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Russian Diamond Mining (And Ethical Diamond Alternatives)

by Annie Earnshaw
Last updated on August 21, 2023

Located next to the Arctic Circle, Russian diamond mining operations withstand low winter temperatures to produce the highest volume of diamonds in the world. However, summer in the Yakutia region (where the main diamond production company in Russia is located) creates about 20 hours of sunshine.

Russian diamond operations generate a high fraction of the world’s diamond supply. Russia’s primary producer, Alrosa, even used to have a deal with De Beers. However, Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine has consumers questioning the ethics of Russian diamonds.

The History of Russian Diamond Mining

This brutal region has been the home to mining operations since the underground diamond recovery began in the mid-1900s.

Russian diamond operations have a short history when compared to world production. In 1954, geologist Larisa Popugaeva found the Zarnitsa kimberlite pipe in Russia, which was then the Soviet Union. This sparked an interest in diamond operations within the region.

By the end of 1955, geologists and prospectors discovered 15 sources of rough diamonds within the Soviet Union. These sites included the Mir kimberlite pipe and the Udachnaya pipe.

Within this region lies the Aikhal mine. Aikhal is the largest diamond mine in both Russia and the world. The Aikhal project operated exclusively underground until 1997. Then, Russia’s primary producer Alrosa converted the world’s largest diamond mine to an underground mine.

Alrosa: Russia’s Diamond Corporation

Alrosa is a major part of Russia’s diamond mining history. Founded in 1992, Alrosa is the world’s largest diamond miner by volume. Alrosa makes up 95% of diamond production in Russia. They also create 27% of production around the world.

The company owns and operates some of the largest diamond mines in the world. Most of their sites operate mainly in the Sakha Republic of Siberia, which is in northeastern Russia. The Russian Federation owns 33% of Alrosa. The government of Sakha owns an additional 33% of Alrosa. The remaining 34% of the company is publicly traded.

Mirny: The Diamond Capital of Russia

Alrosa’s headquarters live in Mirny, Russia, which is the diamond mining hub of Russia. The town sits in far northeastern Siberia about 280 miles (450 kilometers) from the Arctic Circle. Mirny is a part of Sakha, also known as Yakutia.

The town crops up on a largely barren landscape. In January, the average temperature is -46 degrees Fahrenheit (-43.5 degrees Celsius). The permafrost is just as grueling, often permeating the ground 450 feet (140 meters) below ground level in Yakutsk, the capital of the Sakha Republic. Because of the permafrost, many buildings sit above ground level so their construction didn’t require any digging.

The town of Mirny houses two mines. Mir Mine is an open-pit mine that is the second-largest manmade pit in the world. Alrosa flooded the Mir mine in 2017, but reportedly Alrosa plans to continue using the mine beginning in 2032. The second mine in Mirny is an underground diamond mine called International.

Many people in Mirny come from other parts of Russia in search of higher wages. That’s why Mirny is called a mono-city: most of the people who inhabit the town work at the Mir mine. Alrosa Air, the company’s own airline, operates out of the Mirny airport.

However, not all of the workers who live in Mirny work in the mines. Because Alrosa is headquartered in Mirny, many citizens are office workers for Alrosa or work in the sorting centers.

Most inhabitants are families, but a few young adults and college students populate the city as well. Mirny Polytechnical Institute, a campus of North-Eastern Federal University, trains students for future careers in the diamond industry at the geographic heart of that industry.

Open-Pit Versus Underground

Russia’s diamond mines take two primary forms: open-pit and underground. These two different types of mines offer various benefits and dangers to the workers who extract kimberlite ore.

One common thread between these two types is the lifestyle required to work at them. Open-pit and underground mining often takes place in remote locations, requiring workers to commute a long way.

Many mining companies also require their workers to stay in a mining camp during their shifts. At the Mir mine in Mirny, workers travel to the mine and stay for two-week shifts. This schedule can create feelings of isolation and loneliness due to the lengthy time away from loved ones.

What Is an Open-Pit Mine?

An open-pit diamond mine is exactly what it sounds like: a large hole or pit where miners extract precious stones. When ore that contains gemstones sits near the surface of the earth, mining companies may opt for an open-pit mine rather than tunneling below the ground. Miners create open-pit mines by building terraces or benches down into the earth.

An open-pit mine can be more cost-effective than underground diamond recovery. Because companies aren’t limited by the size of their tunnels, they can bring in heavy-duty equipment that doesn’t fit under the ground. The lower cost also means that the mining company can extract lower-quality ore, increasing their yield.

While open-pit mines don’t have the possibility of cave-ins or loss of air like underground mining, they do have to take safety into account. The steep sides of deep open-pit mines can be vulnerable to rockslides if they don’t have structural integrity.

What Is an Underground Mine?

While an open-pit diamond mine is exposed to the air, an underground diamond mine is made of small tunnels that crawl through the earth. This type of mine typically comes to mind when thinking about the mining industry.

One of the advantages of a below-ground diamond mine is that the gemstones are typically of better quality. Underground operations can be more selective about where they forge their tunnels, basing their design more on gems’ quality rather than availability.

Another advantage is that an underground mine can decrease the environmental impact that the diamond industry has. These types of mines require less land, meaning they don’t disturb as much flora and fauna.

Alternatively, below-ground mines can pose serious threats to worker safety if they aren’t regularly checked and maintained. Companies have to build additional air shafts to ensure adequate ventilation for their workers. They also have to carefully construct new tunnels to prevent any collapses.

Banned Diamond Imports

In early 2022, several mining companies and jewelers announced that they would no longer source, import, or sell a Russian mined diamond. These companies took action in protest of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which began in February 2022.

On March 11, 2022, President Joe Biden signed an executive order into effect that banned the import of non-industrial Russian diamonds. Previously, President Biden had heavily sanctioned Alrosa but did not prohibit Russian stones from coming into the country. This executive order strictly bans all non-industrial stones.

However, there is one loophole in this executive order. Russian diamonds can still enter the country if they are cut and polished in an unsanctioned country. The cutting and polishing process constitutes a significant change in the rough diamond, meaning that the stones fall under a different tariff code. Therefore, it’s entirely possible for United States jewelers to continue sourcing and selling Russian diamonds.

The major concern with mined gemstones from Russia is that they are conflict diamonds. The Russian government and Sakha Republic government collectively own the majority of Alrosa, causing many companies and consumers to reclassify Russian diamonds.

Lab Grown Diamonds: An Ethical Alternative

The only way to know that your diamond jewelry is not Russian is to purchase a lab grown diamond. Mined gemstones have a long history of inhumane working conditions and bloody conflict. That’s why more and more customers are turning to lab grown options.

One common misconception about lab grown diamonds is that they are different from natural or mined alternatives. This couldn’t be further from the truth! Lab grown diamonds have the exact same chemical makeup as their mined counterparts. The only difference is their origin.

Today, modern jewelers can use technology to recreate the exact pressure and temperature needed to develop a diamond. This allows jewelers and companies like Clean Origin to grow diamonds in a safe and clean environment.

Lab grown diamonds have a supply chain that is significantly shorter than mined. This means that fewer hands touch lab grown diamonds; there are fewer steps to take the raw gemstone to a finished, beautiful sparkler.

A shorter supply chain causes a significant decrease in price when it comes to lab grown diamonds. Lab grown stones are often 20-30% less expensive than traditionally-mined diamonds. With this decrease in price, shoppers can get a larger lab grown stone with their original budget.

You deserve peace of mind during life’s special moments. The lab grown supply chain is highly regulated and documented. That means Clean Origin customers can confidently know that their jewelry is both beautiful and ethical.

Published by Annie Earnshaw

Annie Earnshaw is a content intern at Clean Origin.