Most of the people reading this blog already know the deal with diamonds: they are price-fixed by an evil cartel, fund civil wars in Africa, miners are subject to absurdly bad labor conditions, mining is bad for the environment, and the social construction of gifting diamonds as a romantic gesture has oogy patriarchal implications. Did I forget anything?
So what can be done?
1. Use an old stone. Estate (pre-owned) rings/diamonds are a popular solution to fighting the Evil Diamond Man because they aren’t price-controlled in the same way new diamonds are. And when it comes to human rights abuses in mining, I guess the philosophy for estate diamonds is “the damage is done.” I honestly don’t know enough about the history of diamond mining to say if labor conditions have been better at one time or another, but note that “estate” doesn’t mean anything about how old a diamond is, it just means it is pre-owned. “Antique” generally means from the 1920s or earlier. One reason people go for estate diamonds instead of antique diamonds is that old “center stone” diamonds are tiny by today’s standards.
2.Use a different stone. This presents two problems: first, other gemstones are also mined under worker- and environment-unfriendly conditions. Second: whenever you read “diamonds are intrinsically worthless” (from one of my links up there) you are reading anti-puffery. Diamonds are pretty. Diamonds are also very hard, and very unlikely to scratch, chip, crack, or shatter. Other gemstones are substantially more likely to be damaged in these ways, especially when worn all day every day. Diamonds rate a 10 on the Mohs hardness scale. Sapphires are a 9. But the Mohs scale is ordinal, so diamonds are almost four times harder than sapphires. A friend of mine used a garnet in her ring (7 on the Mohs scale), and after two years it is chipped.
3. Use a lab-created stone. Lab created diamonds are sometimes hard to find because of the Evil Diamond Man, and pure white synthetic diamonds are most difficult to come by. If you want a colored stone, a synthetic diamond can be a great option. It’s even harder than a real diamond! Synthetic sapphires are another great option; many people actually consider them more attractive than (very pricey) natural sapphires because they have a deeper color and are inclusion-free. I do not know if the stone creation process is environmentally friendly or not.
4. Don’t have an engagement ring. A problem with each of the previous solutions is that they are generally still perpetuate the cultural expectations that support the diamond trade. Additionally, metal mining has its own labor and environmental considerations, but I am not educated about these considerations. A way to avoid all of the ethical problems with jewelry is to not wear any. Obviously, this is emotionally unacceptable for a lot of people, who’ve either imagined wearing an engagement ring or giving an engagement ring for a long time. And it can be difficult to deal with people thinking you are “not really” engaged if there is no jewelry.
Between decided to get married and “getting engaged,” Collin and I discussed all of these options. We ended up… buying a new diamond. Then we took turns clubbing baby seals.
The decision was primarily motivated by aesthetics and simplicity, which I suppose exacerbates our ethical transgression. Collin had imagined a ring with a brown center stone (brown is my favorite color and the general color scheme of my wardrobe), and decided a cognac diamond would be the best option. Brown diamonds are abundant in the earth, but they only recently started to be marketed as beautiful and be cut for jewelry. Because they have a short history as jewelry stones, finding a synthetic or pre-owned brown diamond would have been difficult. So he bought a new diamond.
And yes, I feel guilty about the diamonds on my ring sometimes. We tried to educate ourselves, and then ended up making a knowingly unethical decision. But the other thing I learned in trying to educate myself is that there aren’t any easy, simple, completely corrective solutions to the trouble with diamonds. I realize choosing the least ethical of many imperfect options isn’t a defense.
But let me be very frank: I drive a car that runs on gasoline. I buy clothes from H&M and other retailers that use sweatshop labor. I desperately prefer incandescent light bulbs to CFLs. My diamond ring is far from the start or finish of my consumption of products that support wars, exploit workers, and destroy the earth.
Can we still be friends?