The Jewelry Industry’s Most Troubling Moral Issue

lfrederick@cahners.com

Imagine this scene: A well-dressed man approaches your diamond counter and begins looking at your display. He seems quite intent, and your hopes for a sale start to rise. But instead of asking to see some stones, he poses this startling question: “Are you sure your diamonds aren’t dirty?”

Far-fetched? Don’t be so sure. An aggressive watchdog group called Global Witness is working hard to arouse public awareness of the disturbing but heretofore dimly known fact that diamonds help finance Africa’s vicious civil wars. Time magazine, ABC News, and the New York Post, among others, have had stories linking diamonds to the conflicts, and a representative in the U.S. Congress has even introduced a bill to require that every diamond sold here carry a certificate of origin. (See “The Fight Over ‘Dirty Diamonds,’ ” p. 94.)

Global Witness is finding the media receptive partly because the African wars are extraordinarily inhumane—ones in which civilians become targets of terror. One tactic is to plant landmines in roads, farms, and villages so that people going about their daily lives are maimed on a regular basis. Another is to amputate the hands, arms, or legs of everyone in a village, children included. The New York Post story was accompanied by a horrifying photograph of a 4-year-old with two stubs where his arms had been. In Angola alone, more than a million people have been killed in fighting over the past 15 years. Ghastly conflicts have also raged on and off in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the Congo.

In an effort to curb the violence in Angola (uneasy cease-fires exist in the other countries), the United Nations has enacted a resolution banning the sale of all diamonds originating in areas controlled by the rebel forces. But, as with so many U.N. resolutions, good intentions succumb to harsh reality. Thousands of diamonds are routinely smuggled across the borders of neighboring states or are sold through corrupt agents within Angola itself.

Where does that leave the retail jeweler in America? Not yet on the hot seat, but certainly in an uncomfortable position. Because of the chaotic conditions in Angola, you can’t guarantee to your customers that none of your dazzling diamonds carries the stain of war. Nevertheless, there are several counterpoints you can make:

  • The chances of your owning a dirty diamond are extremely low. Diamonds originating in areas controlled by the Angola rebels represent less than 2% of the world’s supply by value.

  • Boycotting all diamonds because dirty diamonds can’t be identified would produce more misery in Africa, not less. Hundreds of thousands of people in the peaceful countries of Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa depend on diamond production for their livelihoods. Nelson Mandela himself has warned that a diamond boycott could cause the economies of Namibia and Botswana to collapse. South Africa, already struggling to stabilize itself, could stumble into disorder if it lost its diamond revenues.

  • The diamond industry is working to keep dirty stones out of distribution. The International Diamond Manufacturers Association has urged its members to shun diamonds from areas controlled by Angolan rebels, and De Beers, to its credit, refuses to buy any Angolan diamonds, whether from the government or the rebel side. De Beers hasn’t bought Sierra Leone diamonds for 14 years and no longer buys diamonds from the Congo.

Whatever you say to your customers, the issue should be approached with the sensitivity it deserves. Like it or not, Africa’s tainted diamonds have confronted the jewelry industry with perhaps the most troubling moral and humanitarian issue in its history. To deny that the issue exists or to pooh-pooh its importance won’t make it go away. It will only make us look like we care for profits over people.