new ponds. One per cent from the proceeds of each ruby rough auction, which Gemfields holds twice a year, is pledged to fund projects, such as the building of schools and clinics, in the communities the company operates in. One per cent is a substantial amount when one considers that Gemfields’ last ruby auction in December 2014 brought in US$43.3 million.
“Gemfields hasn’t yet quantified the overall investment (of going sustainable),” reveals Cunningham. “But it certainly isn’t seen as pure cost. Undoubtedly, there are investments made where it is hard to measure profit in a financial sense, but to get social license to operate in an area is invaluable because ultimately, these communities need to buy into Gemfields being a part of them. Without the strong foundations of a good community relationship, we can’t operate, we can’t find employees and we can’t hope to have a lasting legacy.”
At the moment, socially-conscious mining companies appear to still have the upper hand. Lab grown diamonds, despite being no less “real” than mined diamonds (they have the same composition; the only difference lies in their formation) have yet to gain foothold in the high-end jewellery business. The world’s biggest jewellers continue to pride themselves on being the purveyors of the finest gemstones, with the unspoken (and perhaps elitist) edict that every stone is a product of nature, formed over millions of years and painstakingly sourced.
Fabergé, for example, acquired and wholly owned by Gemfields since 2013, uses rubies, emeralds and amethysts from Gemfields’ mines. Popular American jeweller Tiffany & Co often plays up the Montana sapphires it sources not from a faraway third-world nation, but its home country, specifically, as its name indicates, the state of Montana. Chopard is another renowned jeweller that is big on sustainability done the more conventional way. Its Green Carpet collection sets diamonds sourced from a RJC-certified supplier on fairmined gold.
Fairmined gold has become a significant part of Chopard’s collections since the ARM first came up with a standard for it in 2011. Gold certified as fairmined by the ARM indicates that the miners, mostly small-scale operations in Latin America, have been paid a fair rate. This rate currently stands at 95 per cent of the price fixed by the London Bullion Market Association – a big improvement from the 35 to 85 per cent rate that these miners received before the standard was defined. The London Bullion Market Association is an organisation that oversees the banks, brokers, and refiners involved in precious metals trading.
Sustainability is definitely the buzzword in the jewellery business today and although luxury jewellers are not willing to go the way of lab-grown gems as yet, the growth of these labs have definitely forced the industry to relook long-established practices. In the forseeable future, the price tag on that glittering diamond necklace may come to apply only to the consumer and not the environment.