Al Gore, Botswanan President Hail Industry

Most of the talk on conflict diamonds at the Antwerp Diamond Conference came from the event’s honored guests—former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and Botswanan President Festus Mogae.

Gore, who spoke at a gala dinner, showed a surprising knowledge of the diamond industry, from its current problems to the history of Antwerp. He hailed the industry’s progress in dealing with the conflict diamond issue.

“This is a new beginning for your industry,” he said. “I predict this is the end of a two-and-a-half-year period of negative publicity on conflict diamonds and the beginning of a period where the world recognizes that your industry is playing a constructive role and having a positive impact. You have overcome this controversy with a lot of hard work and soul searching. I congratulate this industry for stepping forward and doing the right thing. Keep it up.”

Gore said he was impressed by the ethnic mix in the industry when he visited an Antwerp bourse earlier that day.

“I saw Hindus, Muslims, Jews, different ethnicities, religions all working together in harmony and getting along and cooperating and acting for the greater good,” he said.

He also recalled giving his wife Tipper an engagement ring: “I did that because this industry has led the world to believe that we can see in this hardest and rarest of gemstones something permanent, something worthy of standing as a symbol,” he said. “The secret of your success as an industry has been to invest diamonds with something extra, with emotional value.”

Mogae, the president of Botswana, argued that negative publicity about the diamond industry threatens his country.

“Botswana is the world’s most diamond-dependent economy,” he said. “Diamonds are over three-quarters of our exports. Our country’s fortunes stand or fall based on the diamond industry.”

He noted that his country’s success shows that diamonds need not be a curse.

De Beers chairman Nicky Oppenheimer struck the same note when he said the diamond industry had to zealously guard its image. “The price of a good reputation is eternal vigilance,” he said. “It may be tempting to rest on our laurels, but the diamond industry has not come this far—at a cost in time, effort, and dedication—to let those laurels slip now. … A diamond traded for arms in the West African bush may appear to have nothing to do with the legitimate industry in Antwerp … But if the image and promise of the diamond is to be maintained, then one diamond used to fund conflict is one diamond too many.”

A more skeptical note was sounded by another marquee name, Lazare Kaplan chairman Maurice Tempelsman, who expressed doubts about the Kimberley Process, the certification process meant to eliminate conflict diamonds.

“The jury is still out whether certification may inadvertently end up disadvantaging diamonds from those poorer African nations which have nothing to hide, but which may have difficulty complying with all of the Kimberley Process requirements,” he said. “And we must remember that it was neither regulation nor moral outrage that stopped the conflicts, and thus the ‘conflict diamonds’ in Sierra Leone and Angola—it was the belated application of sufficient political and military muscle.”