The Mix

Taking the suffering out of Valentine's Day

Well, some of it, anyway.
In the past week, Amnesty International, Global Witness, and other human rights organizations have sent public appeals to consumers: if you're going to buy diamonds, buy conflict-free diamonds. A new guide entitled, "Are you looking for the perfect diamond?" recommends that, along with the usual four C's -- color, cut, clarity, and carat -- buyers consider a fifth -- "conflict."

For years, conflict diamonds have fueled civil wars throughout Africa. As Amnesty International's short animated short flash animation recalls (all to the De Beers' trademark commercial tune Palladio):
For the past decade, Sierra Leone has been wracked by a brutal war led be an armed group called the Revolutionary United Front. The RUF terrorizes Sierra Leone's local population, and controls the country's diamond-rich regions. The RUF funds their reign of terror with the sale of $200 million of diamonds a year. The RUF's terror tactics include: killing, raping and abduction. But their trademark is amputating the limbs and body parts of men, women, children, and babies. Ineffective regulations allow these "conflict diamonds" to enter the international diamond market. America consumes 65 percent of the world's diamonds. Refuse to take part.
It's not just Sierra Leone, but Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Liberia. While there have been efforts to create certification processes to establish the origin of diamonds, there is no guarantee that the diamonds you buy haven't been smuggled across borders, or had certification forged. Doesn't much matter, anyway, seeing as only a quarter of American shops have a policy on conflict diamonds, and 83 percent of American consumers just don't ask about it.

It's important that human rights organizations are trying to get consumers to be more aware of their diamond purchases, but our culture's obsession with diamonds is itself worth questioning.

How damn special and unique can diamonds be when you stop to consider how many women own them? According to one estimate there are enough diamonds in the world to give every man, woman, and child in America a cupful. The only reason they're so expensive is because companies like De Beers, controller of some 60 percent of the diamond industry, are price fixing. Indeed, in 2000 the Department of Justice charged De Beers with just that. After failing to show in court, De Beers finally (2004) paid a $10 million anti-trust penalty so that it could open up stores in the U.S.

De Beers has succeeded in framing the diamond as a symbol of love and uniqueness. It's advertising campaign got a jump start from sociologist A.W. Ayers, who, back in the 30s, recommended that De Beers present diamonds as a symbol of a man's ability to "get into the competitive race." The gems were than loaned out to well-known actresses "who can make the grocer's wife say, 'I wish I had what she has'."

Perhaps the only spectacular thing about diamonds is what makes them a mainstay in drill bits and saws: their resilience. Diamonds are the hardest substance on Earth. Now, if advertisers had chosen to focus on this quality -- say by showing a well-bred socialite enduring apocalyptic events at the end of which only her diamond ring remains -- it might be a more legit campaign. But diamonds are advertised for their elegance, glamour, and synonymity with love.

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Onnesha Roychoudhuri is an editorial fellow at AlterNet.