SALT LAKE CITY — Social media swooned when the daughter of the late “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin showed off her engagement ring recently — not because Bindi Irwin was getting married, but because her 2-carat diamond was grown in a lab.
Hailed as an ethical choice for consumers, lab-grown diamonds are chemically identical to mined diamonds, and virtually indistinguishable to untrained eyes. They’re also significantly less expensive.
But the gems wear a label that not too long ago marked something as terrifying or cheap. When lab-grown beef was first introduced, it was instantly dubbed “Frankenmeat.” Now startups are racing to dominate the market of lab-grown fish and pork. A company called Modern Meadow is creating a leather alternative through a process called biofabrication.
According to Christopher J. Preston, a University of Montana philosopher and author, technological and scientific advances are propelling us into the “synthetic age.” This age will feature not only lab-made food, gems and textiles, but also human organs, scientists believe.
The process by which synthetic diamonds are created was invented by a chemist from Utah who didn’t live to see the lab-grown craze. H. Tracy Hall, a Utah native who taught at Brigham Young University, died in 2008. Here’s what he’s missed, and why no one is saying that Bindi Irwin’s glittering ring is a Frankengem.
Duel of the jewels
The Diamond Producers Association, which represents mining companies across the world, says its new advertising campaign isn’t targeted at lab-grown diamonds. But its “Real is Rare” message appears to be a dig at the competition by emphasizing how long it takes for a mined diamond to form in nature.
“The average diamond is formed 100 miles below the Earth’s surface,” said Grant Mobley, the trade lead for the Diamond Producers Association. “We like to think of diamonds as these miracles of nature. They’re about as close as we can get to the age of the Earth itself.”
Lab-grown diamonds, conversely, can be produced in about three months. They are advertised as “conflict-free,” meaning that their production in a laboratory ensures that no workers or natural resources have been abused, as has happened in decades past, giving rise to the term “blood diamond.”
One company that produces them, Clean Origin, was founded by a third-generation diamond merchant, a former executive at Alex and Ani, and a former chairman of the Zale Corp., the parent company of Zales.
Mined diamonds are still the top seller; lab-grown generate about $2 billion in sales, but the number could reach 15 billion in the next 15 years, diamond industry analyst Paul Zimnisky told NPR.
But Mobley, at the Diamond Producers Association, notes that the Federal Trade Commission recognizes a difference between the stones, even if a consumer can’t tell. A lab-grown diamond has to be identified as such, according to the FTC, whereas “If you just say diamond, that means it’s natural,” Mobley said. He added that he wouldn’t want anything grown in a lab if a natural alternative was available.
A host of startups believe differently, including the founders of Modern Meadow, which is developing a leather lookalike using collagen protein. The product, called Zoa, is not yet commercially available, nor are the products of Memphis Meats, which created the world’s first lab-grown meatball and poultry in 2015 and 2016, respectively. The company’s investors include Tyson Ventures, Richard Branson and Bill Gates.
In making its announcement, Tyson, one of the world’s largest processors of chicken, beef and pork, said it was committed to exploring “innovative, new ways of meeting growing global demand for protein.” It appears that Tyson doesn’t see cell-cultured meatballs as Frankenmeat.
Similarly, the international jeweler De Beers is now touting its own line of lab-grown diamonds, although the company says that mined stones are more appropriate for major life events.
“Don’t let Darth Vader fool you by the fact that he’s got on a velvet glove,” said Alexander G. Weindling, the co-founder of Clean Origin who is a third-generation diamond merchant. “I know what they’re up to. … The truth is, they’re taking a very negative tone toward lab-grown because they perceive it as an existential threat.”
Although “lab-grown” is becoming more accepted as a term among consumers, many proponents of synthetic alternatives employ less sensational ways to describe what they advocate. New Harvest, a nonprofit research center, says it promotes “cellular agriculture.” Its director, Isha Datar, is a co-founder of the startup Muufri, which is making milk without cows, and Clara Foods, which is developing eggs without chickens.
Meanwhile, scientists have been trying for more than a decade to grow human organs on scaffolds using cells from patients. The most critical need is the kidney, and scientists at Wake Forest University’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine believe that this will one day be possible, although they say this is still years away.
Other scientists are even more ambitious, says Christopher J. Preston, a professor of philosophy at the University of Montana, whose 2018 book “The Synthetic Age” explores the many ways in which “synthetic biology” will change the world.
“There’s a group of people who meet every year to talk about how to build a human genome synthetically. That makes a lot of people shudder,” Preston said.
While most people are becoming more accepting of things made in the lab, there’s a lingering residue of the long-held belief that “nature is good, synthetic is questionable,” Preston said. And that’s still true in some ways, he said, citing plastic as an example. “People are starting to wake up to the fact that having plastic in the ocean is not a good thing.”
Preston believes that an emerging “bioeconomy” — of which lab-grown meats and textiles are a part — will offer radical advances beyond what we eat and wear. For example, scientists in China have used gene editing to get silkworms to produce spider silk, which could be used to mend damaged nerves or toughen bulletproof vests,
“If you replace the industrial economy with the bioeconomy, that can be a good thing,” he said. “The bioeconomy can allow us to create materials that are synthetic, but they’re not synthetic in the bad way that plastics are.”
Yet unknown, however, are how ingrained cultural preferences, and even faith, may affect whether lab-grown products become mainstream or remain a niche in the marketplace.
This is especially true in the matter of meat, since meat-eating is symbolically important in some circles, as is animal sacrifice, Preston said. He added that, as a professional ethicist, he’s glad that ethics is on the mind of consumers. But if you replace something that people really desire with a substitute that proves unsatisfying, there could be backlash, he warns.
“Whenever I’m presented with the word ‘synthetic’, the word ‘natural’ comes to mind right besides it. There are those two poles there. I think the word ‘natural’ will remain very powerful. What is natural feels good and trustable and reliable to people. The natural is a concept that’s important.”
However, Weindling, at Clean Origin, notes that using whale oil to light homes used to be natural in New England, and nobody’s arguing for a return to that.
“Whaling was big business once, just like mining. I want to be on the right side of history,” he said.