Fuelling the ongoing and ever-more complex ‘natural vs. lab-grown diamonds’ debate, the announcement sparked criticism from several diamond and jewellery industry corporations. As a jeweller known for not being shy when it comes to voicing her opinions, our Creative Director Arabel Lebrusan is often asked about her take on the dispute. Today, she shares her thoughts; and they’re anything but black or white.
There are roughly 7.65 billion people in the world, and for every one of those people, the word ‘ethical’ means something slightly different. It’s a term that cannot be defined in simplistic terms, with many socioeconomic frameworks created through the years to try to pin down, precisely, the concept of ethics and sustainability.
The lens through which we currently choose to view the world is the Doughnut Economics framework. A concept coined by British economist Kate Raworth, the Doughnut symbolises Earth’s social and planetary boundaries. Humanity’s challenge in the 21st century is to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials – from food to housing, healthcare or a political voice – while also ensuring that collectively we don’t put too much pressure on Planet Earth’s life-supporting systems. These systems, on which we all fundamentally depend, include a stable climate, fertile soils and a protective ozone layer. An ideal world is a world where we can all exist comfortably within these boundaries; within the Doughnut.
In this fair and sustainable world, big corporations whose profits nourish only the lucky few simply don’t have a role to play. Instead, small lifestyle businesses, organised from the ground up, play a crucial part in distributing wealth and joy to all. The more people benefited by a particular product or venture, the better.
Basing Lebrusan Studio’s operations on the Doughnut Economics framework, we currently prioritise recycling over using newly mined materials. We’ve reached a state of climate emergency, and it’s now more vital than ever that we slow the rate at which we’re expending our planet’s natural resources. “We will always support artisanal and small-scale miners – there are millions worldwide who need an income,” says Arabel. “But right now, we’re trying our hardest to strike a balance that’s sympathetic to the current landscape. When we do use newly mined materials, we ensure that the benefit is felt by as many players down the supply chain as possible, which is why we choose materials that are traceable and fair-traded. That way we know that those involved are paid properly and treated with compassion.”
Over the course of a little longer than a hundred years, the natural diamond industry has gained a seriously bloody reputation. Responsible for civil war, violence, forced labour and environmental devastation, it’s understandable that society’s perception of mined diamonds is largely sceptical. Today, a handful of enormous mining corporations, like De Beers, ALROSA and Rio Tinto are responsible for producing the majority of the world’s diamonds, leaving huge room for improvement when it comes to the fair distribution of wealth. So, when Pandora says that their boycott of natural diamonds is “the right thing to do”, they’re not wrong, right?
Unfortunately, it's not as simple as that. Statements like this one are a crippling blow to consumer perceptions of natural diamonds. To date, numerous case studies support the argument that diamond mining has the potential to be a powerful force for good. “In a world where the richest 1% of people currently possess double the total wealth of the remaining 99%, responsible mining, and the social ventures generated by it, are a great place to start in our mission of liberation and distributing wealth,” Arabel tells us. “When local and aboriginal communities are consulted, natural habitats carefully considered, sound socioeconomic policies implemented (like those in Botswana) and rehabilitation plans executed once mines have served their purpose (like those potentially set to draw a line beneath Australia’s Argyle mine over the coming years), the positive impacts far outweigh the negatives.”
So, we understand, to an extent, why a number of jewellery groups are unhappy about Pandora’s simplistic claim that lab-grown diamonds are the way forwards.
What’s contentious for us, however, is the World Diamond Council’s decision to weaponise artisanal and small-scale diamond miners within their argument:
“For people living in artisanal and small-scale diamond mining communities, stopping the mining of diamonds would remove a primary source of income and would have devastating impacts on their livelihoods, causing poverty and further unrest.”
Having never referenced the artisanal mining communities in the past, this sudden bandwagon-hop is quite rightly being perceived as a lazy and self-serving move.
So, what about lab-grown diamonds?
Whilst there are many responsible mining success stories, there are many, murky facets of the natural diamond industry that cannot be overlooked. For example, an estimated 6,000lbs of mineral waste is created and 250 tonnes of earth shifted for every carat of natural diamond. To put that into context, 148 million carats of diamonds were mined in 2018, which displaced an astounding 37,000,000,000 tonnes of earth. Disruption from lab-based production, meanwhile, is minimal, with many labs even offsetting their carbon footprint with renewable energy.
At least 15 countries in Africa are responsible for diamond production, each underpinned by its own unique set of laws and governmental policies. Some, like Botswana, set the benchmark for responsible mining practices, while others like Zimbabwe are mired by criminal activity, with injustices slipping through the cracks of complex legislations.
It’s no surprise, then, that the brave new world of lab-grown diamonds is so appealing to conscious consumers and jewellers alike. Without the associations of forced labour, death, violence, earth displacement or workplace injury, for many, the lab-grown stone is a guilt-free haven.
As an ethical business, it’s Lebrusan Studio’s duty to make decisions and investments that are beneficial to the future of humanity. We can’t do that by working with lab-grown diamonds alone. Within the context of the Doughnut, synthetic stones simply don’t tend to crucial socioeconomic needs. Does the natural diamond trade need a serious overhaul, however? Absolutely.
In Arabel’s view, the foundation of that overhaul is a society that prioritises Mother Earth and the universal wellbeing of her living inhabitants. “Ideally, a vast proportion of our planet would be unavailable to large-scale mining corporations. These havens would be protected by ‘commons’ laws which enable individuals and communities to avoid hunger by exercising their right to substance agriculture, managed from the bottom up,” she says.
In 2009 political economist Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Science for demonstrating the concept of ‘perfect order’ in her book Governing the Commons, which explored examples of local communities that are able to organise themselves and thrive without top-down regulations or privatisation. If successful in the realms of agriculture, Arabel wonders why this approach shouldn’t also be applied to mining. “Could we treat mining regions as commons and allow those who wish to exercise small-scale mining to organise themselves from the bottom up? Could forcing large corporations to share the pie in this way encourage them to distribute their knowledge of natural resources and enable commons to flourish alongside their own sites?,” she asks.
In many countries, small-scale mining is still an illegal activity. As part of the overhaul, Arabel envisages a world wherein small-scale miners are legally recognised everywhere. “Ideally, they’d be organised in cooperatives - or in fact, in whichever format they feel is the best fit. Quality education on environmental impact, health and safety would be a fundamental part of the job,” she explains.
Lab-grown diamonds are pretty. They’re exciting, too. “From a jewellers’ perspective, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t mesmerised by the sizes and colour palettes available to us when we delve into the realm of lab-grown stones,” Arabel says. “And quite rightly, our minds are blown when we think about the clever humans out there in labs, combining the ingredients provided by Mother Nature to create something beautiful.”
But are lab-grown diamonds our future? As a solitary entity, it’s a “no” from Arabel.
When mined responsibly, natural diamonds carry the potential to distribute wealth to the people who need it the most; to change the world, even. Our wish for the diamond industry is to ensure that this potential is fulfilled. After all, beautiful jewellery is more than just surface bling.