More and Less is a monthly column that explores sustainability and conscious consumption when planning a wedding and also building a life with someone.
This is part two of a three-part series on jewelry. You can find last month’s column on gold here. This month: diamonds.
Diamonds themselves are very old—those formed in the earth are somewhere in the range of several hundred million to several billion years old. But diamond engagement rings are very new. Though rings in various forms have been involved in marriage rituals going back to ancient Rome and Egypt, the very first documented diamond engagement ring was commissioned in 1477 by Archduke Maximillian of Austria.
But let’s speed forward a few centuries. The general public wasn’t trading engagement rings until just a couple of decades ago. Credit for the shift, in large part, goes to a copywriter named Frances Gerety, a woman who worked for the ad agency hired by De Beers, which is still a dominant diamond producer today. Gerety penned the famous copy “a diamond is forever” and launched the omnipresent diamond ring.
Aja Raden, the author of Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession, and How Desire Shapes the World, sums it up well: “We take the tradition of a diamond engagement ring for granted, as if it were as old as marriage itself, and though weddings are all about ancient tradition and rituals, the engagement ring is based entirely on a brilliant, and very new, marketing concept... as a tradition, diamond engagement rings are about as old as the microwave oven.”
Maybe it’s disappointing to think about diamonds and microwaves in unison, but I actually love this parallel. Sometimes the traditions we revere as eternal actually started just before we arrived. Keeping in mind the idea that the perfect diamond ring is a recent invention and not an inextricable component of marriage frees up some space to realize that an engagement ring—if it’s something you want—can be anything you want it to be*******. This is also a helpful perspective when our consumption choices have very real consequences elsewhere in the world. There has been a lot of coverage of conflict diamonds in the past couple of decades; this is one good place to start, if you want to learn more about it.
“We take the tradition of a diamond engagement ring for granted, as if it were as old as marriage itself...as a tradition, diamond engagement rings are about as old as the microwave oven.”
One important point to clear up right away is that not all certifications are truly an assurance of ethical origin. The Kimberly Process was created in 2003 to trace the origin of diamonds and curtail the use of diamonds specifically to finance the violent civil wars happening in Angola and Sierra Leone. The narrow scope of the regulation covers no other violence or human rights abuses if they don’t involve a civil conflict. There is no assurance with a Kimberly Process certificate of worker safety or absence of child labor. It also does not take into account the environmental consequences of mining, nor does it encourage safer practices. It’s really not enough.
However, as with gold, there are some good options. Let’s hope that in the next few years a Fair Trade certification will emerge for diamonds (as there is in the UK for gold) that will enable countries with better records such as Namibia and Botswana to prove their diamonds were mined safely. Until then:
Canada has pioneered a program of micro-engraving diamonds mined in the Arctic with a mark of their mine origin—a polar bear or a trillium flower—along with a tracking number that can be independently verified. Canada has strict regulations on mine safety, fair pay, and environmental protection. Although all mining has some environmental ramifications, mining for diamonds, unlike mining for gold, isn’t facilitated by dangerous chemicals, making it relatively gentler on the surroundings. This model of traceability to mines with a commitment to social and environmental responsibility will hopefully spread as other countries realize that Canadian diamonds can be sold for a premium when their origins are clear.
LAB GROWN DIAMONDS
This is nifty. Lab grown diamonds are structurally identical to diamonds found in the Earth. For a long time a truly colorless white diamond was difficult to grow, and lab versions were tinted, resulting in less sparkle. Now, to everyone except a gemologist using intense magnification, they’re impossible to discern. They are created with a tiny “seed” of solid diamond in a vacuum chamber, and in most cases it takes about eight weeks. Compared to mined diamonds, lab diamonds cost about 30 percent less.
These are diamonds that have been previously mined, cut, and set in jewelry that have subsequently been removed, refurbished, and reintroduced into new work. Part of the appeal of diamonds from the earth is just how darn old they are, right? These ones have even more of a story. If you go back a little further to vintage diamonds, you can find historic cuts. Get this: cuts evolved with the advent of electric lighting. The light of gas lamps has a different quality to it then incandescent light bulbs, and the shapes of diamonds changed accordingly to maximize sparkle. The point is, a diamond with some history to it can be really special. Many independent designers are also happy to work with clients on creating a custom piece around an heirloom stone.
SOMETHING ELSE COMPLETELY
Here’s the thing, now that we have reviewed the very recent invention of diamond engagement rings, I’d like to encourage anyone who has been tempted with the idea of trying something non-diamond to go for it. There are many beautiful colored stones out there that are mined in a more sustainable fashion (sometimes even close to home depending where you live!). There are also a lot of beautiful rings made from sustainable metals and other materials that have no stones.
Which leads me to next month’s column: everything else!
Rebecca Perea-Kane is a writer and designer based in Charlottesville, Virginia. She spends her time working on her jewelry line, Thicket, traipsing through the woods with her dog, Arthur, practicing yoga, and writing poetry. She works as the production manager for Mi Ossa, a jewelry and leather goods company.