Clara young explains how jewellery brands, both big and small, are making strides in reducing their carbon footprints.
Full disclosure: I’m no longer concerned about climate
change—I’m totally freaked out by it. Viruses, plagues, earthquakes, meteorites, bedbugs, Trump... I can quite effortlessly push these to the back of my self-centred brain and get on with my frivolous day. But global warming and its impacts—heat waves, wildfires, cyclones, glacial retreats and rising sea levels, CO2 toxicity—refuse to budge from my frontal lobe.
How does jewellery fit into the picture?
It turns out that the global jewellery market has a very big footprint. A single carat of traditionally mined diamond, for example, disturbs around nine square metres of land. It also reportedly requires almost 4,000 litres of water and creates more than 100 kilograms of CO2.
Recently, some of the biggest and best jewellery houses have made great strides in reducing these numbers and ensuring that the processes they use to extract precious stones cause minimal damage to the earth, the air and the human beings doing the actual extraction. For example, Cartier, in partnership with the Kering group, created an initiative last year promising net-zero emissions by 2030.
The pearl industry, too, Has made progress
These days, very few wild oyster beds are being exploited; roughly 95 per cent of the pearl market comprises cultured pearls grown in mesh bags suspended in open water on ropes. When this is done properly, it’s a good thing: The farms provide protection to other sea life, and the oysters filter enormous quantities of particulates and nitrogen out of the sea water daily, improving its quality. Kamoka, in the South Pacific, only uses electricity sourced from solar and wind power, and its farming techniques have increased the fish populations in its lagoon.
For even greater sustainability, there are other options. Take a look at the “vegan pearls” in singer Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever Pearl Bracelet or the Swarovski “vegan pearls” used in some of Vivienne Westwood’s designs. And then there are those “pearl” rings and necklaces you can have made from your very own breast milk…
Where it Comes from is key
Many boutique jewellery designers and even some larger houses, like Chopard, Tiffany & Co. and Bulgari, are now considering vintage gemstones or recycled gold and silver when sourcing their materials. Others, like Anabela Chan in the United Kingdom and Luxe.zen in Canada, source directly from collectives like Moyo Gems, a Tanzanian-based project that champions female artisanal miners.
Still others, such as just revived Paris brand Oscar Massin, are turning to labgrown diamonds.
Contrary to popular belief, lab-grown diamonds (also called synthetic, manufactured, manmade or cultured diamonds) are not fake. They are physically and chemically identical to diamonds mined from the earth. Both are made from carbon. The main difference is that mined diamonds were formed about 150 kilometres beneath the earth’s surface and are between one and three billion years old while lab-grown diamonds can be formed in a matter of weeks.
The two main manufacturing processes used to create lab-grown diamonds are high pressure high temperature (HPHT) and chemical vapour deposition (CVD). Both produce cuttable gems in a variety of colours: clear white, yellow, orange, pink, brown, blue and green. HPHT uses an industrial press to mimic the ultra-high pressures that natural diamonds undergo during their development. A diamond seed is placed into a carbon material and then exposed to temperatures of up to 1600°C and pressures exceeding 61,000 kilograms per square centimetre. The carbon melts around the seed, and crystallization starts. After a few weeks, the stone is cooled and sent to the cutter. This process requires too many energy-hungry machines for it to be considered carbon-friendly. CVD, on the other hand, shows great promise—mainly because it doesn’t require such extreme pressures or high temperatures. With this process, a thin slice of diamond seed is placed in a sealed chamber filled with a high-carbon gas like methane and cooked to temperatures between 900 and 1200°C. The gas is broken down by microwaves (or another energy source), causing the pure carbon to adhere to and crystallize on the diamond seed. CVD still requires an excess of energy to produce a diamond, though. Lab-grown diamonds may be more sustainable, but they’re still a long way from being guilt-free, zero-carbon or carbon-negative bling.
some diamond manufacturers are reaching for the sky
New York-based diamond manufacturer Aether produces “positive-impact” diamonds from the very stuff that’s killing our planet: CO2 air pollution. The technology it uses is top secret: Direct-capture collectors scrub the air and collect CO2 in special filters, where it’s converted into methane, put into a reactor and, in about three weeks, alchemized into a diamond that is then cut, polished and set in one of Aether’s jewellery creations. The process uses half the energy of traditional mining practices, none of which is sourced from fossil fuels. Aether’s carbon footprint is reduced to zero through offsets. And the company says that for every one-carat diamond it sells, 20 metric tonnes of CO2 are removed from the atmosphere.
Skydiamond, founded by British vegan entrepreneur Dale Vince (who also created greenenergy company Ecotricity), goes one further. It, too, captures CO2 directly from the atmosphere to create its diamonds, but it uses wind and solar electricity and the water it requires is collected from rainfall.
so, good news, right?
It’s at least good to know that there are sustainable options, that the jewellery industry is moving in the right direction and that, as consumers, we obviously do have some clout. The roughly $300 billion a year jewellery game isn’t going green just because it’s the right thing to do; it’s doing it because we really want and need it to change.