Responsible Indulgences

Diamonds are beautiful, and we all know that they are forever. But what do you do when your desire for some ice comes into conflict with the industry's horrendous trade and labor practices? Buying diamonds can be morally hazardous, but luckily for you and me there are some less egregious and even eco-friendly options.

The most well-publicized protest against the diamond industry takes issue with "conflict" or "blood" diamonds, which are defined by the U.N. as "rough diamonds used by rebel movements to finance their military activities," primarily in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Liberia and Sierra Leone. Though there are 10,000 U.N. peacekeeping forces in Sierra Leone, the Rebel Army (RUF) has fought to control over three-quarters of the country and virtually every diamond mine in the region since 1991, including areas of neighboring Guinea. According to Physicians for Human Rights, the RUF has forced relocation of millions of Sierra Leoneans and committed serious human rights abuses that extend from rape to child soldiering and beyond. Amnesty International estimates that these rough 'conflict' diamonds make up about 10 percent of the world's diamond trade. In 2001 the Washington Post reported that Al Qaida brings in millions of dollars from illegal sales of diamonds mined by rebels in Sierra Leone.

The human cost

The diamond industry estimates that conflict diamonds make up 4 percent of the world's total, but others have claimed that the percentage is much higher: anywhere from 10 percent to 20 percent of the rough diamond trade.

Preventing the sale of "conflict" diamonds has been the objective of numerous campaigns since colonialism, and many of these have achieved considerable success, primarily in raising awareness of the issue. In May 2000, a group of African nations met in Kimberley, South Africa, to develop a process of certification for each diamond to ensure no civil conflict was aided by that diamond's production. After obtaining certification, no diamond would be allowed to travel across a national border without a certificate attached.

But there have been serious questions raised about the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS), mainly because the process puts the onus on member nations themselves to certify diamonds and monitor borders without an independent outsider keeping an objective eye. Unsurprisingly there have been various reports of forged certificates, loose borders controls and faulty or inconsistent certification schemes, and many say that the process is nothing more than a publicity stunt.

Importing nations in North America and Europe have not participated officially in the Kimberly Process, but many have accepted its validity and support its policies in lieu of sponsoring their own certification schemes. In April 2003, President Bush signed the Clean Diamond Trade Act, requiring all diamonds entering the United States to bear a Kimberly Process Certificate. Yet, if the scheme itself is flawed, requiring their certification to enter the country is quite beside the point.

The environmental impact

The other major problem with the KPCS is that it applies sanctions only to the funding of armed conflict in certain areas, ignoring the environmental impact of diamond mining and the exploitation of miners, cutters and polishers who work in the industry. In the first place, traditional diamond mining is extremely taxing environmentally. Most diamonds are mined by excavating a known diamond-bearing "pipe." This process is called "open-pit" mining and employs hydraulic shovels to remove ore material. Hard rock is drilled and blasted so the material can be extracted, leaving mines that can be as large as a mile wide and 3,500 feet deep.


Open-pit mine in West Africa.
Open-pit mine in West Africa.


A further 20 per cent of diamonds are mined from the bottom of riverbeds, called alluvial mining. These diamonds tend to be of exceptional value. Alluvial mining involves removing tons of riverbed in order to expose the diamonds, an act that devastates river ecosystems. Furthermore, alluvial mining has a history of child labor: After the riverbed has been excavated, children often comb the remaining area for diamonds.

Serious charges of child labor and unconscionable working conditions have also been brought against cutting and polishing centers in India and Thailand, where most rough diamonds are rerouted through Belgium and England to be prepared for sale.

Alluvial mining in Sierra Leone.
Alluvial mining in Sierra Leone.


But fear not. There are many possibilities left on your plate for buying diamonds without contributing to this mountain of dread. You can buy secondhand or antique diamonds, Canadian diamonds and synthetic diamonds.

Better options

The smallest footprint prize goes to buying secondhand. The logic is simple: If you buy a preowned diamond, you and the previous owner are splitting the cost of the environmental and social damage by preventing another diamond sale. As the hardest material on earth, diamonds are quite durable, so you don't even have to worry about it looking worse for the wear. However, it should be noted that antique (over 100 years old), estate (from around the 1950s), and vintage (anything preowned) diamonds are an entirely different playing field -- most of these diamonds have been cut by hand and tend to take on a subtler hue. Antique and estate diamonds are in high demand for these unique qualities, so don't expect to pay much less than what you would for a new one.

Secondhand diamonds can be found in vintage jewelry stores and antique stores and markets across the country.

Topazery.com is an online antique, estate and vintage jewelry store located in Atlanta that has some information about the difference between new and old diamonds, as well as buying information.

Faycullen.com is a Florida antique, estate and vintage dealer that sells internationally.

In 1991, diamond deposits were discovered in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Before diamonds were mined, the Canadian government investigated the environmental toll of mining the diamonds, and in 1999, Canada's first diamond mine opened for business. The diamonds are mined, cut and polished in Canada, where these practices are closely monitored and each diamond is issued a government certification that guarantees all environmental standards of operation have been met.

Ascertaining your diamond's country of origin is definitely a good idea, and buying a diamond from a developed country increases your chances of getting a gem that has not been mined, cut or polished by an underpaid and mistreated worker. Kimberley, Australia, is home to the world's largest single producer of diamonds, the Argyle Diamond Mine. Other mines are located in Australia and New Zealand, and the one diamond mine in the United States is at Kelsey Lake in Colorado. Diamonds from these countries tend to be more expensive than those mined in developing countries.

Igloodiamonds.com sells to the U.S. with overnight delivery. Expediency and sustainability guaranteed!<

In this tourism site for Canada's Northwest Territories, there is a large historical and informational section about Canadian diamond mining that includes a timeline and specifics about environmental guidelines.

Synthetic diamonds are chemically, physically and optically identical to found diamonds, and so will satisfy your every sparkling craving, usually at a fraction of the price. Synthetic diamonds have been around since the 1960s, but only in the summer of 2003 did a factory in Florida called Gemesis perfect a process for producing gem diamonds ready for market. Though others are beginning to follow, Gemesis is currently the only U.S.-based supplier.

The De Beers Diamond Trading Co. is so petrified of what synthetic diamonds will do to business that it offers to install synthetic diamond detection machines in gem labs at no charge to the lab owners and have launched a large buyer beware campaign detailing the importance of "authenticity." From a global economic perspective, buying synthetic diamonds is without a doubt the best contribution a consumer can make to toppling the current monopolistic industry and paving the way for a more affordable and environmentally sustainable gem industry. Still, synthetic diamond production involves recreating the conditions under which diamonds are naturally formed 100 miles under the earth's surface, which can be expensive and requires a lot of time and energy from scientists and engineers.

Gemesis.com is former U.S. Army General Carter Clarke's diamond-making company in Sarasota, Fla. Clarke is the first to make synthetic gem diamonds specializing in colored gems. This site has buying options and information about the company and the industry.

Apollodiamond.com is a diamond producer whose products will purportedly be ready for sale in the coming year. This site has details about the technological aspects of production.

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