Laser Beams, Baggies, and Polymers

Since diamonds don’t display chemical “clues” as to where they come from geologically, the other solution is to find a way to track the stones-electronically or otherwise. The industry’s solution is for every rough diamond or parcel to be sealed in a plastic container that would be accompanied by a “certificate of origin” from the government of the exporting country. All imports and exports would be entered into a worldwide database. The World Diamond Council, the group that’s tackling the issue, says this will create a “chain of warrants” to ensure that all diamonds entering the cutting centers would be “conflict-free.”

This system is far from airtight. Diamonds are easy to smuggle and conceal, which is why they’re so hard to control in the first place. Smuggled diamonds could conceivably enter the system under the plan, although this would be illegal-an important distinction.

Easier would be a “signature” by which diamonds could be tracked. Proposals have included everything from laser inscriptions to dunking each stone in a traceable acid bath. “I find it hard to believe that the Central Selling Organisation (CSO) of De Beers.can not develop the technology to mark the origins of the diamonds,” said Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.) in comments at a House hearing on “conflict diamonds.” But as with finding the origin of diamonds, there’s a daunting list of reasons why this is a tall order-even if most think a “tagging” plan could probably be developed before a way to detect a diamond’s origin could be.

The main problem: “If you have something that’s low-cost and easy to do, then it’s also easy to counterfeit,” argues De Beers’ Tim Weeks. Furthermore, if you’re stamping a rough diamond with, say, a laser, the “signature” may be lost when it’s cut into polished stones, a point at which a rough stone typically sheds 50% of its weight. It also might be difficult-as well as economically unfeasible-to mark small stones.

Jayant Neogi, president and CEO of 3-Beams Technologies, is working on a system whereby each rough diamond or parcel would be encased in a polymer box that holds detailed information about what it contains. He says the extensive data would prevent people from bringing “unauthorized” stones into the system: “Even if you swap the stone, you would have to duplicate the stone’s exact weight because everything is put into the matrix.” (Note: The “matrix” or “data matrix” is an inscription that can contain a large amount of digital information. See “Diamond Inscription Enters the Matrix,” JCK, Feb. 2001, p. 72.)

This is similar to the World Diamond Council’s sealed-container proposal, and Neogi says that some mining companies have expressed interest in the idea. Toronto-based Gemprint has a similar plan that would involve “fingerprinting” each diamond down the pipeline. At the White House conference, the company said they could implement this system in six months.

But World Diamond Council officials were not enthusiastic about either of these plans, arguing they’d be too time-consuming and saying they want to stay focused on implementing their own proposal first. Others noted that the majority of diamonds in the world weigh less than 1 ct., and it simply would not pay to “track” those diamonds.

One idea enthusiastically received at the White House conference flips the “tagging” concept on its head: Instead of tagging the 96% of diamonds that are sold legitimately, “mark” the 4% that are causing the problems. It seems far-fetched-and it’s certainly dangerous-but it might be possible. In the past, law enforcement agencies have used airplanes to “mark” certain drug crops to determine their origin. In addition, “marking” individual illicit diamonds could help authorities track the smugglers dealing in these gems. And there is a precedent for this: Van Bockstael notes that in the 1980s, when there were rules against trading in Russian goods, certain diamonds were “coated” by authorities.