Photo: Rich Dieckhoff
Traditional diamond mining is unsustainable and brimming with problems, from land degradation to worker exploitation. In response, a new market featuring ethically sound lab-made diamonds has emerged. They are identical to the real thing. However, most of them are made with fossil fuels, so they’re still bad for the environment. But not Aether’s diamonds! They’re made using CO2 that’s been sucked out of the sky.
Climeworks captures carbon being emitted from a power-generating waste incineration plant in Switzerland. Then, they send some of that to Aether’s production facility in Chicago to be turned into the world’s first carbon-negative diamonds. The startup purifies the CO2 and then puts it in a diamond reactor where it turns into a diamond after two to three weeks.
Ryan Shearman, Aether’s CEO, came up with the idea while reading Drawdown (a book listing 76 solutions to climate change) and talking with Dan Wojno, who became his cofounder. Both of them had experience in the jewelry industry already.
"We had a bit of an epiphany. You’re carbon-based, I’m carbon-based, we live in a carbon-based world. Carbon in our atmosphere is really bad, but carbon itself inherently is not bad. And a diamond is just crystalline carbon."
And while the environmental message is essential, the company wants to appeal to consumers based on design. It will be incorporating the diamonds into a new line of fine jewelry.
"We want to make sure that this is something that you’d buy on its face, just because of the way it looks, because of the way it makes you feel. The environmental element to this is really kind of the icing on the cake. Because at the end of the day, most Americans—most people in general—don’t know their carbon footprint."
Eventually, the supply of natural stones will dwindle, and the diamond industry will have to move towards synthetic options anyway.
"The industry has already surpassed the peak diamond output. Every year, from here on out, there will be fewer and fewer stones produced through traditional mining methods. By 2040, it’s anticipated that the global production capacity of mine diamonds will cut in half. So, this is great for our market because it forces the invisible hand. We have a declining supply of mined diamonds, but growing demand for diamonds in general. So, you have to find a new source."
For pioneers of carbon-capture technology, like Climeworks, diamonds can offer a financially attractive market, making their machines economically reasonable. After all, direct air capture is an expensive solution to sequestering CO2, especially when compared to planting trees. But, if there’s a way to use it also to make money, it becomes a whole lot more attractive.
"If I can go and buy carbon offsets for anywhere from, say, $1 to $15 through regenerative farming or reforestation, that’s much more attractive than direct air capture, which is hundreds of dollars per ton. So, without subsidies, direct air capture at its current stage and its current level of maturity are really kind of looking for these viable paths to market."
Aether can scale up the process if demand rises. But for now, it’s launching its product with a limited production, beginning with a waitlist. It expects to be selling the jewelry by early 2021.