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No, 25% of Diamonds Are Not Blood Diamonds. However…

By Rob Bates, Senior Editor

Posted on January 24, 2013

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Two weeks ago, I got a Google News Alert with the headline "A Quarter of All Diamonds in Stores Are Blood Diamonds." I glanced at it quickly and thought it was from a crank publication. But it turned out to be from Jezebel, a pretty respectable and popular site. The also-pretty respectable and popular Salon soon picked up that claim. (Salon’s story was titled "The Myth of Conflict-Free Diamonds"—as if such a thing doesn’t exist.) The source for this number turned out to be Jason Miklian, author of a piece on the Kimberley Process and Surat that appeared in Foreign Policy (which is very respectable, if not quite so popular).

Is that number valid? While it’s hard to get a precise count on these things—for reasons I go into below—people I spoke to thought it was wildly inflated. So I reached out to the writer, who works for the Peace Research Institute Oslo, and we had a long email dialogue. Miklian seems like a decent and thoughtful fellow, even if he never really gave me a justification for his number. But the exchange, as well as my recent talk with Matt Runci, raised a number of thoughts.

First off, while it's valid to start counting blood diamonds as more than just traditional definition conflict diamonds, one problem with the term blood diamond is it has no precise definition. I would define it as similar to the KP’s proposed expanded conflict diamond definition: a diamond whose extraction is directly associated with violence, regardless of actor—meaning that violence could be perpetrated by a rebel group, government, or private security force. I believe that is how consumers understand the term as well. (One could argue whether the much-talked-about diamonds from the Marange diamond fields, where the violence has ebbed, fit into that definition. Even so, those stones do raise troubling ethical questions—and are, of course, illegal in the United States regardless.)

A second problem is that the violence in a lot of these places is cyclical. So it’s hard to say just when a diamond would be considered a blood stone. And a lot of people who want to make the industry look bad will simply count all stones from a troubled country as blood diamonds. For example, some have labeled all of Zimbabwe’s production as suspect, even though the country has one mine (Murowa) that has always been violence-free. 

Nevertheless, I hope everyone agrees that whatever the number is—whether it’s 25 percent or 2.5 percent—we as an industry need to make sure no diamonds are tarnished by violence. And for now, we can’t say that. Côte d’Ivoire still produces traditional definition conflict diamonds, which are subject to KP embargo. Central African Republic is now probably doing so as well. There has also been sporadic violence in Angola, and I’m hearing that certain diamonds from the DRC may be termed blood stones as well. 

Now, none of this is the fault of 99 percent of the people reading this. (No, I can’t back up that stat.) Many African countries are inherently unstable, and when you have a rich resource in a poor country, there is the potential for violence. But it’s something we have to deal with. The majority of people in this industry are decent, honorable, often-religious people, and don’t want the product they sell to be associated with anyone being hurt—never mind raped, never mind tortured, never mind enslaved, never mind killed. But those are all things that have been associated with diamond extraction in the last decade.

So what do we do about this? First off, we have to move away from relying just on the Kimberley Process. That doesn’t mean the KP isn’t an important effort. But even if it does expand its definition of conflict diamonds—and that could take quite a while—it probably won’t be policed to the extent that it should. That’s what happens when you have some 80 countries, all with their own agendas, running the show. Right now, I would say the KP represents the minimum standard for ethics in this industry, and I think most people want to do more than just the ethical minimum. (People who don't even do the minimum, well, I don't know what to say.)

Going beyond the KP is something that a lot of people in the industry—including me—are still getting their head around. Because there aren't a lot of obvious places to go.

For many years, the default position of many jewelers when confronted with consumers nervous about the origin of their diamonds—and certainly the one pushed by popular media—is to offer either Canadian diamonds or lab-grown diamonds. I've had reservations about this in the past, but it's certainly a reasonable choice, given the limited menu of options. 

Botswana- and Namibia-branded diamonds would clearly count as ethical gems, and would benefit Africa, but we haven’t seen many real efforts, particulary recently, to sell them as such; when one jeweler tried to offer a Botswana brand, he found he couldn’t get a steady supply. Moreover, those countries sell most of their production to De Beers, which aggregates its production. At last year’s Diamond Empowerment Fund panel, De Beers’ Varda Shine said the company researched offering Botswana-branded stones, but found that most consumers couldn’t tell one African country from the other. 

Speaking of De Beers, the Forevermark has done a lot of commendable work on origin tracking, and now prominently features the “responsibly sourced” message in its ads; at the recent Forevermark party, many jewelers told me they were shocked at how much that aspect helped sales. As much as De Beers says it supports the KP, it’s telling that its brand goes substantially beyond it. It would be welcome to see other leading diamond brands—such as the Leo and Hearts On Fire—also make audited sourcing, above and beyond the KP, part of their brand promise.

Fair trade diamonds (aka development diamonds) would be a good option, but of course, that program is still getting off the ground. That is also true for tracking programs like the Responsible Jewellery Council’s chain of custody program and the ethical certification system proposed by Rapaport. The Diamond Source Warranty Protocol also has potential, but it, like most of the initiatives we’re discussing, might not be able to encompass every size of diamond, and could add extra costs—which brings up the age-old question of whether consumers will pay them.

(I would add that jewelers need to get over their oft-expressed fear that by offering responsibly sourced diamonds, they make the rest of their inventory look bad. Most supermarkets sell fair trade coffee. That doesn’t mean that the rest of the coffee is ethically bad. It just means that particular coffee is ethically vouched-for.)

So for now, jewelers’ options are limited, even if they are somewhat greater than years past. This says to me that we as an industry need to come together and do a lot more work on these issues. These recent articles may have been exaggerated, but they aren’t the last of their type we’ll see—and our industry still has a bit of work to do to convince consumers our supply chain is completely blood-free.

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