Consumer interest in ethical and conflict-free diamonds has been growing steadily over the last 20 years, driven by increased awareness of the horrors of 'blood diamonds', worker exploitation and environmental damage associated with diamond mining and processing.
In the last five years, a dramatic increase in the availability of high-quality lab grown diamonds has also seen many consumers switching to these as an ethical (and more affordable) alternative to mined diamonds.
In this article, we explore the background and critical ethical issues around diamond sourcing and explain what you need to know and what you need to ask when looking to buy a conflict-free and ethical diamond.
What are blood diamonds?
The United Nations define blood diamonds or conflict diamonds as:
“...diamonds that originate from areas controlled by forces or factions opposed to legitimate and internationally recognised governments, and are used to fund military action in opposition to those governments”Source: https://press.un.org/en/2000/20001201.ga9839.doc.html
During the 1990s and the first decade of this century, hundreds of thousands of people were killed in wars fuelled by diamonds across Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Even today, diamonds continue to fund conflict in Cote d'Ivoire and eastern DRC, as well as the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
What are Kimberley certificates?
In 2003, in an attempt to eliminate the trade in conflict diamonds, 52 governments ratified the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS).
This scheme requires that all rough diamonds crossing an international border should be transported in a tamper-resistant container and be accompanied by a government-validated Kimberley Process Certificate; that each certificate should be resistant to forgery, uniquely numbered and describe the shipment's contents; and that shipments are only permitted between KPCS participant countries.
Kimberley-certified diamonds are not guaranteed to be conflict-free
While the Kimberley Process has reduced the trade in conflict diamonds, unfortunately, the problem has not been eliminated, and diamonds produced in conflict zones are being smuggled to neighbouring regions to be certified. Blood diamonds from the rebel-held north of Cote d'Ivoire and eastern DRC are still entering the market, as are diamonds from Zimbabwe, where the army took control of diamond fields by force, killing local people and making others work under the threat of violence.
Of grave concern since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has been the continued flow of Russian diamonds into the market. Russia produces almost one-third of all mined diamonds, and the US Treasury Department estimates that diamonds are one of Russia's top non-energy exports, having generated more than $4.5 billion in 2021.
In response to the war in Ukraine, the US banned the import of Russian diamonds and sanctioned the CEO of Alrosa (Russia's largest diamond mining company) and his father, a former chief of staff to Vladimir Putin.
However, the EU has continued to allow the import of Russian diamonds, and as a result, European consumers are inadvertently helping to fund Putin's war machine.
What are ethical diamonds?
The terms' ethical diamonds' and 'conflict-free diamonds' are often used interchangeably, but in reality, they don't have the same meaning.
Conflict diamonds, as defined by the UN and the Kimberley Process, only include diamonds from areas controlled by forces "opposed to legitimate and internationally recognised governments".Hence by this definition, Russian diamonds would be considered conflict-free, although very few people outside of Russia would consider them ethical.
Furthermore, the term conflict-free diamond takes no account of the environmental impact of diamond mining or human exploitation in diamond mining or processing.
Conflict-free diamonds vs ethical diamonds
Ethical diamonds are more than conflict-free; they are produced without child labour, by adults working in safe conditions for fair pay, and with due care for the environment.
In simple terms, if you don't know where your diamond came from, how can you be sure it was ethically produced? Likewise, if a jeweller cannot tell you where their diamonds are mined or where they are cut and polished, then any claims they make about ethical sourcing cannot be relied upon.
Where do natural diamonds come from?
Six countries produced more than 90% of the world's mined diamonds in 2021.
Global Share of Natural Diamond Production in 2021
Smaller producers grouped under the category of 'Others' include Zimbabwe, Namibia, Sierra Leone, Lesotho, Guinea, Brazil, CAR, Ghana and Tanzania. Australia ceased to be a major diamond mining nation in 2020 following the closure of the Argyle mine.
At Ingle & Rhode, we offer Canadian diamonds since we can trace them all the way through the supply chain from the mine of origin and can guarantee that they are conflict-free and produced responsibly.
Canadian employment legislation ensures that diamond mines operate with high health and safety standards, do not employ children, and pay miners fairly. In addition, Canadian environmental legislation requires that thorough environmental impact assessments are conducted before a new mine is approved, that mines operate in a way that minimises their impact on the local flora and fauna, and that the land is restored after a mine is closed.
We source our Canadian diamonds directly from a small number of suppliers audited and licensed under the CanadaMark programme because they operate ethical businesses and keep their Canadian diamonds separate and traceable through the supply chain. These select suppliers source rough diamonds from the Ekati and Diavik mines and then cut and polish them according to guidelines established by the Council for Responsible Jewellery Practices. They are fully traceable and laser-inscribed with a unique ID number.
What are lab-created diamonds?
Lab-created or lab grown diamonds are real diamonds made in a laboratory. They have exactly the same physical and chemical properties as mined diamonds. They are just as hard (10 on the Mohs scale) and sparkle just as much! Even a trained gemologist cannot distinguish between a lab-created diamond and a natural diamond without sophisticated equipment.
The interest in lab-created diamonds has grown dramatically over the last few years, and for good reasons. Not only are lab diamonds more affordable than natural diamonds, but they also have a lower environmental impact than mined diamonds.
Read our Guide to Lab Grown Diamonds for a detailed analysis of all the key issues.
How to buy an ethical diamond
Traceability is a prerequisite
The starting point for anybody who wants to know whether or not a diamond has been ethically produced is traceability.
So, if you're buying a natural diamond, the first thing you should ask any jeweller is, "Where was this diamond mined?" If they don't know where a diamond came from, how can they possibly know whether it was produced ethically?
Ask for a certificate of origin
If your jeweller can tell you where a diamond was mined, and you're happy with the country of origin, then ask them for proof and a certificate of origin, such as a CanadaMark certificate.
Don't rely on Kimberley certification
Almost every jeweller will tell you that their diamonds are Kimberley-certified and that this guarantees that they are ethical diamonds. But as you've learned, Kimberley certification doesn't even guarantee that a diamond is conflict-free, given that one in three Kimberley-certified diamonds is Russian! And Kimberley certification doesn't even begin to address the issues of human exploitation and environmental damage.
Choose a lab-created diamond
By choosing a lab grown diamond you eliminate the risk of buying a conflict diamond, and your lab grown diamond is also likely to have had a lower environmental impact than a mined diamond. However, you should still ask your jeweller where the rough crystal was grown, where it was cut and polished, and whether or not production is being powered by sustainable energy sources such as solar, wind and hydroelectric.
Be wary if your jeweller is vague about where their diamonds come from or can't seem to answer questions about working conditions and production processes.
Are all diamonds unethical?
No. While there are many problems in the diamond supply chain, from conflict or blood diamonds to worker exploitation and environmental damage, this doesn't mean that every diamond is unethical.
At Ingle & Rhode, we offer our customers two options for ethical diamonds: natural diamonds from Canada or lab grown diamonds.
We can trace our Canadian diamonds back through our supply chain to the mine of origin, and we can guarantee that both our Canadian diamonds and our lab grown diamonds are conflict-free and are produced in a socially- and environmentally- responsible manner. Our diamonds are produced by adults working with fair pay and conditions and with due care for the environment.
Are ethical diamonds more expensive?
No. At Ingle & Rhode, we offer only ethical diamonds at very competitive prices. If a jeweller uses "ethical credentials" to charge a premium for diamonds, then you should steer clear of them!
How do you know if a diamond is ethically sourced?
It is only possible to know if a diamond was ethically-produced if you can trace it back through the supply chain.
This is particularly important at the moment as about one in three mined diamonds come from Russia, and the income from these helps to fund Putin's invasion of Ukraine. Be aware that Russian diamonds are Kimberley certified as conflict-free, so simply being Kimberley certified is not enough. You should ask your jeweller for proof that a diamond is not Russian, ideally in the form of a certificate of origin.
Your jeweller should also be able to discuss the environmental impact of the diamond they are supplying, where it was cut and polished, and under what working conditions.
We offer Canadian and lab-grown diamonds that we can guarantee to be conflict-free and produced in a socially- and environmentally-responsible manner.
Are ethically-sourced diamonds the same quality?
Yes. Whether a diamond has been ethically sourced or not has no bearing on its quality, and you should consider the same 4Cs of diamonds to choose the right diamond for you. For diamonds of 0.3ct and above, choosing a stone with a diamond certificate from a reputable gemological laboratory is advisable.
Unfortunately, there are some significant ethical problems associated with diamonds, including:
- Diamonds used to fund conflict (with Russian diamonds being of particular concern right now) and the failure of the Kimberly process to adequately deal with this issue.
- Environmental damage caused by diamond mining.
- Worker exploitation in the mining and processing of diamonds.
It is important to remember that the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme does not guarantee that a diamond is conflict-free; and that an ethical diamond is more than just conflict-free. So, if it's important to you that you only buy an ethical diamond, you need to ask your jeweller some important questions, such as:
At Ingle & Rhode, we sell only traceable ethical diamonds and gemstones, which we can guarantee are conflict-free and are produced by adults working with fair pay and good conditions. In practice, this means that we offer our customers a choice of natural Canadian diamonds and lab grown diamonds.
- Where was the diamond mined, and can you provide proof of this, for example, a certificate of origin?
- Where was my diamond cut and polished, and what are the conditions and pay like for the workers?
- What steps have been taken to minimise the environmental impact of producing this diamond?
Similarly, we only source coloured gemstones that we can trace back to ethical producers – including sapphires from Sri Lanka, Australia and the US, rubies from Mozambique, and emeralds from Zambia – and we only use ethical precious metals, such as recycled platinum and Fairtrade gold.
Please feel free to get in touch if you have any questions!