With consumer awareness of the ethical and environmental issues behind diamonds has come increasing demand to have cake and eat it too; people want to be able to buy diamonds while being assured they are ethically sourced. In response, the industry has happily established an assortment of ‘certification’ programmes designed to ensure people that their diamonds come from safe, ethical sources so they don’t need to feel like they’re wearing blood and oil on their hands or at their wrists and throats. It’s a perfect example of how consumer-driven demand for something creates a cloak which allows people to feel comfortable without making any real change.
Diamonds are not the only precious stones surrounded by cloudy, dubious circumstances. Worldwide, mining for precious stones is environmentally destructive and it exploits human populations, especially indigenous ones. Miners make a fraction of the money the stones sell for, and they are exposed to toxic chemicals and dangerous work environments to earn that money. Mining is a dirty, dirty industry, whether you’re talking diamonds or rubies, and people who avoid diamonds to purchase other stones may not be contributing to diamond-associated problems, or buying into the diamond hype, but they are by no means not contributing to human suffering.
The dirtiness of mining is especially repulsive when lab-grown gems are available. Though people may sneer at them, they are chemically identical, can be cultured in a variety of colours, require the same skills to process, and look absolutely beautiful. They’re also identical to naturally-formed stones. Yet, there’s a stigma against lab-grown stones that leads people to reject them when they’re offered as an option, even when those people claim to care about exploitation and the environment. They want to buy gems and they want ‘the real thing’ and they aren’t willing to ‘settle’ for lab-growns.
This delights the diamond industry, which can neatly hit several PR markers with one go. It can claim to be responsive to consumer concerns in addition to being socially responsible with certification programmes, and it can demand more money for certified diamonds because of the implied added work involved. Meanwhile, consumers unwittingly promote the industry and its certifications even further when they talk about their stones and the sourcing, often unaware of the details behind it and the dubious nature of those certifications.
Because a certification programme run internally is not very effective. The diamond industry is in the business of selling diamonds. It wants to sell more diamonds, and it wants to take advantage of marketing opportunities. Certification is about marketing, not about ethics; it’s selling an idea to consumers, who eagerly buy it because they want to be responsible or they experience social pressure to do so, or because they want to be able to use class signaling to alert other people to their responsibility. Certification allows you to flash your ring and talk about how great it is that you can wear lovely diamonds without feeling guilty about it.
Realistically, it’s hard to follow an individual stone through the supply stream, as is implied with many ‘ethical’ certifications. It’s also hard to keep contaminated stones out of the supply stream, a problem that’s been documented with detailed forensic analysis. Put simply, the market for diamonds and its structure create a continued demand for dirty stones, and a supply is available. It will keep supplying that demand unless the industry undergoes radical changes, which it will not, not when it can present certification as a veneer to appease consumers without making any actual shifts in business and policy.
And of course the diamond industry is delighted to see many ‘ethical’ consumers refusing lab-grown gems, because this means their campaigns about what diamonds mean, what they symbolise, what they should mean to consumers are working. People have the idea that stones grown in a lab are worth less emotionally, and this means they don’t want them, and would look askance at someone presenting such a stone as a gift. A ‘certified’ stone of origin that is very difficult to prove without access to a lab, on the other hand, is a suitable expression of friendship, devotion, or other emotions. Make no mistake, the mining industry has contributed heavily to the thinking on lab-grown stones, right down to the fact that they are called ‘fake’ or ‘artificial’ when, chemically, they are neither of those things.
These certification programmes look away when faced with human rights violations, indicating that they are fundamentally flawed even if it was possible to tightly monitor and control supply chains. The Kimberly Process, considered one of the gold standards of certification, has a broken supply chain to begin with; it’s not even trying to keep conflict diamonds out with its approved suppliers, and thus worrying about contamination with smuggled stones seems almost foolish, given that the approved and public policies openly continue to support human rights abuses.
Those certificates are also forgeable, and they are forged, routinely, to sell stones to people eager to buy something with a pedigree, because it makes them feel better. Those certifications assure buyers that a stone is the real deal, even if the price is suspiciously low or the circumstances are somewhat dubious. They, too, the dealer assures them, can afford ‘ethical diamonds’ and don’t need to settle for tainted, contaminated stones. The industry aggressively policies forgeries when it can because they cut into its bottom line, of course, but that doesn’t stop them from happening, nor does it stop consumers from buying the line of goods they’re sold.
Honesty about the facts of the global gem trade requires facing some ugly truths, like the fact that being ethical may require you to buy lab-grown stones, or use recycled stones from older family jewelry. These are things people don’t like to hear.