Some diamonds are a war's best friend

Consumers are urged to stay away from gems that finance mayhem in Africa

December 07, 2006|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN REPORTER

When University of Maryland, Baltimore County student Sidra Shaikh was advising her best male friend this week on how to select a diamond circle pendant necklace for his girlfriend, she focused on the four Cs: carat, color, cut and clarity.

As thorough as she was, however, Shaikh didn't think about another "C" - conflict-free.

As the diamond buying season heats up for the holidays - and in anticipation of the opening tomorrow of the Leonardo DiCaprio film Blood Diamond - advocacy groups are urging consumers to do what they can to prevent diamonds that fund civil conflicts in Africa from reaching the retail market.

"I knew about that [conflict diamonds]," says Shaikh, 21, who was shopping Monday with her friend at Zales at The Mall in Columbia. "But it doesn't cross my mind when I'm in there."

Groups like Amnesty International and Global Witness, an international rights organization that looks at how natural resources fuel global conflicts and corruption, hope to change that.

"A small diamond, if it's valuable enough, can be used to purchase a gun or a small weapon. It could be used to kill people, and that's a pretty brutal connection," says Corinna Gilfillan, who heads Global Witness' United States office. "That's why consumers have such an important role to play. Because the industry - which is all about image - is very vulnerable to any connection to conflict. Just by asking questions, consumers can send very important messages to the industry that they don't want to be buying any diamonds that contribute to diamond-fueled conflicts."

According to experts, about a decade ago, it became widely known that some rough diamonds coming out of Africa were being sold by rebels to purchase weapons and fund deadly wars. These illicit stones - which have contributed to millions of deaths in countries such as Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone, activists say - are called "blood" diamonds or "conflict" diamonds.

Diamond industry leaders and national governments have since enacted the Kimberley Process, which is intended to verify the origin of all diamonds that make their way to the retail market. They deny any trading of stones that are known or believed to be blood diamonds.

Now that the Kimberley Process is in place, 99.8 percent of the diamonds from Africa have met the certification guidelines, says Jerry Ehrenwald, president of the International Gemological Institute, an independent gem certification and appraisal group.

"Ten years ago, the diamond industry pulled together a paper trail. So if a diamond is coming out of Africa and going from one country to another, it has to have correct documentation in place," Ehrenwald says. "And that small fraction that doesn't participate in the Kimberley Process, 0.2 percent, nobody wants to buy them. So virtually, this problem currently no longer exists."

But advocacy groups and others who have studied the problem say industry insiders underestimate the problem to protect the image of their product.

"The Kimberley Process is very superficial and very easy to get around," says Tom Zoellner, who spent years traveling the world reporting on this issue for his book The Heartless Stone. "The conflict diamond problem still exists. And there's still, unfortunately, no way for the consumer to be assured 100 percent that their diamond was not mined in hellish violent conditions."

But if more shoppers would make it known to jewelers that they care where their diamonds came from - as much as they care about how clear and sparkly the stones are - then the industry might do a better job avoiding conflict diamonds, experts say.

"No amount of blood diamonds is acceptable," Gilfillan says. "Asking jewelers questions such as, `Where do your diamonds come from? What is your policy to combat conflict diamonds? Do your suppliers provide a guarantee?' Just by doing that, consumers can make a judgment about whether a jeweler is reputable and responsible and doing everything it can to stop this problem.

"I think the [Blood Diamond] movie will really raise awareness of this issue," Gilfillan continues. "And this is a big time of year for the diamond industry, between now and Valentine's Day. So this is a perfect time for consumers to be asking questions."

tanika.white@baltsun.com

Ask the jeweler

If jewelers think their customers care about the origins of their diamonds, then the jewelers themselves would care more, activists say.

You can indicate to your jeweler that you are aware of conflict or blood diamonds - and want to make sure your purchase won't support them.

Here's how. Before you buy, ask your jeweler these four questions:

Do you know where your diamonds come from?

May I see a copy of your company's policy on conflict diamonds?

Can you show me a written guarantee from your diamond suppliers stating that your diamonds are conflict-free?

How can I be sure that none of your jewelry contains conflict diamonds?

[ Source: Global Witness and Amnesty International]

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