Riya Mehta, a 30-year-old techie from Delhi is planning her dream wedding at a palace hotel in Rajasthan. A firm believer of sustainability and purpose, Riya has made sure that the hotel she is going to get married in adopts sustainable practices too. While the likes of using solar power or using water conservation techniques are a given, the food that would be served at the wedding would be authentic Rajasthani affair cooked by the local community and the ingredients would be sourced from a radius of three kilometres. The entertainment would also be local folk music and not high decibel Bollywood songs. Even more interesting is Riya’s wedding ring which she claims is a sustainable solitaire diamond. It’s actually a lab-grown diamond ring which she bought from an upmarket store in London.

Lab-grown diamonds are developed in a laboratory. As opposed to a natural diamond which takes millions of years of heat and pressure to get created, a lab-grown diamond is created by applying similar heat and pressure in a laboratory. Since there is no mining and ecological damage involved, millennials and Gen-Z consumers, like Riya, are increasingly moving towards lab-grown diamonds. These diamonds cost 25%-30% less than natural diamonds and are therefore more pocket-friendly too. “The Gen-Z consumer is looking for brands which are responsible, have ethical values and a conscience,” explains Bijou Kurien, chairman, Retailers Association of India (RAI).

The lab-grown diamond market, according to a report by Allied Market Research, was valued at $19.3 billion in 2020 and is estimated to be a $49.9 billion market by 2030. It currently comprises 6%-7% of the diamond market but it is growing rapidly. Even the world’s largest natural diamonds manufacturer, De Beers has a lab-grown diamond arm, Lightbox. The other prominent brands include VRAI, Ritani, Brilliant Earth and Blue Nile.

Will lab-grown diamonds actually replace natural diamonds? “There is a place for both,” says Marc Jacheet, CEO, De Beers Brands. “The truth is that a natural diamond is not only a few grams of carbon. It is the emotional charge which promises to be unique and precious. When a man tells a woman you are my everything, you are my eternal, is what diamonds represent symbolically. Lab-grown diamonds are made through a chemical process and four weeks later you get a diamond. Is that precious or unique, certainly not,” Jacheet adds.

However, the natural diamond industry is shrouded with questions around ethics. There is a debate around blood diamonds and conflict-free diamonds. Blood diamonds are those which get traded between people for guns while conflict diamonds refer to buying from mines which have either engaged under-aged labourers, are causing damage to the environment, or one is buying from intermediaries who have traded from undesirable sources.

Consumers are indeed becoming increasingly conscious about the origin of the diamonds, but the natural diamond industry, says David Kellie, CEO, Natural Diamond Council (NDC), has already done a considerable amount of work to ensure that the natural diamonds it mines are ethical. Most consumers are worried about the atrocities that happen in the diamond mines. Kellie claims the diamond industry has been practising sustainability much before it was a cool phrase to use.

“In the last 20 years the diamond industry has done a considerable amount of work. Be it in the mines in Africa or Canada as well as in Surat (where the diamonds are cut and polished), it is incredible what the industry has done in terms of the prosperity of its people. Almost a third of Botswana’s GDP comes from the diamond industry and every child under the age of 13 gets free education there. There are hospitals and roads. I don’t know of an industry which provides such organised infrastructure to a country. It’s not an industry which shouts about it that it looks after its people,” says Kellie.

Even when it comes to energy consumption, Kellie claims that companies are looking at how they can use renewable fuel in the trucks and in the mines. “It’s all done in a collaborative way, and companies are even sharing technology which is also a great way to reduce carbon footprint.”

De Beers' Jacheet says that his company is cruising towards carbon neutrality in 2030. He almost takes offense when asked if the diamonds he sells are cruelty free. “What we do at De Beers is mesmerising. It’s incredibly sophisticated, safety is an absolute priority. What kind of cruelty are we talking about,” he questions. “When we started these operations in Botswana, the people were suffering, that was the cruelty time. There was just 3 kms of road, AIDs everywhere, 20 years later the country has 3,000 kms of road, thousands of little girls going to school, hospital everywhere,” Jacheet further adds.

The value of lab-grown diamonds is on the decline, says Jacheet. “Around 10 years ago it was costing $4,000, today it is around $400. Therefore, we have positioned Lightbox where we see this industry land, which means costume jewellery, every day wear jewellery.”

The De Beers Brands CEO doesn’t agree that lab-grown diamonds are ecologically friendlier. “Over 80% of lab grown diamonds are produced by using non-renewable energy which have carbon footprints higher than natural diamonds.” He goes on to compare the carbon footprint generated by a Mumbai-New York flight with the carbon dioxide that goes into natural diamonds. “You need about 150 kgs of carbon-dioxide per karat to polish a natural diamond, while the Mumbai-New York plane will consume a tonne of carbon-dioxide. You can polish 6 karats of diamond at the price of a Mumbai-New York flight.”

So, are there more like Riya Mehta who would consider buying a diamond only if they are sure of its origin? “They don’t ask direct questions while making a purchase, but what they do want to know when they buy an overall product is whether it is contributing positively to the planet. When they buy a car, they don’t ask about carbon footprint because they are buying a hybrid car, it’s a given that it is environment friendly. Consumers want the companies to do the right thing,” explains Kellie.

He says that 20% of the natural diamond market comprises luxury brands and all of them build into the narrative the angle of ethics and sustainability. “They look at traceability, understanding very specifically where the diamond comes from and ensuring that the diamond is contributing positively to the prosperity of the planet. A lot of blockchain technology is being used by the industry.”

Ajoy Chawla, CEO (jewellery division), Titan, says that though consumers in India are not really asking pointed questions about ethics or whether a diamond is cruelty free. Keeping in mind its philosophy of being a purposeful brand, the company has put in place rigid practices to make sure that not just diamonds, but also gold and coloured stones it uses are ethically sourced.

“Sustainability getting defined as traceability or where the diamond or gold has come from, is a western perspective. They think all the cruelty is happening in the mines. When you see the way jewellery is made in India, you will recognise it is a sweatshop. It is pathetic when you see the miserable working conditions of millions of karigars in India. Over the last 25 years Tanishq has transformed the way we get our products made,” says Chawla, referring to the karigar parks Tanishq has set up across the country to bring out the best in the karigars.

Chawla says that while most of the cutting and polishing centres in Surat have industry accepted best-practices, most of the big diamonds that come out of there are exported. “Over 90% of the diamonds bought and sold in this country are small diamonds subcontracted in small sweatshops in parts of Saurashtra. We are on a journey and hopefully by the end of this financial year we will ensure all our partners come to levels which are above cottage industry standards. We are working with diamond suppliers on this to responsibly source, as well as responsibly cut and polish in India.”

There is a strange dichotomy when it comes to consumers' interest in sustainability especially when it comes to buying diamonds. While they are certainly interested in knowing about the origin of diamond that goes in their rings or necklaces, they are not willing to pay a premium. “If the consumer was prepared to pay that premium it would encourage more industries to invest in sustainability. However, when they buy a jewel or a holiday, they do want to know in total whether it is providing a positive impact on the planet,” explains Kellie.

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