The Little Green Bracelet That Could

The truth of this ancient Chinese proverb is undeniable. One needs only to compare the achievements of those societies whose citizens have access to free public education with those who don’t to see the proof borne out.

This idea also forms the basis of the Diamond Empowerment Fund. The nonprofit DEF, founded last year by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, emphasizes the need for giving a hand up, not a handout. Monies raised by DEF—at present, mainly through the sale of its Green Bracelet, an elastic malachite bead bracelet with a rough-diamond charm, which retails for $125—go toward providing quality education to needy students in diamond-producing nations in Africa.

At the same time, DEF affords American jewelers an opportunity to build on their existing customer base and attract socially conscious consumers—especially younger consumers, who studies show are highly attuned to social issues—and embrace cause marketing as a business strategy.

“Russell [Simmons] knows a lot of people with a lot of money who are not into jewelry,” explains Ellen Haddigan, DEF executive director. “But if jewelry means something other than consumption, they can get interested. Russell believes that if [jewelers] are open to trying something like this, it’s a great opportunity and a smart strategy to reach new markets.”

DEF’s vision is to help Africans help Africa. By partnering with African education organizations that have a proven record of helping young people achieve success, DEF is able to begin fulfilling its mission statement, which says in part, “We believe education is one of the most critical elements that powers society and empowers individuals to realize their full human potential.”

DEF sprang from the desire of Russell Simmons and Kimora Lee Simmons, owners of Simmons Jewelry Co., to make a difference. Diamonds have received a great deal of negative publicity in recent years—admittedly, some of it well deserved—but relatively little has been said about the good that diamonds have done for Africa, especially in Botswana and South Africa.

In fall 2006, Simmons and his delegation took a fact-finding trip to southern Africa. There, they witnessed concrete proof of how the diamond industry has directly enhanced sustainable economic development. Seeking a model that could be expanded to other diamond-producing nations in Africa, the delegation found it in Botswana, which is acknowledged as the leading example of African empowerment resulting from diamond mining. (See “The Country That Diamonds Built,” JCK, February 2005.) There they visited commercial training and production centers, well-equipped public schools—even complete with music programs—hospitals, family care facilities, and HIV/AIDS clinics throughout the country, all made possible through diamond beneficiation.

Upon returning to the United States, Simmons announced the establishment of DEF to support education initiatives in Africa, and the Simmons Jewelry Co. launched the Green Initiative collection of jewelry to raise funds for DEF Green—the signature color of the environmental movement—intended to symbolize prosperity, well-being, and care for both the planet and its people.

DEF launched its program efforts with the CIDA City Campus in Johannesburg, South Africa. CIDA, which stands for Community and Individual Development Association, has 3,400 students. Of those, 1,400 are enrolled in the fully accredited, four-year bachelor of business administration degree program, which focuses on entrepreneurship, business, science, and technology. Another 2,000 students are enrolled part-time in vocational/technical training courses.

CIDA is funded mainly by the South African private sector and other international foundations and individuals. It has received kudos from South African president Thabo Mbeki, the World Economic Forum, and Nelson Mandela, and there are plans to replicate the CIDA model in other provinces of South Africa and beyond.

Students in the program also run the campus and administrative offices, gaining hands-on business experience. Students on vacation also receive academic credit for teaching in their home schools and communities. CIDA graduates have a proven success rate that has led to higher-level employment and economic benefit for the students personally, their families, and, by extension, their communities and the nation.

So far, the green malachite bracelet is the only piece in the DEF collection, but Simmons and DEF are seeking other jewelry manufacturers to join the cause, as well as retailers to support it by stocking DEF jewelry. “This isn’t just about Simmons products,” says Haddigan. “The idea of the DEF was conceived as the industry making a connection to where diamonds come from. We’re looking for other [manufacturing] jewelry company partners to create products to sell at retail, where 10 to 20 percent of the profits go to DEF.” At present, she told JCK, there are interested manufacturers, but the current volatility in materials prices has caused some to ask that the percentage of profits earmarked for donation be reevaluated.

The concept can be likened to a jewelry-specific Project (Red), she says, referring to the cross-category initiative in which companies as diverse as Gap, Motorola, Apple, and American Express have created red versions of their products to help benefit The Global Fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria in Africa. Likewise, in the DEF model, it’s intended that individual jewelry companies will create their own products and their own pricing structure, as long as a portion of proceeds go to benefit DEF. “I think it would be really cool if, in five years, a customer could go into a jewelry store and say, ‘Show me the DEF department,’” says Haddigan.

The Green Bracelet is already being sold by a number of prominent retailers, including the Kay Jewelers and Jared The Galleria of Jewelry divisions of Sterling; Zales; Gordon’s Jewelers; Bond Jewelers, with locations in southern Florida; Corbo Jewelers, with locations across northern New Jersey; Westbury, N.Y.–based Fortunoff; G.M. Pollack & Sons, with locations in Maine and New Hampshire; Macy’s East and Macy’s Florida; Phat Farm; Rogers Enterprises, whose Rogers & Hollands stores dot the Midwest; JR Dunn, based in Lighthouse Point, Fla.; online retailer Red Envelope; and H. Samuel. Ernest Jones will launch in August.

Retailers don’t have to carry the bracelet or even any future DEF-specific items, Haddigan said. They can create their own DEF jewelry simply by designating any product they already have as such and donating a portion of proceeds to the fund. DEF has point-of-purchase materials and brochures ready for retailers to use to support in-store efforts around existing inventory. “The DEF is only one cause-marketing model,” says Haddigan. “If we can tap into the huge market that exists for jewelry, we can raise huge amounts of money for education in Africa.”

Other fund-raising efforts already have taken place. For holiday 2007, DEF held its first online fund-raising auction, called Diamonds Give, hosted on eBay’s Giving Works. The auction featured approximately $100,000 worth of donated diamond jewelry items from many leading industry firms, both wholesale and retail. Among them were manufacturer/designer Phyllis Bergman, based in Englewood, N.J.; Calhoun Jewelers of Royersford, Pa.; Jeri Cohen Fine Jewelry and Michelle Farmer Fine Jewelry, both of New York; Fortunoff; Los Angeles–based Neil Lane; designer Lorraine Schwartz; Security Jewelers of Duluth, Minn.; Macy’s; CelticJewelry.com; ArcticSparkle.com; Simmons Jewelry Co.; Brazilian jeweler Jack Vartanian; and the noted diamond houses of Steinmetz, Leo Schachter, and William Goldberg Co. In addition to the jewelry, celebrity photo experience packages were up for auction. Winning bidders received a photo opportunity with their celebrity of choice and a Green Bracelet with the box autographed by their celebrity.

Other events also have benefited DEF, including a swank Hamptons Go Green party in Sag Harbor, N.Y., and an NBA Wives Association Behind the Bench charity luncheon, at which DEF was honored. A number of celebrities have been spotted wearing the bracelet, such as Beyoncé Knowles, Mischa Barton, David Duchovny, Brett Ratner, Cindy Crawford, and former President Bill Clinton.

At barely a year old, the initiative already can boast a measure of success. On Jan. 11 of this year, Simmons Jewelry Co. presented DEF with a donation check for $311,535 from the sale of Green Bracelets.