The Bloody Truth About Conflict-Free Diamonds

A guest post by Courtney E. Miller

A still of Marilyn Monroe from the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, released in 1953.

“A diamond is a girl’s best friend.” Or is it? The exceptionally hard, brilliant stone has been portrayed in movies and advertisements as the object of many a girl’s fantasy. Women in the US and increasingly around the world are told by the media to expect nothing less than a diamond ring as a token of engagement, and the message seems to work. In 2007, global diamond jewelry sales reached more than US $70 billion. But this symbol of eternal love has been tainted by the existence of bloody conflicts in African countries fueled by the global diamond trade. In 2002, the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) was established to reduce such conflicts, and to ensure that globally traded diamonds come strictly from “conflict-free” areas. Recently, significant criticisms of the KPCS have brought its effectiveness into question.

Diamonds were first mined in India about 3,000 years ago, which was thought to be the world’s only source until the 18th century. Due to their rarity, only royalty and elites were permitted to wear them. Over time, the Indian mines were depleted, and diamonds became increasingly rare and inaccessible, even to elites. It wasn’t until the late 19th century, with the discovery of several large diamonds on the De Beers property in South Africa, that a massive supply of diamonds was uncovered. English-born South African businessman Cecil Rhodes soon formed the company De Beers Consolidated Mines, and by 1887, the company owned all diamond mining operations in South Africa.

The discovery of this massive supply significantly increased the availability and affordability of diamonds to the public. By the late 1930’s, however, De Beers board member Harry Oppenheimer was concerned with the drop in demand for diamond jewelry that followed the Great Depression. According to investigative journalist Edward Jay Epstein, Oppenheimer endeavored to make diamond jewelry an inseparable part of romance and marriage to increase demand for diamonds and keep prices high. To do this, De Beers launched an advertising and publicity campaign in 1939that prominently featured images and discussion of diamond jewelry in movies, magazines, newspapers, and radio talk shows. By 1941, diamond sales in the US had risen by 55 percent. In 1948, a copywriter came up with De Beers’ trademark slogan: “A diamond is forever.” Today, De Beers remains the world’s largest diamond company, producing and marketing about 35 percent of the world’s rough diamond supply. Over 50 percent of global diamond sales take place in the US, and about 65 percent of the supply comes from African nations. Other major producers include Russia, Canada, and Australia.

For many, the diamond continues to be a symbol of everlasting love. But behind the dazzling beauty of diamond gemstones exists a dark reality. In 1998, the international NGO Global Witness published a report that revealed that illicit sales of rough diamonds were fueling armed conflict in diamond mining areas in countries including Sierra Leone and Angola. The report indicated that tens of thousands of people had died in these conflicts, and millions more were made refugees.

In response, representatives from diamond-producing African countries, from the major importing countries, and diamond traders engaged in talks on the issue in May 2000. These talks led to the creation of the World Diamond Council (WDC), an organization charged with reducing the quantity of conflict diamonds in the global market. On November 5, 2002, the KPCS for international trade in rough diamonds was established to carry out this mission.

Member nations of the KPCS agree not to import or export any diamonds unless they are certified as conflict-free by the organization. The United Nations defines “conflict diamonds” as those “that originate from areas controlled by forces or factions opposed to legitimate and internationally recognized governments, and are used to fund military action in opposition to those governments, or in contravention of the decisions of the Security Council.”

Promotional poster for the film Blood Diamond.

Thus, the objective of the KPCS is to prevent militant groups from receiving diamond revenues. According to the UN, because revenues from rough diamond caches are often used by such groups to finance arms purchases and other illegal activities, cutting off these funds should shorten wars and prevent them from recurring. In 2006, the release of the feature filmBlood Diamond brought significant public attention to the issue of conflict diamonds. Publicity from the movie along with a WDC advertising campaign seemed to be effective; by 2007, the WDC announced that nearly 100 percent of rough diamonds in the market were certified conflict-free.

But, external sources indicated the problem was far from solved. The international NGO Human Rights Watch revealed in a report that serious human rights abuses were occurring in the Marange diamond fields of Zimbabwe. Documented abuses included forced labor, torture, sexual assault, and murder of villagers. Yet because the Zimbabwean governments were deemed “legitimate” by the KPCS, and because the abuses were committed by state sanctioned armed forces, the Kimberley Process monitoring body did not address the matter.

In light of these revelations, Martin Rapaport, a key figure in the development of the KPCS, resigned from the World Diamond Councilin February 2010, calling the KPCS and the WDC a “sham.” Subsequently, on December 5, 2011, Global Witness announced it would no longer support the Kimberley Process. In a press statement, Founding Director of the organization Charmian Gooch stated that member governments in diamond exporting countries were not holding themselves accountable in preventing conflict diamonds from entering the market. Gooch wrote, “The fact is that most consumers still cannot be sure where their diamonds come from, or whether they are financing armed violence or abusive regimes.”

A child mines diamonds in Sierra Leone.

Such is the current predicament facing diamond consumers who do not wish to contribute to diamond-related conflicts. But despite the blood diamond controversy, diamond sales in the US have continued to rise. Kimberley Process-certified diamonds are still marketed as conflict-free, and many consumers are likely to be unaware of the recent criticisms of the KPCS, and mistakenly believe that diamonds labeled “conflict-free” were extracted under peaceful, just circumstances.

Unfortunately, this situation is not unique to the diamond industry, but in fact mirrors consumer misunderstanding of the social, economic, and environmental benefits of Fair Trade and Organic certification as found by sociologists Getz and Schreck. Similarly, there is a troubling lack of consumer awareness of the contentious splitbetweenFair Trade USAandFairtrade International that Nicki Lisa Cole has been covering on this blog.

One of the reasons why many consumers misinterpret the meaning of the KPCS label is the great separation between consumers and the diamond extraction process. The KPCS certification guarantees a diamond came from areas controlled by governments considered “legitimate” by the UN, but in fact implies nothing about the conditions under which a diamond was mined, or who was involved in its extraction. It does not guarantee anything about the “legitimate” practices of the governments that control the mines. But because of the apparent objectivity of the label, consumers may feel their responsibility in preventing diamond-born conflict ends with the purchase of those labeled “ethical.”

A discussion of what the KPCS means to consumers necessitates a discussion of what diamonds mean to them. Karl Marx’s notion of “commodity fetishism”–that the labor required for the production of a good is obscured by the sociocultural meaning of that good–is useful in understanding the relationship between diamond production and consumption. Though diamond jewelry does not have what Marx would call use-value, or value in utility, it has a high exchange-value, or value in terms of that of other objects. Though the labor that goes into cutting and polishing a diamond is often a factor in determining its monetary value, the labor that went into its extraction is not. This labor is eclipsed by the cultural significance we attribute to the gem and the jewelry that bears it.

French philosopher Jean Baudrillard might argue that diamonds are valued so highly not for their aesthetic appeal, but for what they indicate about the person who wears them. He wrote on this topic in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, “One does not dress a woman luxuriously in order that she be beautiful, but in order that her luxury testify to the legitimacy or social privilege of her master.” In this vein, the purchase of diamond jewelry is what Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption,” or consumption which serves only to strengthen and preserve social hierarchies.

A De Beers company ad run in magazines.

The De Beers company caught on long ago to the desire to display one’s status through consumption. The company’s advertisements tend to conflate love with income and consumerism, and foster the belief that those who do not purchase diamond jewelry for their partners must not “love” as much as those who do. Seeking to foster other consumer motivations, De Beers’ “right hand ring” ad campaign removes romance from the message entirely, and instead promotes diamonds as a symbol of women’s empowerment and economic achievements.

A magazine ad for De Beers’ “Right Hand Ring” campaign.

In his book Subculture: The Meaning of Style, cultural studies scholar Dick Hebdige suggests that powerful groups “exert total social authority over subordinate groups, not simply by coercion or by the direct imposition of ruling ideas, but by winning and shaping consent so that the power of the dominant classes appears to be both legitimate and natural.” Messages conveyed through advertisements like those seen above convince us to want to purchase diamonds, and to value them above human life. Because of this, we perpetuate a violent and deadly system of exploitation.

Today, it is easy for a consumer in the US to purchase Kimberley Process-certified diamonds. Many prominent diamond retailers proclaim that all of their diamonds are certified as “conflict-free.” As such, the ethics of diamond consumption does not have to do so much with choosing to buy either certified or non-certified diamonds as it does with forming one’s opinion on the KPCS, and deciding whether to buy diamonds at all. But, letting go of long-standing traditions, especially those embedded in narratives of romance, love, and success, can be very difficult.

What many diamond consumers do not realize is that their role in the perpetuation of diamond conflicts extends far beyond singular purchases. The underlying cause of diamond-related conflict is not corrupt governance, disorganization, or poor economic management in producing countries. Rather, it is the demand for diamonds in consuming nations, particularly the US, which fosters exploitation and abuse in the name of capitalist competition. As a result of sustained foreign demand, producing countries have become dependent on diamond export revenues, which ensures that the economic, political, and social structures of these countries will continue to revolve around competitive diamond production and sales. The bloody conflicts will continue as long as profit is valued over people. If diamond-related conflict is to end, then the high demand for diamond jewelry spurring those conflicts must diminish. For this to happen, the corporate strategies that create that demand must stop.

How is this to be accomplished? If media portrayal of diamonds turned them into the epitome of romance and luxury, perhaps portrayal of them could shift in a way that tarnishes their shining reputation. Perhaps instead of ever-lasting love, diamonds could be publicly associated with violent conflicts strongly enough to make their ownership an embarrassing, contemptible thing, as has happened with fur thanks to the campaigning of PETA.

An Amnesty International awareness campaign that reads, “What price for these diamonds?”

A truly ethical alternative to mined diamonds does exist. Synthetic diamonds have the same chemical structure as mined diamonds, and neither the naked eye nor a microscope can tell the difference. Synthetic diamonds are new and not yet widely available to the public, but as the quantity of natural diamond resources diminishes, diamond jewelry might soon come from a laboratory in Florida, not a conflict-ridden mine in Angola. It is also possible for consumers to buy diamonds from countries known to be free of extraction-related conflict, like Canada and Australia, but determining the specific origin of a diamond requires further industry effort and documentation and in some cases is not yet possible.

Ultimately, it appears the KPCS is not a reliable certification on which consumers who hope to avoid purchasing blood diamonds can rely. The one bright spot is that the organization and the controversy surrounding it have brought the issue of blood diamonds to light, and we now have the opportunity to act on this information. Consumer demand has the power to reshape the diamond industry and end diamond related conflict, so in the end, it is how we choose to act that matters.

Courtney Miller is a recent graduate of Pomona College in Claremont, California, where she majored in International Relations and conducted research into extractive industries. She is passionate about issues of social inequality, particularly women’s issues and environmental justice. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Courtney will move to Puno, Peru in August on a Napier Initiative grant to lay the groundwork  for construction of a locally run water filter factory. Contact Courtney at courtneymiller919@gmail.com.

7 thoughts on “The Bloody Truth About Conflict-Free Diamonds”

  1. Thank you thank you thank you! My industry needs to be more transparent on the subject of diamonds and it frustrates me greatly that so many other designers casually use terms like “conflict-free” and “Kimberly Process”. We need to do a much better job at educating our customers.

  2. Good day! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading through this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this write-up to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read. Thank you for sharing!

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