Ready for PrimeTime

A customer in Fort Worth, Texas, was ready to pick up a pair of diamond earrings from his jeweler, but there was a problem. The night before, the man’s wife had watched the PrimeTime Live broadcast linking diamonds to the civil war in Sierra Leone and now said she didn’t want diamonds anymore. The jeweler responded by explaining the jewelry industry’s efforts to solve the problem. In the end, the man left with the earrings.and a tennis bracelet to boot.

This incident is unusual not because it ended well for the jeweler, but because the subject came up at all. The jewelry industry was prepared for unpleasant fallout from the PrimeTime Live show-easily the most negative piece about diamonds that had aired in years. But a cross-section of jewelers across the country told JCK they’d heard only a smattering of consumer comments about the program. And an overwhelming number of jewelers heard nothing at all.

“Shockingly, it was a non-event,” says Michael Kowalski, the president of Tiffany and a member of the World Diamond Council, the industry group handling the “conflict diamond” issue. “There was barely a whisper of consumer interest.”

The Diamond Information Center, which handles public relations for De Beers in the United States, was so concerned that it showed the program to focus groups to gauge their reaction. It found that while some viewers said the program made them view diamonds more negatively, they were a small minority. “People who saw the show were confused,” says DIC’s Joan Parker. “Most couldn’t deliver a coherent explanation of how diamonds are linked to guns. They really didn’t understand what was going on.”

DIC also did research on consumer attitudes toward diamonds. Again, there was good news. Even post-PrimeTime, there was no change in the number of respondents who wanted to own diamonds. Those not interested in diamonds often cited the “conflict” issue as the reason. But the overall number of people with an unfavorable attitude toward diamonds did not increase, leading the DIC to conclude that consumer attitudes toward diamonds remain positive.

Those findings were backed up by research from MVI Marketing, which took a survey a week after the broadcast and found that only 7% of consumers had even heard the term “conflict diamonds.” More importantly, when asked what they looked for when buying a diamond, “country of origin” was at the bottom of the list. (Price, authenticity, quality, setting, and durability were near the top.) There was, however, one statistic that could prove potentially troubling: 76% of respondents said they would not buy a diamond or diamond jewelry if they knew it led to social injustice. “If people knew a diamond was from a conflict area, they wouldn’t buy it,” says MVI’s Liz Chatelain. “But it’s not yet an issue in people’s purchases.”

Possible advertising campaign. Although the industry appears to have dodged a bullet this time, the World Diamond Council has in reserve an advertising campaign to publicize the good things diamonds do for Southern African countries like Botswana and South Africa. In fact, Botswana-whose economy is so dependent on De Beers that some call it a “company country”-has hired a public relations and lobbying firm to spread its message that anything that hurts diamonds also hurts Botswana.

For now, the industry feels it doesn’t need a campaign, because consumer awareness isn’t there. With the notable exceptions of PrimeTime and 60 Minutes, media coverage of the issue has dropped sharply from last summer. Pieces that do appear-such as a Washington Post editorial on the current legislative logjam on the issue-often praise the industry’s efforts.

Meanwhile, the PrimeTime Live broadcast has again sparked criticism of perennial lightning rod Martin Rapaport, whose comments infuriated Antwerp traders. Rapaport explained the conflict diamond distribution chain this way: “Diamonds are sent to Switzerland or some place else like that, and then they’re imported into Belgium. When the person comes to Belgium, the Belgium customs officer says, ‘Where are these diamonds from? ‘If the guy says, ‘I found them on the runway of Switzerland,’ that’s acceptable.”

No one doubts this was true in the past. But Rapaport’s comments struck a raw nerve in Antwerp, which has taken the lion’s share of the blame over the issue and which was singled out by the United Nations in its report on Angola sanctions violations. Since then, the city has tightened its controls, and the current plan developed by the World Diamond Council is based on the Antwerp model.

Rapaport has apologized for his comments, noting they were made last summer before those controls were put into place, and that ABC used only a snippet from a 90-minute interview. “These people were clearly out to burn the industry,” he says. Still, many are breathing a sigh of relief that the industry has escaped mostly unscathed.