A new Warner Bros. movie out this season is sure to spark discussion on the propriety of the diamond trade. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio (Titanic, The Aviator, The Departed) and Djimon Hunsou (Amistad), the epic is a fictionalized account of the 1990's conflict in Sierra Leone, which was, in part, financed on the backs of poor miners engaged in back-breaking, dangerous, and exploitative work in the diamond mines. The trailer is attached here:
Diamond merchants are surely watching the extent to which the film is embraced here in America. As one of the hallmark lines in the movie goes, as delivered by Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind) but paraphrased here, nobody would want to wear a diamond on their finger if they knew that someone lost their hand to get it. The fear is that moviegoers will look at their wedding ring as they depart the theater and resolve to not buy another piece of jewelry. That fear is well founded, because a diamond's value is inherently nothing more than some shrewd marketing by De Beers, SA, the stateless, privately held consortium, along with that company's iron-fisted control over diamond supply.
Over decades, the company has exploited the population's vanity by insinuating that your significant other must not love you as much as your friend's significant other if he did not get you a stone as large as hers (or his, I suppose). Today, it is simply accepted protocol to spend THREE MONTHS SALARY on an engagement ring. To me, that figure is just flabbergasting, and a blatant commercialization of something not meant to be commercialized. (Fair disclosure: I am fortunate to be married to someone who would have valued a Cracker Jack ring as much as the minuscule diamond dust that I could afford at the time of our engagement.) Quoting Mordechai Rappaport of the Rappaport price list in a recent Fortune article, "when a guy gives a woman a diamond, and someone was killed for it, it is not worth anything."
To be fair, the $60 billion industry supplies much needed export income and jobs to an already impoverished continent. A public awakening to the true cost of that bling on your finger poses enormous risk to those people, too. Also, according to the industry, only a small percentage of worldwide diamonds originated from conflict areas.
Recognizing their conundrum, the industry has started to embrace the Kimberley Process, which is a certification scheme. Several member countries agree to only trade with themselves. The self-policing members inspect each other's facilities, with the hope of having their diamonds declared conflict free. Still, the nature of the process is ripe for abuse. Aside from having members self police, the stones themselves make it difficult to certify. It is not like they have serial numbers attached to them. Black markets in the banned countries still thrive.
Into this fray steps what is possibly the biggest challenge to De Beers hegemony in its history, the fairly new process of creating synthetic diamonds. Using sophisticated, high pressure equipment, some startups have learned how to make actual diamonds that are structurally and materially the same as the real thing. Only the most sophisticated jewelry experts can tell the difference. At least for now, these companies are marking their diamonds with barely visible serial numbers. These processes threaten to bring lab-produced mass production to an industry that requires scarcity. If you rationalize your diamond purchase on the notion that it will always retain its monetary value, sell now.
If I had it my way, we would all awaken to the fact that love is signified by everyday commitments and not some thing, be it jewelry, cars, perfume, gifts, or whatever. Seeing that as a utopian notion for the time being, if you are purchasing jewelry this holiday season, make sure your jeweler understands and embraces the Kimberley Process. Kimberley may not be perfect, but it is the best we have at present. If the person at the counter looks at you cross-eyed, move on to another one. Many web merchants are now specializing in conflict-free diamonds, such as Brilliant Earth (I have never used them, nor do I specifically endorse them). Stay safe and responsible this season.