Diamonds in the News

Jewelry is all about emotion. But sometimes the highs and lows it inspires aren’t what we as an industry had in mind. Here, two recent news items play to our emotions.

The good news: Jewelry had a low-key but unmistakable presence at the Winter Olympic Games in Turin, Italy. Many of the figure skaters, for example—male and female—wore jewelry on the ice. Save for gold-medal-winning Japanese figure skater Shizuka Arakawa, who wore a pair of Lazare diamond three-stone drop earrings, the origin of most of the jewelry at the Olympics went unheralded. According to a statement from Lazare Kaplan, Arakawa’s mother bought her the earrings from a local retailer in Japan just before she departed for Turin. Her mother asked for a pair of earrings that would really sparkle during her daughter’s performance. That was obviously a gift of love, and the other athletes’ jewelry was surely equally beloved and sentimental to each.

The bad news: A recent issue of Philadelphia magazine chronicled the bling-buying habits of some of the city’s upper crust. Nothing terribly unusual about that: The magazine has long been known for its celebration of all things hedonistic, material, and expensive, as well as the lives of those Philadelphians who can afford them.

What was unusual about this particular article was that it inspired a counterarticle in another local publication, Philadelphia Weekly. Columnist Liz Spikol blasted the article itself for fawning over advertisers (a valid point) and took a few extra shots at the jewelry industry in general while she was at it.

The article also inspired a flurry of commiserating letters from PW readers. While Spikol’s column as well as the letters did smack a wee bit of “methinks the lady doth protest too much,” her inaccurate references to the conflict-diamond issue were troubling.

The crux of her piece—other than that Philadelphia‘s article nauseated her—was that diamonds are responsible for funding and prolonging civil wars in Sierra Leone and the Congo. The industry, she says, has been “plagued by allegations of child slavery, environmental hazards, and mine conditions that would make West Virginia’s digs look like Ritz-Carlton penthouses.” She goes on to say, “Diamonds may even be used in money-laundering schemes by groups like al Qaeda.”

She uses words like “allegations” and “may” to incite emotion but offers no supporting facts. She cites Amnesty International and an editorial (i.e., opinion) in the Washington Post as her authorities, but never once mentions the Kimberley Process. “In 2004 a survey of U.S. diamond retailers found there was very little effective self-regulation,” she writes. The survey she references is never attributed.

Our industry isn’t perfect, nor is the issue fully resolved, but the percentage of conflict diamonds filtering into the pipeline has been significantly reduced. At a recent seminar at the Centurion jewelry show in Tucson, Ariz., David Peters of Jewelers of America estimated the percentage at about 1 percent. In 2000, industry estimates suggested that approximately 4 percent of all diamonds originated in areas under conflict. So if today’s estimate is 1 percent, that’s a 75 percent reduction from an already small percentage. Admittedly, even 1 percent is too much, but let’s also address the fact that while diamonds may be traded for arms, diamonds themselves are not the cause of the conflicts. Greed and a lust for power are.

A recent article in The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa., also highlighted the relative lack of awareness about conflict diamonds, but unlike Spikol’s vitriol, reporter Jessica Berthold tackled the subject objectively. She cited the JCK Retail Panel that found that 53 percent of retailers don’t routinely ask for conflict-free guarantees when ordering jewelry, and also quoted Liz Chatelain of market research firm MVI, Paso Robles, Calif., about consumer awareness of conflict diamonds. Chatelain’s research found fewer than 10 percent of consumers are aware of the issue. Berthold interviewed Global Witness, but she also interviewed Jewelers of America and not only presented both sides but also offered readers an actionable, nonjudgmental solution to purchasing a conflict-free diamond.

The Philadelphia magazine article made one minor reference to Africa as the origin of diamonds, and Spikol blasted author Amy Donohue Korman for not following up on the subject. “It would, however, be journalism—which I guess is more than I can expect from Philadelphia magazine.” It’s also more than we can expect from Spikol.

Our industry must continue eliminating conflict diamonds and address all social issues proactively. We should speak openly and honestly of our progress to journalists who are trying to tell the story fairly. Unfortunately, we are also going to attract the self-righteous venom of wannabes like Spikol. The bad news is there’s not much we can do to stop them, but the good news is through education and awareness we can allay the concerns of our customers who want to purchase an untainted stone.