Speaking at a packed press conference Tuesday, Russell Simmons, director of the Simmons Jewelry Company and noted rap producer and businessman, announced the formation of a "Diamond Empowerment Fund " following a trip to Africa touring diamond mines.
This "Fund" will direct 25 percent of the profits from his Simmons Jewelry Co. to African charities and institutions. Simmons products are available in big retailers like Zale and Kay.
Simmons Jewelry Company is listed as a division of M. Fabrikant and Sons on Fabrikant's web site. However, company officials told JCK that it is a standalone company that is not owned by Fabrikant, currently in Chapter 11.
Simmons' trip, which was his first to Africa and took him to Botswana, South Africa, and Mozambique (where he met with former South African president Nelson Mandela), was sponored by the Diamond Information Center, De Beers' U.S. publicity arm -- not, as reported in some outlets, the World Diamond Council.
Simmons, who had literally just stepped off his plane that morning, said his trip showed him the good diamonds have done for Africa.
"Diamonds were not important to me," he said. "But today they are important. Diamonds symbolize health care and empowerment, for millions of people all over the continent of Africa. Of all the extractive industries, the [diamond industry] seems to be acting most responsibly."
Simmons realized that his trip has raised controversy. Earlier in the day, Global Witness' Alex Yearsley said Simmons had been "played by the diamond industry," and called the press conference "an industry publicity stunt."
"I am in the jewelry business," Simmons said. "Me and everyone around me has an agenda. But I've never had an agenda better than helping [the people of Africa]."
He noted that he had met with Amnesty International before the trip, and they had asked him to help strengthen the Kimberley Process.
"I've always been on the inside," he said. "The Kimberley Process is new, but it does work and we are trying to make it better."
But he worried that films like "Blood Diamond" "are not explaining the current reality" of the diamond industry in Africa. and he even seemed to critisize Rev. Al Sharpton for hosting a "Blood Diamond" screening the night before. (Apparently fences were mended, since Sharpton showed up to the party following the press conference.)
Simmons noted that when he was meeting with Mandela, the duo considered calling "Blood Diamond" star Leonardo DiCaprio to stress that he should not call for a diamond boycott. Simmons said he was since informed that DiCaprio had instead said that consumers should look for conflict-free warranties, for which he was "grateful."
The dramatic high point of the press conference was when Yearsley of Global Witness, who praised the Fund, challenged Simmons to go to areas in Africa where diamonds have had a less positive effect than in Botswana, like Sierra Leone and Angola. Simmons accepted the invite. Yearsley then asked how he could explain that "a diamond that goes for $50 in Sierra Leone can sell for $25,000 in Antwerp."
"You are obviously not a businessman," Simmons shot back. "How much do you think a t-shirt costs to make?"
"25 cents," Yearsley said.
"I can sell it for $100," he said. "My wife can maybe sell it for $200."
The analogy isn't exact -- in Antwerp, a stone is still being sold wholesale -- but Simmons' point seemed to go over with the crowd.
Also speaking were Scott Rauch, president of Simmons Jewelry Company; Cecilia Gardner of the World Diamond Council; and De Beers Botswana chief executive Shelia Khama, who provided another high point when she noted that Botswana now has modern classrooms and said, "My first classroom was under a big oak tree, so please give us a break. A lot of good in Botswana has happened in Botswana."
There were also remarks from Benjamin Chavis, the former director of the NAACP who is now a member of the Nation of Islam, and seemed to fill the role of a spiritual advisor to Simmons. Countering critics, Chavis said, "You need to go to Africa. You need to listen to the brothers and sisters who work in Africa."
Simmons also gave JCK an exclusive interview, which can be seen here.