November 23, 2010
The path to conflict-free diamonds
Conflict-free diamonds may be the most conscientious way to buy an engagement ring. But the debate over what makes a diamond conflict-free is rife with … well, conflict … so consumers looking for one may need to do a little research of their own.
In African countries like Angola, Sierra Leone and Congo, diamonds are a highly profitable natural resource. But for decades, these countries and others saw the diamond trade co-opted by violent rebel groups, who, by smuggling diamonds out of the country, used profits from their sales to fund often-brutal civil wars. These diamonds came to be known as conflict diamonds.
Until 2000, the problem went largely unaddressed by international governments. At that time, after facing pressure from activists, a group of diamond industry leaders from around the world convened to attempt to find a solution.
They ultimately came up with the Kimberley Process, which is backed by the United Nations and sets guidelines for the tracking and monitoring of diamonds.
The process uses a certification and warranty system to ensure that the stones are shipped only through compliant countries, following shipments of diamonds from mines to cutting and polishing facilities, and, finally, to retail locations.
According to the World Diamond Council (WDC), a group that helps regulate the diamond trade, 74 countries have committed to be part of the Kimberley Process.
The WDC reports that since the adoption of the Kimberley Process, conflict diamonds have been reduced from 4 percent to 1 percent.
But many in the conflict-free diamond business are skeptical of those numbers and don’t feel that the guidelines set out in the Kimberley Process are effective.
Beth Gerstein is the owner of Brilliant Earth, one of the leading retailers of conflict-free diamonds in the United States. Gerstein and her husband opened the business in 2005 after becoming frustrated with their own search for a conflict-free stone.
Gerstein once had high hopes for the Kimberley Process but now believes that it’s destined for failure.
“I think it’s fundamentally flawed,” she said. “I’ve basically lost hope. There are a number of [nongovernmental organizations] who pulled out of the Kimberley Process … and my guess is that we are going to continue to see that.”
Gerstein believes that despite governments’ best attempts to implement the process, most jewelers still do not know where their diamonds come from, and that diamonds are not as well-tracked as groups like the WDC suggest they are.
And Gerstein is not alone. Global Witness, a British nonprofit dedicated to activism around global conflicts that spring from fights over natural resources, states on its Web site that the Kimberley Process — which they help oversee — isn’t working: “Attempts at industry self-regulation have been woefully insufficient, meaning that it still isn’t possible to guarantee to consumers that the diamonds they purchase are free from the taint of conflict and human rights abuse.”
Global Witness was co-nominated for the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for its work combating conflict diamonds.
For Gerstein, a critical problem with international governments’ attempts to regulate diamonds is the way they define conflict-free stones.
According to the WDC, the United Nations defines conflict diamonds as “diamonds that originate from areas controlled by forces or factions opposed to legitimate and internationally recognized governments, and are used to fund military action in opposition to those governments, or in contravention of the decisions of the Security Council.”
But many believe that the definition should be much more broad. On its Web site, jewelry retailer Tiffany & Co. states that the company hopes to see the expansion of diamond regulation to cover stones that are mined under conditions that breach human rights, not just diamonds that are used to fund wars.
Gerstein agrees. “If you’re a diamond digger living in Africa making less than a dollar a day, that’s conflict-free,” she said. “Is there a child involved? Are there other types of violence involved? It’s a very, very narrow definition of what a conflict diamond is.”
Those behind the Kimberley Process, though, feel that while it’s not perfect, it’s better than nothing.
“No matter how imperfect the [Kimberley Process] is, no other industry in the world has been as effective as the diamond industry … in addressing the issue of conflict,” said Ya’akov Almor, a communications liaison for the WDC, in an e-mail. Almor cited the oil industry’s pollution and related conflicts on the coast of Nigeria as an example of an industry that has not attempted regulation on the same scale as the diamond industry.
At the end of the day, though, the industry infighting doesn’t help consumers who are hunting for the perfect stone. In order to find it, said Gerstein, start by asking the right questions.
“It’s important to ask where they come from,” Gerstein said, “what the practices were where they are mined, cut and polished.”
Some consumers might also want to find out details about working conditions in the mines to know whether there were broader human rights issues.
The WDC suggests asking outright for the company’s policy on conflict diamonds.
Gerstein says conflict-free diamonds don’t look different than other diamonds and should not be more expensive.
Under the system of warranties that goes hand in hand with the Kimberley Process, jewelers should have certification available to demonstrate that each shipment of diamonds is conflict-free.
Another option, Gerstein says, is to purchase diamonds that have been mined in countries other than those in Africa. Brilliant Earth sources diamonds from Canada, she says, as well as Namibia.
Those looking for the perfect piece of jewelry and wanting to feel good about the purchase might have to do some looking. But, Gerstein says, no matter whom you buy from, the most important thing is to be as well-informed as possible. “We are just trying to educate consumers,” she said.