The "Radical", Ethical, Loving Act of Choosing Conflict-Free, Cruelty-Free Gems
If you're getting married or contemplating an approaching anniversary, you've probably been looking in store windows for the perfect diamond jewelry. And why not? Since time immemorial, diamonds have been a symbol of undying love.
Well, actually that isn't true. In fact, it's a falsehood as oversized as the 69 carat uber-diamond Elizabeth Taylor sold in 1978 to fund the building of a hospital in Botswana. (Now there's a lady who knew how to get the most out of her jewelry!) Diamonds didn't become symbols of "undying love" until the mid-'50s, eight years into the De Beers diamond company's brilliant advertising scheme. It took twenty years of hard work to convince Americans that a diamond engagement ring was necessary to prove your love, to umm, your love. (And, maybe more importantly, to everybody else.)
Most of the world's diamonds have been monopolized by De Beers, a cartel run by a single family, the Oppenheimers. De Beers is also named The Syndicate, in Israel; the Diamond Trading Company in the U.K.; Anglo American, Forevermark-- a slew of AKAs, worldwide. De Beers has controlled 90% of the world's diamond supply since the late 1800s, when diamond pipes were discovered in South Africa. (Before that, diamonds were truly rare; a few pounds a year, found only in alluvial deposits, along rivers in India and Brazil.)
The early rarity of the hardest known gemstones had kept them off the radar for most consumers: demand for the now plentiful stones now had to be generated. De Beers got busy with creating that demand. Early ad campaigns included "educational" seminars for high school girls, linking diamonds with love and engagement. Film stars and British Royalty were wooed and won as marketing partners. Advertising paid off; the misperception lingers--despite the fact that diamonds are found all over the world and in every shopping mall--that diamonds are precious and rare.
You can't fault De Beers for world-class advertising. But the diamond business is rife with price fixing, child labor, slavery, environmental ruin, arms running, drug trading and human rights violations. Government corruption. Forced relocation of millions. Genocide. Starvation. The use of children as soldiers. Rape. Amputation. Who knew diamonds could be so ugly?
It's impossible to briefly cover the amount of evil done around the mining, cutting, buying and selling of diamonds. The problem encompasses much of Africa; Botswana, where De Beers and the government have driven the indigenous people off their native lands; Zimbabwe, whose military violently appropriated the Marenge mine and enslaved miners; Congo, Sierra Leone, Angola, Namibia. All major diamond-producing regions, embroiled in power struggles; invariably, it is the inhabitants, helpless against rebels, mine owners and their governments, who suffer. Money that should return to communities doesn't. Starvation, lack of education and clean water supplies, and disease abound.
Children and Diamonds
Under heat and pressure, that most common element, carbon, becomes diamond. Stones are mined from extinct volcanoes; in holes blasted a mile deep and a mile wide. Small children are sent down on ropes, through narrow vents, to fill buckets 12+ hours a day with rough diamonds. Across the ocean, in Indian sweatshops, more children cut and polish stones, under inhuman conditions. Some are "bonded" by their parents; sent into servitude to pay family debts. Others are slaves outright.
Strictly controlled stones are sent to diamond cutters in cities like New York, Amsterdam and London, who make a decent living. The wealthy grow richer. According to the advocacy organization Global Witness, 46% of Angola's miners are under the age of 16. In West Africa, children between the ages of 7 and 16 are forced into the military or rebel factions, where they are routinely drugged, abused and brainwashed; these "baby soldiers" commit atrocities, often against other children. These factions smuggle diamonds out of the country, in exchange for weapons. The miners are children; the soldiers are children; the victims on both sides are children, too.
Poverty is the common factor in the continuing abuse of these children; an ironic comment on the industry that sells the ultimate luxury item. Partnership Africa Canada reports that in Angola and Sierra Leone, 90% of 700,000 miners, working in an industry that brings in $700 million a year earn the U.S. equivalent of $1 a day. Legislation Weak The United Nations and various governments have tried to restrict "blood diamonds" by enacting legislation requiring certificates showing that individual stones have been mined under conflict-free conditions.
The "international initiative" sponsored in part by the diamond industry (De Beers) and known as the Kimberly Process seems more marketing ploy than a useful deterrent to blood diamonds, as it is unregulated. One study of Kimberly Process certified stones showed that of 149 certificates obtained, one-third were fraudulent. 90% of diamonds are being mined by small operators, making accountability even more difficult. But blood diamonds continue to find a market because De Beers agents actively purchase diamonds from anyone--Angolan rebels, Zimbabwean military, --anyone with a rock to sell. De Beers agents and front companies have been caught on video buying illegal Angolan diamonds.
Why does De Beers pursue diamonds with such single-mindedness that it freely, knowingly profits from the misery of millions? It can only be greed, bolstered by tradition. De Beers has always focused on controlling the world supply of diamonds. With new reserves being discovered everywhere, diamonds are becoming, well, as common as dirt. Knowing that, De Beers can maintain control of the supply only by buying every loose diamond on the market; no matter how it got there. Also, U.S. consumers already own some 500 million carats of diamonds; 50 times the amount produced in De Beers' annual holdings (told you they weren't rare!)
The supply, if salable, would meet demand for the next 50 years. But the retail mark-up on diamonds runs between 100 and 200%; a retailer can't offer even half the original price of the stone without losing money on the deal. Most jewelers won't buy a second-hand diamond at all. If one does, he or she will certainly offer you less than 50% of what you paid for it. It's all part of the system that keeps demand high. (De Beers is being sued in Canada, for price-fixing; it already paid a $10 million fine in the U.S. for the same crime.)
In fact, De Beers has so tightly controlled diamond supplies, distribution and prices, that stones are sometimes deemed more stable than currency. Cash-strapped African rebels routinely trade diamonds for arms; in Israel, in the '70s, a depreciating currency made diamonds a better financial risk, so dealers began hoarding. Threatened with quota decreases, dealers stockpiled even more, causing shortages in New York City---and raising prices.
So what does this mean to us? It means the loss of a decades-old illusion. Diamonds do not equal love, aren't rare, aren't a good investment. The diamond industry is based on brutality, illegal price controls and fabulous advertising. Buying diamonds, we fund civil wars, child abuse, government corruption, widespread starvation, environmental degradation. And diamonds lose at least half their value the minute your credit card clears. As one savvy writer pointed out, a diamond is forever-- because you can't ever get rid of it.
At this point, some people sigh, shrug and say, "Well, what can ya do?" The answer is NOT rhetorical. You can refuse to buy blood diamonds.
Blood-Free Mined Diamonds
If it must be a diamond or the wedding is off, buy a certified Canadian diamond, from the Diavik or Ekati mines, Northwest Territories; mined by workers of legal age, overseen by a watchdog organization. But if the environmental aspects of diamond mining (also drastic) concern you, you have several other options, all of which are less expensive and cruelty-free. (Not all Canadian diamonds are independent; De Beers owns two Canadian mines and is opening a third.)
Manmade, Cultured , Lab or Synthetic Diamonds
Heat and pressure can also be applied to carbon in a lab. Lab diamonds typically cost 15% less than mined stones, with none of the associated barbarism and no flaws. And, like the other stones discussed here, lab stones are available in any color you can name.
My particular favorite! If you're willing to buy a stone that is more brilliant, more fiery, nearly as hard (9.5) and much cheaper than a diamond, consider the silicon carbide lab stone named Moissanite, after Henri Moissan, who first discovered the natural stone in Arizona in 1893. Natural Moissanite is extremely rare, being found mainly in meteorites and other stones from outer space, but it's inexpensive to manufacture. A one-carat Moissanite stone, superior in color and clarity will cost you around $300--90% less than a diamond of the same size and cut.
Cubic Zirconia is a lab-made stone comprised of Zirconium dioxide bonded with a stabilizing agent such as yttrium or calcium oxide. CZ has a hardness of 8 on the Mohs scale (diamond is 10); it weighs more than a diamond and shows greenish-yellow under fluorescent light. CZ tends to be more brilliant than diamond and is naturally flawless. CZ's reputation was once tarnished (so to speak) by the fact that early CZ stones tended to become cloudy in a year or two, but the stabilizer keeps today's stones shiny forever. And Cubic Zirconia is easily affordable. A big stone might cost $10, with the majority of cost in a ring going into the setting--yellow or white gold, platinum, silver, palladium are the usual choices. And best of all, if you manage to drop your ring down the kitchen sink, you can replace it before your husband even gets home.
It Starts with Us
Typically, men buy diamonds for women. Just as typically, they would be happy to spend the money on something else. But until women draw the line and insist on cruelty-free, blood-free jewels, change is unlikely. Can we reject decades of brainwashing that taught us all that diamonds are for lovers? That tell us we gain status and recognition by not just the size of our stones, but by their "authenticity"? I think we can. Sure, we love to sparkle and shine: let's sparkle with silicon carbide, zirconium dioxide or lab-grown carbon crystals. Let's shine in the knowledge that our purchasing power will help build stability and safety in far-off places. Once the word gets out, women will wear their fake gems as proudly as many now wear obviously fake fur. Perhaps Moissanite and Cubic Zirconia will come out with lines of t-shirts and hats that say, "No, it's not a diamond; it's __________". Or, "Yes, my diamond is man-made."
There's a simple, affordable way to express your love --without buying a piece of someone else's pain. Now that you know, it's time to put your money where your heart is.
Edward Jay Epstein, Atlantic Magazine, Feb 1982 http://www.un.org/peace/africa/Diamond.html Partnership Africa Canada Human Rights Watch www.brilliantearth.com http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/programs/transcripts/1209.html http://thegreenerdiamond.org/pages/about-conflict-diamonds/kimberley-process.php