Africa Comes to the Oscars

The week before the Academy Awards, the Diamond Information Center usually hosts a lavish suite celebrating diamond jewelry. But this year, it worried that wouldn’t feel right.

Given the worldwide economic downturn, DIC thought a lot of flash would be out of step with the prevailing mood. So the organization decided on an approach that would target the conscience as much as the desire for glitz.

The result was a (comparatively) low-key dinner and a cocktail party at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles that was filled with celebrities, jewelry, fashion people, and jewelry designers (African students who won De Beers’ “Shining Light Diamond Design” competition). Yet, despite the big names in attendance, the party’s real guest of honor—and in many ways, its reason for being—was a small, serious man who most attendees had never heard of.

He was Festus Mogae, the former president of Botswana, who served for 10 years, until 2008. And he wasn’t there to rub elbows with celebrities. He had a mission: to talk about the benefits the diamond industry brings to his country.

“I want to assure all of you that you must wear diamonds with confidence and pride,” he said in a brief address to the crowd. “Because of diamonds, we have transformed ourselves from the world’s poorest country in 1966 to the middle-income country we are today.

“I want you to continue to buy diamonds,” he added. “Why? Because it is an act of charity, believe it or not. By doing so, you are providing employment in my country.” He closed by saying, “I love you people. You are providing help to my country.”

It was a naked appeal that over the years Bot-swana has shied away from making. But it grew out of the turmoil currently roiling diamond producers (see sidebar) and the fear that image-conscious celebrities would find it unseemly to wear diamonds in these hard times.

“We were worried that people were going to cut back,” says Diamond Information Center director Sally Morrison, “and that they would not consider it appropriate to wear huge pieces of diamond jewelry, or that it might seem frivolous or insensitive at a time when many people were facing economic hardship.”

So DIC decided to emphasize diamonds’ “greater value.”

“It’s about giving people a justifying narrative about doing these things when they may feel a little sensitive about being frivolous,” Morrison notes.

Mogae’s visit to Hollywood was spurred in part by a DIC-sponsored trip to Africa by actress Julianne Moore. Earlier this year Moore toured South Africa and Botswana and their diamond mines, and she was quite moved by it.

“I think Julianne very much responded when we were down there,” says Morrison. “She saw that the mines were closed. And she saw some of the things that have been done with diamond revenues.”

The journey culminated in a dinner with Mogae. “[Meeting Mogae] really put it into a different perspective for her, because he really does see things on a deeper level,” Morrison says. “She thought, ‘Wow. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get him to talk to people, particularly in Hollywood, where people have been such a strong supporter of this particular product?’”

This could have been a mere pipedream, but the continuing worldwide economic crisis raised the stakes for Botswana and its diamond industry. So Mogae came to Los Angeles, taking in not only the DIC event but also the Independent Spirit Awards (the Oscars for the independent film scene).

“We were thrilled when Mogae agreed to come,” Morrison says. “That was a measure of how seriously he takes this.”

The idea behind Mogae’s Hollywood debut was to have a “bit of a mix,” Morrison says. So people who were already friends of the industry, like Moore and Russell Simmons, mingled with people from the fashion and entertainment worlds who are less familiar with these issues.

There may have been a culture shock or two—Mogae was said to be surprised at the informality of some stars at such a glitzy event. (Russell Simmons came in his trademark baseball hat and sneakers.) But the celebrities that JCK saw interacting with Mogae—including Forest Whitaker, Moore, and Debra Messing (who noted that her father was a jeweler)—seemed receptive to Mogae’s message.

“I think he did a great job, and I think what he said resonated,” says Morrison. “The guests loved him. He basically told people we need your continued support, and that not only is it not a bad thing to wear diamonds, but it’s actually a very good thing because it drives Botswana’s development. I think he was very articulate, and I think they got it.”