One Man’s Search for an Ethical Diamond Ring

We talk a lot about how consumers view our industry. And yet, unless we work in retail, we don’t hear too much from actual consumers. 

A few months back, I started receiving emails from a Brooklyn, N.Y., writer named Eric Schulte. Schulte had received a lot of press and attention for 300sandwiches, a blog in which his now-fiancé chronicled her attempt to make him a sandwich a day after he told her, “You’re 300 sandwiches away from an engagement ring.” Which brings up the question of where he got the ring.

As you will see, Schulte threw himself into the task of searching for an ethical ring to a remarkable extent, and he remains interested in the industry. (“I imagine I’m probably one of the few consumers who reads Rough & Polished and Diamond Intelligence Briefs regularly,” he says.) And while he is likely not representative of how most consumers approach this topic, in an interview with JCK, he offers a fascinating perspective of how the issues we regularly talk about look to an outsider.

JCK: Why was it so important for you to get a “responsible” diamond?

Eric Schulte: I had long ago heard about blood diamonds by way of the Leonardo DiCaprio film and had watched documentaries on De Beers, and so had long ago decided I wasn’t going to be any part of it. But as I did an increasing amount of research about diamonds, I found that not only were my beliefs outdated and narrow, but diamonds actually have the capacity to do a lot of good in the world, and in many places they already were doing so! It was important because I wanted to know that the center stone of something I’d worked so hard for and that I’d use as a symbol of commitment ad infinitum was as clean in the first 100,000 miles as it was in the last 18 inches from the jewelry case to her finger.

JCK: Did you feel you had to get a diamond?

Schulte: [T]hat’s what the lady had her eyes set on, and I wanted to make her happy.

JCK: What did your research entail?

Schulte: In addition to reading as many industry websites and reports as I could get my hands on, I’d been talking to as many people as possible who are much, much smarter than myself…at the Diamond Development Initiative, a few NGO’s, former and current KPCS participants, journalists, rough-diamond geologists and buyers who work out of West Africa, jewelers large and small, miners large and small, U.S. State Department officials (former and current), some government officials in West African countries, advocates for small-scale miners—you name it. I’ve pestered absolutely everybody, and they’ve all been surprisingly kind to me.

JCK: What surprised you?

Schulte: What surprised me is the complexity, breadth, depth, and diversity of the diamond industry—so it’s very hard to sum up the entire industry fairly at all. It ranges from global mining conglomerates to artisanal diggers, from Leviev to small manufacturers in Surat, from the Mugabe and the Dos Santos clans to the government of Botswana (rated most transparent in Africa, according to Transparency International), and from Harry Winston down to pawnshops. Perhaps the biggest surprise was learning that De Beers is 15 percent owned by the government of Botswana, and, by the way, this was also total news to a Forevermark retailer I worked with! This fact alone always makes people raise their eyebrows. I literally did a complete 180 on my opinion of De Beers from start to finish of the project.

JCK: Did anything frustrate you? 

Schulte: My biggest frustration is the extremely limited options available to consumers who do care. Rapaport had a convincing TED speech in which he encourages people to buy West African diamonds and not fool yourself into thinking Canadian diamonds are somehow more ethical, and yet there are literally no options available to a consumer if one wants to actually follow his advice—and Rap obviously knows that, which I found extremely frustrating. Every day brings a new depressing headline about the tragicomedy in Marange, the perceived lack of vigilance in Dubai, the wholesale looting of African countries through under invoicing and transfer pricing, or synthetics getting introduced in Surat. Yet from the consumer’s point of view, depending on the retailer, you have few-to-no protections from such maladies, nor do you get assurances of where the diamonds do or do not come from. We’re told “every diamond has an incredible, unique, billion-year history!” Then after asking, “Okay then, what’s my diamond’s story? Where did it come from? From under the sea off the coast of Namibia? From a river in Angola? A massive mine in Botswana? Below the permafrost in Siberia? It sounds fascinating, so tell me,” you usually take your generic diamond from the same “unknown” pile as the guy who doesn’t care at all.

JCK: Do a lot of your peers feel the same way about wanting a responsible gem? 

Schulte: They do. I have more than a few friends who have specifically avoided African diamonds, diamonds in general, or even engagement rings entirely because of either bad, only sometimes-true, or outdated information. Even stranger, I’ve known some gents who’ve bought diamonds because they’ve felt compelled to by cultural norm, and then felt remorseful about it. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to defend my very deliberate and researched De Beers purchase, explaining, “No, they aren’t a monopoly anymore; no, they don’t have a warehouse full of stockpiled diamonds; no, synthetics are not yet a completely viable option, etc.” Though the silliest is when someone suggests an emerald, ruby, or sapphire instead, as if to infer that such gems come from some sort of mining, human-rights, and environmental Shangri-la, immune to what ails diamonds (they don’t).

JCK: You told me you weren’t happy when you asked for assurances and dealers brought up the Kimberley Process. Can you talk about why that is, and do you think that is a common feeling? 

Schulte: The KP and U.N. define conflict diamonds as diamonds being used to finance rebel movements seeking to overthrow legitimate governments. I’d have to respectfully defer to the WDC and some of the largest companies in the industry…in saying that the KP should be expanded to encompass human-rights abuses in general regardless of the actor. I’d guess that the industry probably says this for many reasons, chiefly reputational risk. My argument is that when consumers hear the term conflict diamonds or blood diamonds we don’t consider rebel movements or the overthrow of legitimate governments, so that the KP’s scope is really limited to that criteria strikes me as a violation of the spirit of the agreement and a mismatch with what the public expects when they hear that the problem of blood/conflict diamonds is no more because of the KP. The industry frequently presents the KP’s “99 percent conflict-free” figure to consumers, since that depends on an old definition, and the KP can very easily be circumvented. That figure could more accurately be stated as “99 percent accounted for” or “99 percent rebel-free (we think),” and nothing more than that. Friends to whom I’ve clarified this reality seem bewildered. The more that people understand this detail, the more common this feeling will be.…

But for every good point I’ve found for changing the definition, I’ve also found a solid counterpoint. Regulations have to be feasible, the KP has no permanent office or staff and provides no funding to its participants for implementation. Therefore, efforts to expand the scope could easily backfire, especially in the countries where diamonds are mined artisanally—the people who need to be nourished. The ban on diamonds from Côte d’Ivoire was recently lifted by the U.N., and this was universally cheered in a way exactly opposite to that of Zimbabwe’s readmission in 2011. Both my sources and the U.N. report have noted that preparation for KP compliance has been incredibly positive there. 

JCK: Any thoughts to other diamond buyers wanting to go down the same road?

Schulte: I’d encourage them to buy diamonds—from someone they know, someone they trust, and someone who can tell them a little bit about their supply. “A diamond is forever,” and they happen to be rather expensive things, so it’s worth the time. Yes, the origin of a rough is unknown and unknowable, but providence is not unknown at all! My dealer was able to offer me options of De Beers sightholder Julius Klein, a Canadian manufacturer, and Leviev. There’s no question where a sightholder gets its stones and also no question about where De Beers mines theirs, and that made me feel comfortable and confident. Lastly, consider a donation to the Diamond Development Initiative! Development diamonds may not yet be available to consumers, but the DDI is the group that is going to help make them a reality. 

JCK: Any thoughts for the industry as to how to talk with consumers interested in these topics?

Schulte: I’d venture quite a lot more consumers are interested in hearing about their diamonds’ journey to market than would normally bring it up in a store to a sales clerk. Doing so could very well soothe the nerves of many nervous fiancés-to-be already overwhelmed by the 4 C’s. Maybe find out a bit about your supply (if you don’t know already) and then be proactive about it, maybe even use as a selling point! 

In the fall I’m coming out with an essay about diamonds specifically geared toward consumers. I think there’s a need for such an essay as that damn Leonardo DiCaprio film still seems too real to too many people. 300sandwiches.com and our subsequent engagement has been getting an incredible amount of press, and more than a few readers have already reached out asking me what’s the best way to buy diamonds! I am also currently working with some very cool designers in New York and a manufacturer based in Freetown on starting a line of jewelry featuring diamonds beneficiated [cut and polished locally] in Sierra Leone. Diamonds with a story, diamonds doing good.

JCK News Director