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Do Sustainable Diamonds Exist? A Deep Dive Into Diamond Mining

The diamond industry promises sustainable diamonds & improved transparency. Does it deliver?

There’s a certain mystique to earth-mined diamonds. Sure, these rare pieces of atomic perfection contain a billion years of history and the romance of faraway places. But, they’re also the target of massive machinery and endless human ingenuity to find and extract them. If you’ve only considered diamonds intriguing because of their role in our emotional lives, brace yourself — their origins are just as dramatic. And origins are the topic of interest for a lot of marketing efforts.

We see a lot of claims about sustainable diamonds, ethically sourced diamonds, and eco-friendly diamonds, but, what does any of it mean? Do sustainable diamonds even exist? To answer that, we dig into the origins of diamonds, and diamond mining.

There are three main kinds of diamond mining popular today — ranging from small scale to massive, and even underwater operations. We’ll take a closer look at each.

PIT MINING

Large scale diamond mining

The most common kind of diamond mining is pit mining. Pit mining is precisely what it sounds like. Mining companies use heavy-duty explosives to blow large pits in the ground. Heavy machinery then extracts diamonds.

“Once the ore is broken, excavators load the ore into haul trucks and transport it to a primary ore crusher where the diamond extracting process begins. A single blast can break approximately three thousand tonnes of ore.” Cape Town Museum.

It’s dirty work that results in irreversible ecological damage to the landscape, burns hundreds of millions of gallons of fuel, and leaves pits up to 600 meters deep.

A Canadian diamond mine that is known for producing sustainable diamonds.
JERICHO DIAMOND MINE

Underground diamond mining is a form of pit mining that exploits depleted pit mines. Miners drill large shafts parallel to the kimberlite pipes. This makes it easier to dig enclosed tunnels and transport hard-to-reach diamonds to the surface.

An underground tunnel searching for diamonds.

ALLUVIAL DIAMOND MINING

Small scale, informal diamond mining

Alluvial diamonds are the stuff of fantasy. Wade into a river and walk out with a pocket full of diamonds — sort of. But, don’t get too excited. Alluvial diamond mining happens in riverbeds where erosion, rain, water, and wind have washed diamonds away from their primary deposit along kimberlite pipes, and into rivers, often traveling hundreds of miles.

Artisanal mining is the most basic kind of alluvial mining — essentially panning for diamonds in riverbeds. Artisanal mining is low-tech and hands-on. It accounts for around 20% of rough global diamond production. Buying an artisanally mined diamond might sound like you’re supporting a family business. The reality is that very little of the revenue benefits the people doing the mining. Because artisanal mining happens across such vast areas, security is nearly impossible, and safety is a challenge.

Alluvial miners dredging a river to find diamonds. A practice some consider to produce sustainable diamonds.
ALLUVIAL DIAMOND MINING

Alluvial mining is a more advanced form of artisanal mining that involves diverting and dredging the riverbank. This is da.ngerous work. Alluvial mining comes with a high environmental cost. This is because of the lack of environmental regulations. There are very few (if any) requirements to restore the riverbanks to their original form.

Artisanal miners panning for diamonds. A practice some consider to produce sustainable diamonds.
ARTISINAL DIAMOND MINING

MARINE MINING

Underwater diamond mining

Marine diamond mining is like something out of science fiction. Imagine giant flexible tubes sucking gravel from the earth floor. That’s one kind. The other method uses massive drills to pull up diamond-bearing gravel. Marine diamond mining started in the 1960’s off the coast of Namibia. To date, more than 1.4 million carats have been extracted from the seafloor.

DeBeers runs this margin mining operation in collaboration with the government of Namibia under the name — Debmarine Namibia.

A marine mining expedition. A practice some consider to produce sustainable diamonds.

In the next few years, Debmarine plans to launch the largest ever custom-built mining vessel measuring 577 feet long and capable of dredging diamonds with a mechanical arm from a depth of 400 feet.


This kind of hands-off mining comes at a high environmental cost. Marine mining equipment dredges thousands of tons of sediment from the sea. The damage can take decades to recover. Marine mining not only impacts the seafloor, but disturbs migratory species, such as sharks, whales, dolphins, and seals, already under stress from climate change.

Marine mining is anticipated to gain speed as land-based diamond mines are depleted.

A marine mining expedition for diamonds. A practice some consider to produce sustainable diamonds.
A SUBMARINE USED TO EXAMINE THE SEABED
COPYRIGHT CNN

ARE SUSTAINABLE DIAMONDS A PIPE DREAM?

None of these mining methods produce sustainable diamonds. In fact, mining finite natural resources is inherently unsustainable. All types of mining have long-lasting environmental impact. The only mined diamond which is truly sustainable is a recycled diamond. Even the most eco-friendly mines aren’t renewable resources for obvious reasons. The Ekati mines in Canada are often referred to as an example for sustainable mining. But, even here the annual carbon footprint is equivalent to more than 600 million car miles.

Diamond mining most notably contributes to erosion and land degradation, which leads to flooding and the inability to grow crops. Once a mine is depleted, a large pit is left. Over time this pit fills with water. The stagnant water becomes a breeding ground for mosquitoes and malaria.

HOW CAN I BUY A SUSTAINABLE DIAMOND?

If you have your heart set on buying an earth-mined sustainable diamond, buying recycled is a great way to go. You can enjoy the romance and your conscience.

The other options is a lab-grown diamond. You may hear them referred to as lab-created diamonds or above-ground diamonds. Contrary to popular belief, lab-grown diamonds and CZ are not the same. In fact, lab-grown diamonds are atomically identical to mined diamonds. Even better, lab diamonds can be grown using 100% renewal resources right here in the USA.

A lab-created sustainable diamond.
A LAB GROWN DIAMOND

There’s a lot of misinformation online about these sparkly stunners. If you’re considering lab-grown, you’ll want to read up on the myths behind lab grown diamonds, and why millennials are giving them the finger.

If you’re ready to buy a lab-grown diamond, head over to the diamond concierge. You’ll find one of the largest selections of IGI and GCAL certified lab diamonds online.

In the meantime, check out our favorite lab-grown engagement rings under $1,000.