‘Natural’ and ‘Ethical’ Are Getting a Divorce

Vegan silk and leather, mine-free diamonds, bioengineered perfumes: Lab-grown products with ethical appeal could be the future of luxury. Exemplified by the announcement last week that giant jeweler Pandora A/S will no longer use mined diamonds in its products, the emergence of these high-tech luxury goods represents a significant cultural shift.

Since the first Earth Day a half-century ago, large industries have grown from the widespread conviction that “natural” foods, fibers, cosmetics and other products are better for people and the planet. It’s an attitude that dates back to the 18th- and 19th-century Romantics, who rejected industrialism in favor of sublime landscapes and rural nostalgia: What’s given is good; what’s made is suspicious, especially if it’s of recent origin.

That assumption is beginning to reverse, as entrepreneurs and consumers turn to cutting-edge artifice in search of more environmentally friendly, less ethically fraught materials. Substances grown in fermentation vats or built up atom by atom are replacing those wrenched from the earth, stripped from plants and animals or implicated in human suffering.

With their ethical appeal, these high-tech materials raise an interesting possibility. Maybe some ethical standards are themselves a form of luxury, at least until innovations make them less expensive. Democratizing diamonds, then, has the potential to produce not just cheaper bling but new mores about mining and energy use. Growing meat or silk or leather in a vat could make the “natural” alternatives someday seem repugnant.

Some new materials, such as Impossible Meat’s popular vegan burgers or the leather substitutes from companies including Modern Meadow, Bolt Threads and Ecovative Designs, are alternatives to traditional products. (Bolt also makes a bioengineered vegan silk, but not yet in commercial quantities.) Others are the real thing, produced in a new way.

Take those lab-grown diamonds. They are chemically, structurally and optically identical to the natural variety — a fact that irks mined-diamond purveyors no end. (They know what cultured pearls did to the price of those gemstones.) But even Anglo American Plc’s De Beers, whose chief executive has called lab-grown stones “not real,” has started its own division selling lab-made stones as lower-priced fashion jewelry.

Although synthetic industrial diamonds have been around since the 1950s, producing gem-quality diamonds is a recent phenomenon. It builds on technology that was originally developed to make computer chips and thin-film solar cells, but is much more challenging.

The semiconductor industry uses a process known as atomic layer deposition to build films around a hundred atoms thick. To get a diamond crystal large enough for jewelry, however, producers have to build up 10 billion layers.

“If something goes wrong in layer 1,000, it’s not going to self-correct,” said Martin Roscheisen, the founder and chief executive of San Francisco-based Diamond Foundry Inc., in an interview. “You have to grow to 10 billion layers without things going wrong.” Now in its eighth generation, the company’s plasma reactor has an energy density 100 times that used in the semiconductor industry.

Diamond Foundry’s stones sell for an average of $282 a rough carat, more than twice the De Beers average of $133 for its mined versions. Yet at retail, lab-grown stones are much cheaper. The reason for the paradox is simple. Mined diamonds come in a hodgepodge of size and quality, with the small, flawed and discolored ones bringing down the average price. Lab-grown stones are all high-quality to begin with. But they’re less aggressively priced, making them cheaper to the consumer. (Both types go through the same cutting and polishing processes.)

Although every lab-grown stone is slightly different, they are all fairly large (about five carats before cutting and polishing) with good color. That consistency is also why even a plasma reactor takes significantly less energy for each gem-quality carat than a mining operation — a selling point to environmentally oriented customers. In announcing its plans to go mine-free, Pandora emphasized the appeal of both lower prices and environmental sustainability to its customer base.

The new luxury materials are grown, not extracted. It’s a much gentler-sounding process.

“A lot of luxuries and wonderful products are things that we squeeze out of natural things,” said Christina Agapakis, the creative director of Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks, in an interview. “There will be a tiny amount of these molecules that make a beautiful fragrance in plants. We cut down the whole forest to extract them.” Ginkgo Bioworks instead bioengineers yeast to produce the right molecules. The goal, Agapakis said, is “a truly generative” process. “If you want a little more, you grow more,” she said. No killing animals or chopping down trees. But the molecules themselves are the same.

At least for now. Today, the company mostly replaces existing materials, from collagen for cosmetics to patchouli for perfume. In the future, biologists could invent new substances or recover old ones. Agapakis spearheaded a project in which company scientists worked with an artist and a fragrance expert to create possible scents of extinct flowers, starting with DNA sequences from samples stored at Harvard University.

Bioengineered molecules and lab-grown diamonds lack the provenance of traditional luxuries, but they aren’t fakes. Both chemical analyses and human senses deem them authentic. Once they’re in the world, telling the difference requires a paper trail.

“This is the fragrance of memory, my own and everyone else’s. This is the smell we have loved for thousands of years, that has beguiled the generations, the people I know and love, my grandmother,” Sudeep Agarwala, a yeast geneticist and program director at Ginkgo Bioworks, writes of agarwood, whose scent he hopes to create in yeast. He wonders, “Will the scent I create in yeast be real?” If it conjures those memories, it will be.

With enough expertise and sophisticated equipment, lab-made diamonds can be spotted by identifying the shape in which the crystal originally grew. This is a more complicated process than the standard one used to distinguish real diamonds from imitations.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and the author of "The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World."

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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