Russell Simmons Announces Diamond Empowerment Fund

Speaking at a packed press conference four days before the premiere of Blood Diamond, Russell Simmons, director of the Simmons Jewelry Co. and noted rap producer and businessman, announced the formation of the Diamond Empowerment Fund following a tour of African diamond mines.

The fund will direct 25 per-cent of the profits from some Simmons Jewelry Co. products to African charities and institutions. Simmons’s products are available from major retailers like Zale and Kay.

Simmons Jewelry Co. is listed as a division of M. Fabrikant and Sons on Fabrikant’s Web site. However, company officials told JCK that it’s a stand-alone company not owned by Fabrikant, currently in Chapter 11.

Simmons’s trip, his first to Africa, took him to Botswana, South Africa, and Mozambique (where he met with former South African President Nelson Mandela). The trip was sponsored by the Diamond Information Center, De Beers’ U.S. publicity arm—not, as reported in some outlets, the World Diamond Council.

Simmons, who had literally just stepped off his plane that morning, said his trip showed him the good diamonds have done for Africa.

“Diamonds were not important to me,” he said. “But today they are important. Diamonds symbolize health care and empowerment for millions of people all over the continent of Africa. Of all the extractive industries, the [diamond industry] seems to be acting most responsibly.”

Simmons realized that his trip had sparked controversy. Earlier in the day, Global Witness’s Alex Yearsley said Simmons had been “played by the diamond industry,” and he called the press conference “an industry publicity stunt.” Later, Blood Diamond director Ed Zwick told the Daily News: “I find it embarrassing for Russell Simmons. … If you want to know about conflict diamonds, you don’t go to Botswana and South Africa. You go to Sierra Leone and Angola.”

At the press conference, Simmons responded: “I am in the jewelry business. Me and everyone around me has an agenda. But I’ve never had an agenda better than helping [the people of Africa].”

He noted that he had met with Amnesty International and Global Witness before the trip, and they had asked him to help strengthen the Kimberley Process.

“I’ve always been on the inside,” he said. “The Kimberley Process is new, but it does work, and we are trying to make it better.”

But he worried that films like Blood Diamond “are not explaining the current reality” of the diamond industry in Africa. He even seemed to criticize the Rev. Al Sharpton for hosting a Blood Diamond screening the night before. (Apparently fences were mended, since Sharpton showed up at the party following the press conference.)

Simmons noted that when he was meeting with Mandela, the duo considered phoning Blood Diamond star Leonardo DiCaprio to stress that he should not call for a diamond boycott. Simmons said he had been informed that DiCaprio had instead urged consumers to look for conflict-free warranties, for which he was “grateful.”

The dramatic high point of the press conference was when Yearsley of Global Witness, who praised the fund, challenged Simmons to go to areas in Africa where diamonds have had a less positive effect than in Botswana, like Sierra Leone and Angola. Simmons accepted the invitation. Yearsley then asked how he could explain that “a diamond that goes for $50 in Sierra Leone can sell for $25,000 in Antwerp.”

“You are obviously not a businessman,” Simmons shot back. “How much do you think a T-shirt costs to make?”

“25 cents,” Yearsley said.

“I can sell it for $100,” Simmons said. “My wife can maybe sell it for $200.”

The analogy isn’t exact—in Antwerp, a stone is still being sold wholesale—but Simmons’s point seemed to go over with the crowd.

Also speaking were Simmons’s wife Kimora Lee; Scott Rauch, president of Simmons Jewelry Co.; Cecilia Gardner of the World Diamond Council; and De Beers Botswana chief executive Sheila Khama, who provided another high point when she noted that Botswana now has modern classrooms and said, “My first classroom was under a big oak tree, so please give us a break. A lot of good in Botswana has happened because of diamonds.”

There were also remarks from Benjamin Chavis, the former director of the NAACP who is now a member of the Nation of Islam and seemed to fill the role of a spiritual advisor to Simmons. Countering critics, Chavis said, “You need to go to Africa. You need to listen to the brothers and sisters who work in Africa.”