Diamonds in Distress: What to Know Before You Buy a Ring

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The politics of Marange diamonds and The Kimberley Process can make buying a diamond engagement ring difficult, but Precious Objects author Alicia Oltuski offers buying tips and hopeBy Alicia Oltuski
Author of Precious Objects

Diamonds are an archetypal Valentine’s Day gift. They seem almost as integral to the seasonal landscape as chocolates and the color red, and go along well with the timely trend of giving gifts that signify love and romance. This winter, though, the diamond industry is in a state of distress. A number of activists and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) harbor doubts about the Kimberley Process, the world’s diamond monitoring system. Here’s what it means for you and your loved one.

What Is the Kimberley Process?
The Kimberley Process was established in 2002 in response to the presence of conflict diamonds.

Global Witness Bids Adieu
On Dec. 5, the well-known NGO Global Witness, an “official Observer” of the Process, released a statement declaring its resignation from the group. Prior to the birth of the Kimberley Process, Global Witness had played a crucial part in publicizing the existence of blood diamonds. While researching my book on diamonds, I learned about the campaign that the NGO, along with three others, delivered in 1999. It was called “Fatal Transactions” and it included the mailing of death counts from the wars in Africa—as well as other information on blood diamonds—to important news sources. Global Witness was also present at an historic meeting in the city of Kimberley, South Africa, in 2000, which eventually led to the creation of the Kimberley Process. A unique system once credited with decreasing the percentage of blood diamonds, the Process brought together NGOs, governments, and industry representatives. But some have lost faith in its current iteration.

What spurred Global Witness’ departure was, according to their press release, multidimensional. In the release, Charmian Gooch, a founding director of the NGO, is quoted as faulting the Process with “…fail[ing] to deal with the trade in conflict diamonds from Côte d’Ivoire, [being] unwilling to take serious action in the face of blatant breaches of the rules over a number of years by Venezuela and [proving] unwilling to stop diamonds fuelling corruption and violence in Zimbabwe…” The last of the three issues has been the object of great scrutiny over the past few years.

Marange Fields, Zimbabwe: A Beginner’s Background
In the summer of 2009, Human Rights Watch released a report describing abuses they found had taken place in the Marange diamond fields of Zimbabwe. Global Witness’ recent statement referenced further developments in the Marange saga: “In a shocking move, the Kimberley Process recently authorized exports from two companies operating in the controversial Marange diamond fields in Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean army seized control of the area in 2008, killing around 200 miners.”

Worry Isn’t Isolated
Global Witness is not alone in its concern over the Kimberley Process. Ian Smillie, an expert and activist who was also present at that critical meeting in 2000, parted ways with the Process two and a half years ago. And the Rapaport Group (well known for releasing a weekly price list for diamonds) has a scrolling alert on its Fair Trade website telling visitors that the Kimberley Process has “authorized the release of millions of carats of Marange diamonds.”

In a recent article, The New York Times reported on another nefarious possibility: Multiple sources indicated that revenue from state-held diamond mines in Zimbabwe may be “bypassing the nation’s treasury and raising fears that President Robert Mugabe is amassing wealth to help extend his 31-year reign.”

What People Are Saying
When I emailed Ian Smillie during the holiday season to ask what he would suggest saying to customers, he wrote back, “Buy a goat out of the Oxfam catalogue and check back… next year.”

Others feel that, with vigilance, it is possible to buy “clean” diamonds. One dealer wrote to me, saying “If a client requires additional assurances, I would recommend they consult with a private dealer rather than a large retailer. Private dealers have first-hand knowledge of their entire inventory, will be more open to, and capable of sourcing a diamond on request from a specific country. While this may cost a few more dollars, in the end it may be worth it to the customer for their further peace of mind.” (Note: this person is a private dealer herself.)

Is There Hope?
Along with all of this turmoil, there are also definite auspicious signals to look to as the diamond industry enters a potentially metamorphosing chapter of its history.
—The United States, whose regulations prohibit Marange diamonds, has just taken over as the chair of the Kimberley Process for 2012.
—Smillie says: “Unlike some of the chairs of the recent past, the US understands the urgent need for reform, and a reform committee has been struck to look at the issues.
—The Diamond Development Initiative (chaired by Ian Smillie) is working on bringing the world “Development Diamonds.” For more information visit DDI’s website.
—The Rapaport Group has announced a forthcoming ethical certification system.

Alicia Oltuski has appeared on NPR’s Berlin Stories, in W magazine, The Faster Times, The Bulletin in Philadelphia, and other publications. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University, where she was awarded a David Berg Foundation Fellowship, and has an M.A. and B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She has taught at the University of the Arts and was a reader at The Paris Review. Follow Alicia on Twitter.

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