Diamonds haven’t always been a girl’s best friend. Prior to the 1930s, they were no more synonymous with marriage than the opals, rubies, and sapphires that had been commonly used in engagement rings for centuries. It wasn’t until DeBeers – the South African mining company that historically controlled around 85% of the international diamond market – launched its “A Diamond Is Forever” marketing program in the 1940s that demand for sparkling stones exploded.
Around 142 million carats of rough diamonds were mined globally in 2019 – often at reprehensible prices environmental and human costs. Extracting just one carat of diamond from the ground forces workers to move nearly 100 square feet of soil, resulting in nearly 6,000 pounds of waste and up to a ton of carbon dioxide released. Surface mines, like the Mir mine in Eastern Siberia below, can be seen from the ISS.
“I don’t need science to say that [lab-grown diamonds] is less bad than [the Mir mine in Siberia]”Said diamond dealer Alexander Weindling The Guardian last March. “My eyes tell me it’s much worse for our planet. We no longer need to dig those huge holes in the earth that are visible from space. We were hunting whales. We don’t do that anymore, do we?
In Africa, where 65% of the world’s diamonds are produced, mines routinely employ children and adolescents at slave wages under dangerous working conditions. The practice has become so blatant over the past decades that in 2003 the international community had to establish the Kimberly process to help prevent so-called “blood diamonds” – those produced in war zones and whose sales funded these combat efforts – from reaching the market. However, the process is riddled with loopholes that have largely hampered its application.
“Today, if you have a kid who works for $ 3 a day and does back-breaking work at the bottom of a river looking for diamonds, it’s called ‘artisanal mining’,” said Ryan Shearman, Founder and CEO of Aether Diamonds on a recent call with Engadget. “It’s not called child abuse, and it runs through the Kimberley Process because the proceeds from that diamond sale were not used to fund a local warlord.”
The natural diamond industry has also faced a series of economic challenges in recent years, including a overabundance of stocks in 2019 – although the values of diamonds are constantly touted as due to their “scarcity” – and the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw demand for diamonds plummet in 2020. Prices for high-quality 1-carat stones still succeeded at increase by around 12% in 2020Year after year, however, lower quality and smaller diamonds have seen their value drop between 15 and 27 percent over the same period.
“If you are in this high end, the demand is still there because people who opt for this type of product feel less of the pressure of the falling market,” said Gus Simbanegavi, CEO of Bluerock Diamonds BRD.L. Reuters.
This certainly seems to be a problem for a material whose atomic composition we have known since 1797 and which we have 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 the Norton and Carborundum companies and succeeded in heating carbon samples to 5,430 degrees F at pressures above 510,000 PSI before temporarily suspending the project for World War II. The program resumed in 1951 and by 1954 had succeeded in creating the first commercially viable laboratory-grown diamond. These early lots were sold as electronic heatsinks for research purposes. Gem-grade lab-grown diamonds wouldn’t hit jewelry displays until the 1980s.
Today, diamond laboratories around the world produce over 100 tonnes of ore per year. “They are identical [to natural diamonds] at the atomic level, ”Sharman said. “They have exactly the same chemical, mechanical and optical properties, and no human being on the planet can tell the difference. The only way to do that is to basically perform chemical analysis – and lab-grown diamonds are actually purer than those that come from the ground.
Aether products are particularly unique given the new method of their creation. “We use direct air capture technology to extract harmful atmospheric CO2,” Shearman explained. “We then take that through a bit of modern alchemy and the proprietary manufacturing process that we’ve developed, to make them gem-quality diamonds.”
Each of Aether’s air capture reactors would be capable of absorbing up to 50 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, but the company has committed to sucking 20 metric tons of CO2 – that’s more than the 16 metric tons that your average American generates in a year – for every carat of diamond he produces. From start to finish, growing these diamonds takes around 12 weeks in total.
“The problem with most lab-grown diamonds, other than Aether diamonds, is that they still have to source the carbon from somewhere,” Shearman said. “Often it comes from fossil fuels obtained by drilling and fracking. And so, even though lab-grown diamond brands claim to be sustainable, I’m afraid a lot of them are greenwashing language, because even though they use eco-friendly energy (which most of them do) are not), they ” still rely on fossil fuels for their carbon and that is a finite resource.
The company also pays attention to where the rest of its materials come from, from the metal used to set the stones to the packaging in which they are shipped. “We either use ultrasuede created from plant biomass or we use New Zealand. wool for the inserts in our ring boxes ”, added Robert Hagemann, CFO of Aether. “Then [we use] all interior cardboard structures FSC certified for our parts. We also carry out carbon offsets for logistics. “
In addition to being more environmentally friendly, diamonds grown by Aether are around 40% cheaper than their natural counterparts. This means that even in the low end of the market, say, a diamond solitaire ring that would cost $ 5,000 to $ 6,000 at the Zales at your local mall would only cost you $ 3,700 if the gems were made in the lab of Aether.
Aether’s efforts could have a disruptive effect on the global diamond market, an externality the company is hoping for. “If we take more market share, it will put the types of companies that abuse these people out of their business,” Hagemann said. “It’s good and bad. This is good because it ends something that probably shouldn’t happen in the first place, ”but bad because the once exploited workers are now unemployed.
To counter this, the company is looking to work with NGOs and nonprofits on conversion efforts or perhaps “establishing a footprint for solar power generation … there are many different ways. which we can step in and have a positive advantage in the areas that have had this historic negative impact, ”Hagemann said. “It’s a big goal for us.”
Going forward, Hagemann and Shearman hope to make Aether’s entire operation – and not just its diamonds – carbon negative by 2023. To do this, the team plans to vertically integrate its various stages of production. “The more control we have over our supply chain, the better able we will be to limit our overall carbon footprint,” noted Shearman. The company is also hoping to start using wind as a power source, “the ability to integrate sustainable power generation on-site is something we’ve been talking about since the very early days of the company.” Ultimately, Aether wishes to achieve a level of efficiency that will allow the company to push any excess energy production back to the local municipal grid.