Controversy Over Tanzanite

An open letter to the jewelry trade press:

“Tanzanite is a leading source of income for the al Qaeda terrorist network.”

“Those who buy tanzanite support terrorists.”

“The jewelry trade is a big source of income for terrorists.”

If you’ve been reading the mainstream press since Sept. 11, 2001, and, sadly, if you’ve been reading the jewelry trade press, you might actually believe these three statements were true.

It has now been over nine months since the Wall Street Journal printed their article claiming tanzanite was used to finance the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. I have had several months to reflect on the damage done to the gemstone trade, miners in Tanzania, cutters in India and Thailand, and dealers in the United States—tens of thousands of people affected by an irresponsible consumer press!

However, I believe the jewelry trade press is just as responsible for the damage caused to our trade by their promulgation and perpetuation of the lies that were started by the WSJ. There were two bright spots in the trade press—Professional Jeweler and Colored Stone (if I missed anyone I am sorry)—and I want to thank both of these magazines for doing their due diligence.

Maybe it was the reporters’ greed and selfish drive to be the first to publish? Or was it, in some cases, laziness? Perhaps the corporations that own the jewelry trade magazines do not want to pay their staff to do their due diligence (although they are happy to take our advertising dollars).

Is it okay to repeat whatever the press hears, sees, or reads without verifying that the material is true? Is the trade press expected to present accurate and verified information so that the trade they are serving can make intelligent decisions about events that affect our livelihood? Let us explore a few of the many examples that demonstrate the trade press’s culpability in this disaster (author’s names have been left out to protect the guilty).

Most of the trade press reported that tanzanite was used to fund al Qaeda with no supporting evidence or disclaimers. Here are examples pulled from trade press articles.

From “Bin Laden’s Murky Ties to Tanzanite”: “… Nairobi-based gem business that exported tanzanite… thus tanzanite at least in part funded the bombing at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania … Rubies, sapphires, and tanzanite came flooding into Hong Kong …”

Magazine #1 quoted as fact that over $4,200,000 profit was made from tanzanite by al Qaeda. This story was repeated as fact by both the trade and consumer press. In fact, no profits were ever proven to have been associated between tanzanite and al Qaeda. This reporter did not do his due diligence.

Magazine #2 quoted a “source” saying that there were 500,000 Tanzanian miners, and that they are all members of the Federation of Small Scale Miners. That would mean that approximately one out of every 72 men, women, and children is a miner. Earth to reporter! There are only about 40,000 miners—if that many—and maybe 500 members. Furthermore, the “source” was presented as this organization’s official U.S. representative; she was not.

All the trade press reported that QVC, Tiffany & Co., and Zales took tanzanite off the shelves for reasons of “morality.” None of the trade press had the guts to ask why, if these companies were so concerned about their moral obligations (regarding terror), did they not take diamonds off their shelves? And since most of the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, were they all commuting to work now on foot?

Do the “sources” used by the trade press know what they are talking about? Cap Beesley regularly appears as the trade’s consumer-rights advocate. But apparently not a single reporter asked Mr. Beesley if he imported his tanzanite from Tanzania, if he had ever been to East Africa, or if he had any expertise regarding the banking system in Africa.

A South African company mining tanzanite in “Block C” sent out press releases slandering Tanzanian miners, accusing them of being illegal, unlicensed, unorganized, and participants in a litany of illegal and unsavory activities. The trade press, with no attempt to verify the truth, printed these releases almost verbatim even though they are false.

Ann Zimmerman of the WSJ interviewed several people, including this writer. Except for AFGEM and Cap Beesley, both of whom provided the catchy sound bites the consumer press were looking for, all of the experiences, information, and evidence that the rest of us provided—showing the WSJ‘s stories were a sham—were ignored.

Issues and questions that are socially relevant and affect the very livelihood of the workers in our trade will become increasingly important to all of us in the future. So now is the time for the trade press to reflect on how they tackled the tanzanite issue and how they are going to handle future controversial issues that have a life-and-death effect, not just on the bottom line, but on real human beings.

Remember, the consumer press regularly checks the trade press for stories that they believe will be controversial and good for their programming (per Ann Zimmerman of the WSJ).

Until now, the reaction to my comments has been largely defensive. I hope this will change—that you will take this letter to heart and review your responsibilities and procedures the next time false information is represented as truth.

Dana Schorr, Schorr Marketing and Sales, Santa Barbara, Calif.

JCK Replies:

When an article that has the potential to influence jewelry consumers appears in a major newspaper, JCK has the responsibility to report that fact to our readers. To ignore or downplay such articles would be a gross disservice to the jewelry industry. We believe it is in our readers’ best interests to know what is being said in the media before their customers confront them with questions.

Mr. Schorr’s letter opens with three statements that allegedly appeared in print, but none are attributed to any source. No such statements ever appeared in JCK, or for that matter, in the Wall Street Journal article he rails against.

He claims that “[m]ost of the trade press reported that tanzanite was used to fund al Qaeda with no supporting evidence or disclaimers.” This is incorrect. JCK reported what was appearing in the consumer press—not that tanzanite was being used to fund terrorists. Mr. Schorr also claims “the trade press reported that QVC, Tiffany & Co., and Zales took tanzanite off the shelves for reasons of ‘morality.’ ” This, too, is incorrect. JCK reported the facts: which retailers stopped selling tanzanite and when—and we reported when Tiffany resumed tanzanite sales (“At Tiffany, Tanzanite Is Back in the Case,” JCK, September 2002, p. 40). We also interviewed officers of the U.S. State Department about the tanzanite issue (“State Department: No Connection Between Tanzanite and Terror,” JCK, August 2002, p. 40), and in February 2002, JCK presented views from people on all sides of the controversy, including Robert Block, one of the authors of the Wall Street Journal article, and Dana Schorr himself (“Tanzanite Troubles,” JCK, February 2002, p. 46).

Mr. Schorr accuses the trade press of greed, laziness, and “selfish drive to be the first to publish,” but he offers no concrete proof or even attributable sources to support his own version of the story. Neither the trade press nor Dana Schorr can wish away unpleasant news reports from the consumer press, and while Mr. Schorr may believe that ignorance is bliss, that’s hardly a suitable credo for the industry to live by.

—The editors