If diamonds are a dime a dozen, why are they so valuable?

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When you hear the word diamond, do you think “blood” or “marriage”? We know that diamonds are too often caught up in deadly conflicts and human rights abuses. But now they can be made in a lab. So, does that mean no more blood diamonds? And cheaper engagement rings? Alice Matthews investigates the Case for and against diamond rings.

The more rare something is, the more valuable it is. But...diamonds?

"They're not rare at all, actually," says Professor Dougal McCulloch, a physicist from RMIT.

The gem proclaiming everlasting love on a left finger is the same thing we put on a drill bit to dig into dirt.
"For instance...We can coat a cutting drill or a knife blade with diamond and it'll last longer and be able to cut into hard things," he said.

Turns out diamonds are a builder's best friend. Something like an opal, for example, is rarer. So how did diamonds get so valuable? And will that value eventually be lost?

How marketing created a luxury item

Diamonds were rare, once. Until boatloads were found in South Africa in 1870. Knowing this would certainly mean diamonds would be demoted to semi-precious at best, those with skin in the game joined forces, created a monopoly and controlled supply. The monopoly created was De Beers, an international diamond corporation that not only stockpiled and restricted supply - they increased demand too. 

How? 

It’s thanks to one copywriter by the name of Mary Frances Gerety. While working down to the wire on deadline, she came up with this: a diamond is forever.

 “Creating this kind of idea that diamonds are the only way you can show true human love or that you can capture matrimony and marriage,” says Dr Charles Hunt, a Senior Lecturer from RMIT’s School of Global, Urban and Social Studies.  

“It's this device that encourages people to desire this thing, which actually doesn't have the value that’s attached to it in the marketplace,” he said.

The ‘diamonds are forever’ idea has been so powerful that diamonds have held their worth, even after Leonardo DiCaprio taught us all the meaning of the term ‘blood diamond’.

But not for Dr Hunt.

“I do not have a diamond. I do not intend to ever buy one,” he said. 

What's the difference between mined versus lab-made diamonds?

There have been big efforts in the diamond mining industry to be transparent with supply chains and address horrific human rights abuses. But the fact remains that many diamonds being dug out from Africa still fund conflict, drive conflict and are derived from conflict.

Here’s the thing though. Diamonds take billions of years to form in the earth under high pressure and temperatures of 1000 degrees Celsius. But they can now be made in the lab in a matter of weeks. 

So, problem solved?

Dr Hunt says lab grown diamonds aren’t a silver bullet solution to systemic warfare issues.

“[They] might be part of a set of solutions,” he said.

Plus, mimicking those real-life conditions requires a lot of superheated gasses and energy consumption. On average, greenhouse gas emissions are three times greater for lab-grown diamonds than mined ones.

But there may be hope yet.

An international team of scientists have recently discovered how to create lab diamondsat room temperature, in minutes. 

Except the diamonds they’re making are tiny. Really tiny.

“You can't see them with your eyes. You need an electron microscope to see them,” Professor McCulloch said. 

They're for industrial use. He says making diamonds big enough for a ring using their method is still decades away. 

And even if that day comes, Dr Charles Hunt asks who would then control the diamond labs? 

“There’s the susceptibility for...organised crime and mafia networks to infiltrate…Then you squeeze the balloon and the problem becomes somewhere else,” he said.  

Should we just boycott diamonds altogether?

The problem with diamonds is kind of the problem with everything, from cobalt to the clothes we wear.

“There’s a number of other things which don’t seem to have this kind of scarcity or preciousness associated with them,” Dr Hunt said.

“Timber [for example] is a huge driver of conflict, particularly in Africa… [and it’s] used in just about everything, including the expensive hipster furniture from Scandinavia that people want to buy,” he said. 

If we boycott diamonds we may as well boycott, well, basically everything from our furniture to our phones. But we can be more conscious of what drives us to buy what we buy and where those goods come from. 

“I think when we consider why we would buy a diamond and the influence of campaigns and advertising that have led to such a particular idea of what a diamond represents, then we should all probably keep in mind that the most important things in life are not really things,” Dr Hunt said.

The Verdict

Diamonds won't lose value until we lose the value we’ve ascribed to them. And even if that value came from a marketing campaign in the first instance, it doesn’t take away from the personal meaning a diamond holds for so many people. It doesn’t make the sentimentality or the sense of achievement any less special or any less real. 

And rings aside, Prof McCulloch says, “I think there'll always be a demand for industrial diamonds.”

They’re dead useful and there’s work being done to use them in emerging areas like medicine. But do I want a diamond for myself? To wear on my finger? 

Nah.