Special Guest Q&A with Danielle Keller Aviram: Understanding the Impacts of Lab-Grown & Natural Diamonds

environmental impacts expert insights q&a social impacts sustainable living Apr 17, 2024

Danielle Keller Aviram is a sustainability consultant, researcher, and lecturer living in Berlin, Germany, specializing in all things jewelry and luxury fashion. Danielle and I connected after we shared a story in our newsletter questioning the true impacts of lab-grown diamonds - can we really call lab-grown diamonds sustainable if they come from factories reliant on coal?

Danielle got in touch with us, and after a few emails back and forth, it was clear that the impacts of lab-grown diamonds, and the jewelry industry as a whole, are not so cut and dry…

This is a topic that needs to be shared with consumers around the world, and since we’re all about education here at The Underswell, we asked Danielle if she’d be up for sharing some of her insights and expertise with us. 

Danielle and I had a great conversation - I learned a lot and walked away with a sense of curiosity towards the complexities that make up the jewelry industry. 

In case you’re short on time, here are 5 things I took away from our talk:

  1. It Depends - when trying to compare lab-grown diamonds to natural diamonds, it’s not an easy apples-to-apples comparison. Impacts vary and in both industries, there’s still more work that needs to be done.
  2. We Can’t Fix What We Don’t Know - there’s not enough data or research measuring the impacts of natural diamonds. Until this work is done, there will be blindspots in the industry.
  3. Need for Innovation & Collaboration - brands are innovating, using lab-grown diamonds in a creative way, but adoption has been slow. Brands and industry organizations must work together to find solutions.
  4. Social Impacts Continue - conflict around diamonds, precious metals and minerals persists, and without traceability mechanisms, we’ll continue to be in the dark
  5. Consumers Hold Enormous Power - using your voice to ask brands about their suppliers, sustainability initiatives, and holding them accountable has the power to shift the industry. Voting with your dollar can work wonders.

I hope you enjoy our chat, and thank you to Danielle for sharing your knowledge with me.

McKenzie: All right, Danielle. So thank you for taking the time to sit down with me and discuss some of the complexities of sustainability in the jewelry industry. Before we dive into today's topic, can you please share some of the details about your background and how you started working on sustainability within the jewelry industry?

Danielle: My background is in jewelry design and accessory design. I did a BA focused on this topic and did an internship at Marks and Spencer, and had my own small brand afterward where I sold mainly silver and gold jewelry in shops and galleries in Europe and in the US a bit, and also direct to consumer. 

Then at some point, I started asking my suppliers a lot of questions about the material - where things come from, if they can share anything about the process of the materials, and anything about the journey. I either got some weird replies like "Why are you interested about that,” or replies that were like “We don't know.” 

So basically I didn't get a lot of answers. Then I understood probably I hit something, but I didn’t know how to open up this Pandora box. I started researching a bit; I found, of course, a lot of issues popping up. The main thing that I found was everything around blood diamonds and the movie that was done with Leonardo DiCaprio about the war in Sierra Leone and everything around the civil conflict there between different groups, but couldn't find a lot of other things popping up and definitely couldn't find a lot of solutions offered.

But, what I found was a lot of information about the impacts of fashion and I was like “Okay, probably, maybe it's connected somehow. I'm sure that there are some similarities.” I applied to do an MA that was focused on sustainability in fashion. I learned a lot about the textile and fashion supply chain and was really impressed because I was reflecting on where I'm coming from and saw a lot of differences, but also a lot of similarities.

Since I graduated, I've been doing a lot of freelance work, mainly around researching, consulting and lecturing on sustainable jewelry or the path towards sustainability in the jewelry industry. I work with industry organizations, with private companies, with associations, with NGOs - a lot of different types of clients, providing them with personalized support.

McKenzie: Before we get into the details, can you please explain what lab-grown diamonds are? Because we focus on sustainability, can you explain the social and environmental benefits of lab-grown diamonds?

Danielle: I can try. So basically it's a technology that, if I'm not mistaken, has existed for a few decades but got really popular in the last probably like two, three decades-ish and really popular in the last few years. It's basically imitating nature's conditions, which require a lot of heat and air pressure to create carbon molecules that in the end form into a diamond. It’s actually, from a chemical perspective, the same as natural diamond - if you look in a lot of conventional microscopes, you would see the same chemical structure.

In terms of benefits, for every benefit, there is also a downside. Operating a mine requires a lot of resources and some of the impacts are not even fully measured. 

Imagine that you have this massive hole in the ground somewhere. It requires putting infrastructure in these places because people are working there. Machines need to reach there. You need to have energy for these machines to operate. You need to have water pumps. You need to have excavators. You need to have tractors. If there are people working there, you need to bring them food, water, and a place to stay. Also, it's in areas where there is a fully functioning ecosystem of animals and plants and soil and air and everything works balanced, and then you open a huge pit in the ground. 

So, when you grow things in a lab you avoid all of that. But in order to imitate nature's conditions into creating a diamond, you need to have a lot of energy because it requires high temperature and high pressure. You need to create specific kilns that preserve these conditions, and if the energy is coming from a non-renewable resource, which in a lot of situations this is actually the case, then it's clearly not sustainable.

There are some mines that require a lot of human resources so you have a lot of workers mining. On one hand, they earn money while they mine but on the other hand, in a lot of situations, they are working in really complicated conditions, some of them even dangerous. All of that is avoided when you have a lab-grown diamond. You have some workers, but not the same quantity in order to create the same amount of diamonds.

I think there are still a lot of areas in general in jewelry when we're talking about sustainability that are barely discussed. 

McKenzie: You're right - not having the figures, we don't know what the impacts are. So that's probably a good place to transition to the LCA work. Has there been any LCA work done by a third party to understand the impacts and benefits of ethically sourced diamonds, natural conventionally mined diamonds, and lab-grown diamonds?

Danielle: I know of a few partial LCA researches that have been done, but there are blind spots. 

A few years ago a consultancy was hired by what is now the Natural Diamond Council; they were hired to do an LCA proving that lab-grown diamonds have higher energy intake than natural diamonds. 

So just to give you maybe a broader perspective, the Natural Diamond Council is a membership organization that, basically, if you have a business that is somehow associated with natural diamonds, then you have an interest to be part of them. You pay a membership fee and part of their work is marketing and advocating for the benefits of natural diamonds. Their main focus is trying to emphasize the fact that any diamond that is not naturally mined either impacts providing jobs or that there is something special to diamonds that are mined that is taken out when you buy a diamond that is made in a factory, although technically there is no difference.

I think it was like 2018 that this research was done or maybe 2019, and according to their research and their analysis, lab-grown diamonds have a higher carbon footprint. It was based on the assumption that the grid is coal-based and I think that the comparison is between naturally mined one-carat polished diamond and one-carat of lab-grown diamond. It [the LCA] has been paid for by the Natural Diamond Council, so they clearly have some kind of an interest. So, from my knowledge, this is the only LCA trying to compare these two.

In general, in fashion, the topic of LCA is very present in a lot of discussions, whereas in jewelry, we are behind in this discussion. There is not yet enough data for covering the issues along the supply chain. There are areas in the supply chain where there is basically no data, so nobody can tell you “What are the environmental or social impacts of polishing diamonds?” How much dust, if people have respiratory diseases or not. So LCA is still, unfortunately, a few steps ahead.

McKenzie: So going back to the Natural Diamond Council, is that similar to Textile Exchange in the fashion industry? A whole bunch of brands pay in to be a member and get access to resources?

Danielle: Yeah, but it's much more marketing focused I feel. I think that with the developments in the last year, geopolitical developments, their main focus was telling a good story to justify or to encourage consumers to invest in natural diamonds. 

The space we are operating in is that for two years now, there is the war between Russia and Ukraine. I think more than 30% of the natural diamond flow comes from Russia. Because of the lack of traceability and transparency, it opened up a lot of problems for a lot of companies saying that their diamonds are not actually sourced from Russia. Once they come to India or China or Antwerp, and they've been polished there, it counts as if they are made in Antwerp or India. 

I think Textile Exchange is also focused on research and knowledge creation and sharing and has much more industry responsibility compared to the Natural Diamond Council. I'm not an expert on the full responsibilities of each organization, but from my view, I think there is some difference there.

McKenzie: And it seems like too, and correct me if I'm wrong here, but it seems like there's some of that old school thinking that there's an exclusivity to them [natural diamonds]. It's like “This is only for a certain group of people who make a certain amount of money,” and it seems like lab-grown diamonds are disrupting that status quo by making it more available to more people. Do you think that that plays into why some of these brands are a little slower to adopt lab-grown diamonds into their product offering?

Danielle: I think that these brands are now struggling between their push towards doing some sustainability actions and initiatives, and their wish to stay exclusive and rare, for this “limited club” audience.

I think Pandora is now using lab-grown diamonds. I think, if I'm not mistaken, it's for a limited collection, but they declared that they are going to switch completely to lab-grown diamonds.

Surprisingly, Prada just launched a small collection that is using lab-grown diamonds and I think their main benefit in this story, and this is I think the benefit technology wise for lab-grown diamonds, is that you can grow diamonds in any shape you want. So they created a new shape that is in the same proportions as their logo. 

Image Credit: Prada

Besides them, I don't know of any other luxury brand that is actually using lab-grown diamonds.

McKenzie: When we talk to our students, we typically highlight three major areas every brand should be working on as traceability, human rights, and climate. In your experience, how has the jewelry industry tackled these areas?

Danielle: They are trying to tackle, but struggling in all of them actually. I think for people working in fashion and sustainability they are frustrated about how things move slow whereas- I agree that things move slow and they should move faster- but working in the jewelry industry, you understand things are way slower and we are way behind. 

I think the main problem or the main thing with transparency is that consumers are not yet aware enough, or not strongly protesting or strongly demanding the companies to act differently. Whereas with fashion, I feel like there is more and more pressure on fashion companies to act differently.

People associate diamonds with human rights violations, and yeah, it reached a really big Hollywood movie that a lot of us, if not saw, we heard about the story. At the same time, this is still happening as we speak. There are still civil wars happening in Africa, but not just in Africa. 

Around precious minerals and mining communities, they have constant violations between rebel groups. The mechanism that the industry created after the war in Sierra Leone, the Kimberley Process, was supposed to bring some kind of security that diamonds would be forced to undergo a process guaranteeing that they do not come from any conflict, is not really a functioning mechanism. 

This is just one mechanism that exists specifically for diamonds and is supposed to be tackling the issue of conflict, but there are a lot of other problems that are not discussed.

Definitely, the data issue is a big problem, so until someone comes in and benchmarks everything equally into parameters that are neutral, then it will be hard to say one thing or the other.

McKenzie: From your perspective, what do you think would need to happen for that change [to come]?

Danielle: So I think first of all, setting up some kind of a collaborative, collective group from the industry that would understand that there is a need for in-depth professional research and data collection and that everyone is willing to share into the pool of the research - not just funding, but also their own data. 

I think similar to what was the intention of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, I think something like this can be a good start.

In terms of the conflict issues around diamonds, I think it would make sense to put aside the existing scheme that is clearly not working and not solving any conflict-related issues and setting up something new. 

McKenzie: Are there any tips that you can offer consumers who say “I want to buy a sustainable diamond. Where do I start? Where do I look?”

Danielle: I think they need to first understand where are their values. I think similarly if what's important for you is to avoid microplastics, then what you should do is not buy any synthetic textiles. 

If human rights violations or anything around social aspects is what moves you, then this is what you should try and focus on. Then I would start by asking questions.

If the brand, the business, can provide anything about where the materials come from, who mines them, who polishes them, in which conditions, if they know how much they earn, if they can guarantee the safety of the working environment. Do they get any social benefits? Do they pay any premium for the materials so resources can go back to communities to set up better living conditions or infrastructure, or things like this? 

I think it's questions that are worth asking. Maybe once brands get more and more questions like that, they would understand it's worth investing energy and time in setting up a proper respected, responsible supply chain.

If the environment is something that is more important for them, then I would say the same. It might make sense to use lab-grown diamonds and make sure that they are coming from a renewable resource energy grid.

I think once things are done in a lab then it's also easier to trace them. I know that some companies, for example, that are producing lab-grown diamonds based on renewable energy can sometimes share the exact machine that created your diamond. So it's traceable literally to the most specific location, so it's not just a city or a pin dropped on the map. It can be literally to the hour, date and batch that the diamond was created. 

I'm not promoting anything, but there are some companies that although they're mining natural diamonds, they are doing a lot of work around environmental stewardship, so investing a lot in mining rehabilitation or supporting natural ecosystems. 

For example, there is a mark called Canadamark that is actually emphasizing diamonds that are naturally mined, but through the premium that you pay, there is a fund that goes back to the areas rebuilding it, supporting biodiversity projects. Canadamark is relevant to diamonds mined in Canada's Northwest Territories and can be traced back to the mine while ensuring the ecosystem is preserved, working conditions are safe and secure and the rights of indigenous communities there are also maintained. I know that also De Beers is doing a lot of biodiversity projects in areas around where they mine.

Image Credit: Canadamark

I think even if you buy lab-grown diamonds, which are cheaper than natural, it's still not necessarily an investment in the classic way of investment. It's still, for most of us, quite a decent purchase, it's not buying tomatoes. It's worth making a deep, thought-out choice.

McKenzie: Are there any brands that you really love or think are doing great work?

Danielle: I can tell you more from my area, so I don't know if it's relevant to you, but I can also research that and come up with some examples from your side of the ocean. 

There is a French brand called Courbet. They are using lab-grown diamonds and I think also recycled gold, which I'm a really high supporter of recycled gold. There is another German brand called Vieri and they are also using recycled gold. I think it's mainly coming from e-waste, if I'm not mistaken, and also all of their precious stones are coming from small communities.

McKenzie: So last thing that I want to ask you - if people want to connect with you, if someone wants to work with you, what's the best way for someone to get in touch with you?

Danielle: I would say the best way would probably be LinkedIn. I would be happy to share that.

Once again, thank you to Danielle for taking the time to talk through the issues and potential of the jewelry industry. I hope you enjoyed this piece, and if you’d like to see another Q&A like this one, please email our team at [email protected] with your ideas.

Looking to buy some responsible jewelry? Shop Danielle’s recommendations here:

Want to dive in and learn more? Check out these topics/resources Danielle mentioned in our talk:

Top 35 Things to Know if  you're learning about Sustainability in the Apparel Industry. Have you downloaded the guide yet?

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