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Are lab-grown diamonds 'worthless'? Experts weigh in as engagement ring priorities shift for millennials, Gen Z

Diamonds are a Gen Z girl’s best friend — as long as they’re lab-grown.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) via 20th Century Fox

Fashion creator Jasmine Darya is one of many social media users who took her TikTok followers along on her wedding planning journey in 2023. In several videos, the 27-year-old talked about her engagement ring search, which focused heavily on lab-grown diamonds. The bride-to-be was met with so many negative comments from viewers about her diamond choice that she felt compelled to post about it.

“If you buy a lab-grown diamond, leave your money at the door,” one person wrote. “It’s worthless the minute you buy it.”

“I genuinely do not understand why you would get a mined diamond right now, at this point in time,” Darya responded, referring to concerns about unethical mining. “A lab-grown diamond is just a diamond that’s made in a lab.”

Darya fits into the demographic of the next generation of brides and grooms who are gravitating toward lab-grown diamonds for engagement rings. Nehal Zaveri, the CEO and co-founder of Los Angeles-based jeweler Diamond Wish, told Yahoo News that she’s noticed a rise in interest over the last five years — specifically with consumers who are under 30.

“They would prefer to spend money on other things like a house or a vacation,” Zaveri explained. “Older generations, I believe, still find a strong value and interest in natural diamonds because there is a longer history to support the diamond’s track record of value and investment.”

What are lab-grown diamonds, and how are they made?

Lab-grown diamonds aren’t new and have been around since the 1950s — only 20 years after South African-British mining company De Beers came up with a marketing scheme to underscore the idea that marriage proposals should require a diamond ring. The key difference between lab-grown and natural diamonds is their origins: Natural diamonds take billions of years to form, and lab-grown diamonds can be created in a matter of weeks.

There are two methods used to create lab-grown diamonds: using high-temperature pressure or a hydrocarbon gas mixture.

A common misconception about lab-grown diamonds is that they aren’t “real,” despite the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) formally declaring that they are. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also ruled that lab-grown diamonds are real in 2018.

“Laboratory-grown diamonds and natural diamonds cannot be told apart using the unaided eye,” GIA argues. “Laboratory-grown diamonds have essentially the same chemical, optical and physical properties and crystal structure as natural diamonds.”

Why the next generation is more likely to opt for lab-grown diamonds

Alexander Weindling, a third-generation diamond jeweler and the CEO of lab-grown diamond company Clean Origin, told The Guardian there’s a generational divide over accepting lab-grown diamonds as real.

“This Gen Z, they are really savvy, they have bullshit meters,” he told the publication. “That said, nobody over 50 will accept a lab-grown diamond: ‘Oh, don’t give me one of those fake things.’”

Zaveri said the growing interest from her younger clients is because lab-grown diamonds seem to “offer a valid and socially conscious alternative for those who value sustainability.”

Diamond expert Dan Moran told Yahoo News that while he generally agrees that younger and “less established” clients are more likely to go for lab-grown diamonds, he’s been told by “many” that they plan to replace the stones with natural diamonds.

Moran is not entirely convinced — at least from his clients — that the main factor is sustainability.

“As far as ethics, the natural diamond industry has made enormous steps to be good citizens of the world,” Moran argued. “The energy needed to grow lab-grown [diamonds] is enormous, so your lab-grown diamonds are only as clean as that energy source.”

There have been ethical issues with diamond mining in the past. In the late ’90s, civil wars broke out in Africa over diamonds. Nearly 20 years after governments met to end the practice, a 2018 report from Amnesty International noted that human rights activists were still not happy with how the diamond industry was operating and said it was failing to meet and maintain international standards for responsible practices, which include rules against child labor, forced labor, conflict, environmental damage and corruption.

If the drive for lab-grown diamonds isn't based on sustainability or ethics, where does Moran think it comes from? “It’s financial,” he said. “One is a commodity and an instrument of value, and the other is a consumer product.”

The average cost of a diamond engagement ring in 2024 is around $6,000. The wedding industry has ballooned to be worth $196.58 billion in 2023 — historic growth, according to experts, due to new social pressures and expectations for ceremonies and other traditions. A 2023 survey by the Thriving Center of Psychology found that the majority of interviewees between the ages of 18 and 42 who weren’t married consider the tradition either outdated or unfathomable given the cost. In 2023, sales for wholesale polished diamonds fell 20%.

Elissa Sommers, the CEO and head jewelry designer of Los Angeles-based Elissar Couture, said she does not sell lab-grown diamonds in her store. Sommers has been selling engagement rings for over 15 years.

“We can always get them for a client who asks, but as a fine jeweler, we took the stand of not using them in our designs,” she told Yahoo News. “[Lab-grown] is still a large point of contention in the jewelry industry.”

Some high-end fine jewelers have gotten on board with the trend. In 2023, jeweler Jean Dousset, the great-great-grandson of Louis Cartier, opened a showroom with “designer” lab-grown diamonds ranging from 1 carat to more than 18.

How eco-friendly are lab-grown diamonds?

Is lab-grown a foolproof ethical alternative? Sommers argues that it's not.

“[It’s a] ridiculous amount of energy it takes to run these machines,” Sommers said, referring to the lab-grown diamond process. “It’s not as sustainable as they are marketing themselves out to be.”

The International Gem Society acknowledges this, writing, “The environmental impact of manufacturing diamonds isn't negligible.” Producing one carat of lab-grown diamond releases more than three times as much greenhouse gas as mining one carat of a mined diamond.

“My recommendation for the most sustainable diamond jewelry purchase is to buy vintage or antique,” Sommers concluded. “Or, if you are lucky enough, use stones passed down from your mom or grandmother. Heritage jewelry and custom rings are a great way to recycle stones and, of course, the sentimental value is unmatched.”