Finding a Diamond: A Bloody Mess

June 4, 2007

For several years now, a revolution has been gaining momentum in popular culture in the United States: ‘conflict free’ diamonds. I’ve been on the hunt for the ‘right’ diamond for the past few months since deciding to propose to my girlfriend of two and a half years. She was not concerned with the size or quality of the stone, but asked that her diamond be conflict free. I thought, ‘oh great, one more roadblock to the process’—it was hard enough making the commitment to get married (but most things with a commitment are hard for me so I’m used to it).

Some other diamond seekers I know have had an easier time with the process. Not me. I usually hyper-research topics to the point of stagnation. I freeze, unable to make a decision, overwhelmed with too much information. I interrogate both sides of the story and ruminate over the details depending on the weight of the decision to be made. Now, as I’m faced with plunking down honest money for a less-than-honest investment, I am confronted with the shadowy side of the diamond business.

My first experience looking for diamonds happened one rainy day. I was extremely motivated to find the perfect diamond that would shortly adorn the finger of my beloved. However, after sitting in a local jeweler’s office for about 2 hours, I left elated that I had taken the first step, but rather dejected about the following 999 steps (see old Chinese proverb). I tromped through the rain and walked to my would-be fiancé’s apartment excitedly, but reserved. Diamonds were more expensive than I thought and I was trying to stick to my pre-determined, though ignorant, budget. Purchasing diamonds exclusively from a conflict free zone can be more expensive. Going through the usual channels is more competitive, and even if I did find the perfect rock, could the conflict free guarantee on the invoice be trusted?

A jeweler contact in NYC informed me that there was no way that diamonds in the size I was looking for could be traced from the mine to the consumer. Tracking the entire history of each smaller carat diamond would be far too costly. He said larger, rare, stones would be possible to trace. So, was I being fed a bunch of marketing lines from savvy storytellers? Yes, according to one local jeweler who believes that the conflict free trend won’t be around in a year. The wars are over in Sierra Leone he commented. He feels Hollywood was much too late in addressing the issue of blood diamonds asking, “Where were they 5-6 years ago?” Five or six years ago I was rounding out my college career and had heard nothing of the troubles in Sierra Leone. It was only two years ago I remember hearing the popular song by Kanye West who seemed to be honestly conflicted about his shiny happy stones. Yet, he still went to “Jacob [the Jeweler]” because he wanted to “shine.”

Now, governments have banded together to create the Kimberley Process, a protocol set in place to ensure diamonds originate from legitimate sources; but from what I’ve read through internet research, conflict diamonds still slip into the market via corruption. Edicts like the Kimberley Process do what they can to help out, but there’s always a loophole allowing evil to slide through the crevices. Depending on the source, conflict diamonds represent only 1 to 10% of all diamonds in the market. A small percentage comparatively but there is no way to be sure. The consumer gets a slip of paper indicating ‘conflict free’ status and goes about their way— probably more relieved that they found a diamond that did not paralyze them with debt.

There are places in Africa, (Botswana and Namibia for example) where the diamond trade actually does some good by providing affected communities with education, income, and a quality of life. I think I would take my chances not knowing ‘exactly’ where my diamond came from in order to help out people in Africa who are benefiting from the mining process. Does the possibility of good outweigh the likelihood of evil? If children can go to school and people can feed their families I am all for it. In my life I’ve tried to live a balance between practicality and idealism. Idealism, in this case, would mean shunning the diamond industry, protesting DeBeers, and causing a ruckus. I think in some cases, especially 5-6 years ago with grotesque wars maiming a nation this would have been justified, but now that the wars are subsiding and countries like Sierra Leone are at peace, people have to survive. I would rather live in the practical realm knowing that people have to work and make a living in the diamond mines than pretend that my idealism doesn’t affect their reality. In other words, my insignificant diamond purchase in Seattle, Washington may some how help out a family significantly.

My mother always used to tell me ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling,’ paraphrasing St. Paul. The decision to not purchase a diamond directly from a conflict free zone (Canada, Russia, etc) was a difficult one to make. I cannot be 100% certain that someone along the way wasn’t harmed for my diamond, but I can be sure to support organizations that are working for peace and restoration in Africa like the Mennonite Central Committee ( I’ve decided to donate a percentage of my purchase to the cause in Africa. At least then I know that I’m actually making a difference instead of living in fear that I’m making the wrong decision. For what it’s worth I’m now tied to Africa and more interested than ever before in that chaotic continent. Now when I hear of a conflict in Africa my ears will be more willing to tune in than to turn the channel. If nothing else, buying a diamond has made me more aware of my decisions and how they affect others in places I might never travel to.