It’s completely understandable why someone would not want to buy a Zimbabwean diamond.
In 2008, the Zimbabwean military seized control of valuable diamond fields, massacring more than 200 miners, then enslaving and torturing others. Although diamond mining has now been turned over to private mining companies, those companies are controlled by Zimbabwe’s corrupt dictator, Robert Mugabe. He continues to steal diamond revenues, funneling them to his cronies and using them to entrench his brutal regime.
Is there anything that U.S. consumers can do to make sure they don’t buy a Zimbabwean blood diamond? The Kimberley Process, the international diamond certification scheme, used to ban Zimbabwean diamonds, but it lifted that ban in 2011. So legally speaking, Zimbabwe is now free to export its diamonds anywhere it wants.
Well, almost anywhere. Because Mugabe is one of the world’s worst human rights abusers, the United States has placed Zimbabwe’s state mining company, as well as the private companies in Zimbabwe’s main diamond field, on its sanctions list. It’s technically illegal for anyone in the United States to import a Zimbabwean diamond. The consequences for importing a Zimbabwean diamond include heavy fines and possibly imprisonment.
So, in theory, diamond consumers in the United States can rest easy. Some Zimbabwean diamonds may slip through, but surely there are very few Zimbabwean diamonds in U.S. jewelry stores – right?
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Just because Mugabe can’t export diamonds directly to the United States, that doesn’t mean he can’t export diamonds to some other place – say Surat, India – where those diamonds can be mixed in with others, lose all identifying information, and then be shipped across a U.S. border. Unlike the United States, India doesn’t ban Zimbabwean diamonds. All it takes to bring Zimbabwean diamonds to U.S. jewelry stores is a stop in Surat en route to New York City.
A fascinating investigative report published in the current issue of Foreign Policy makes this problem clear. About 90 percent of all diamonds, and probably most Zimbabwean diamonds, now pass through Surat for cutting and polishing – the process by which rough diamonds are transformed into the sparkling diamonds that adorn an engagement ring. By the time, they’ve left Surat, it’s usually impossible to tell where a diamond was first mined.
Surat, a city of 5 million people, has replaced Antwerp as the world’s biggest diamond cutting and polishing center, primarily because it offers a regulation-free environment and an abundance of cheap labor. About 500,000 city residents work in the diamond trade. As might be expected, working conditions are not always good. Child labor is common and many workers suffer from “diamond lung” – tuberculosis and other respiratory illnesses caused by years of inhaling tiny diamond particles.
But Surat is also the place where blood diamonds go to forget their past, so to speak. When a rough diamond is imported into India, it is required to arrive with a Kimberley Process certificate stating a country of origin. The information on the certificate is of dubious reliability to begin with, since certificates are “about as easy to fake as an old driver’s license,” according to the article. In any case, the certificates are often discarded. “Once we get them [the diamonds] here, we just throw the certificate away – we don’t need it anymore,” the owner of a cutting and polishing shop states in the article.
The wheeler-dealer atmosphere of Surat makes keeping track of diamond origin information even more difficult. Men walk through the city’s main diamond market wearing undershirts stuffed with diamonds. Paperwork is forgotten about. Illegal, smuggled stones are everywhere. “Individual stones can change hands up to a dozen times over a matter of weeks in polishing houses that grab from piles of legal and illegal stones like mix-‘n’-match candy bins,” the article states. “Deciphering clean from dirty becomes nearly impossible.”
Loose diamond handling practices in places like Surat are one of the main reasons why, according to our estimate, less than one percent of diamonds are traceable to a country of origin by the time they reach a jewelry retailer – and why it’s hard for consumers to be sure that a diamond for sale doesn’t come from a place like Zimbabwe.
At Brilliant Earth, we founded our business to help resolve this dilemma. We are unique in that we select our diamonds only from the tiny pool of diamonds that are fully traceable. For each and every center gem in our collection, we can identify a country of origin. We can do this because we choose our suppliers carefully and can trace the path our diamonds take through cutting and polishing and on to jewelry manufacturing.
Our vision is to create a diamond industry in which this type of transparency is normal and expected. If all U.S. jewelers insisted on obtaining reliable information about their diamonds’ origins, it would be much easier to keep Zimbabwean diamonds – or other blood diamonds – out of U.S. jewelry stores. Consumers would have more power to choose. And blood diamonds might increasingly become a relic of the past.