"Blood Diamonds" and How to Avoid Buying Illicit Gems

John Roach
for National Geographic News
December 8, 2006
Growing awareness that a diamond's luster may hide an illicit past is
adding another "C"—conflict—into the lexicon of gem buyers
already accustomed to gauging color, cut, clarity, and carat.

"Conflict diamonds," also known as blood diamonds, are those sold to fund armed conflict and civil war. Human rights organizations link more than four million deaths and millions more displaced people to the trade in conflict diamonds.

The new Leondardo DiCaprio movie Blood Diamond highlights the role that the illicit diamond trade played in the chaotic 1990s civil war in the African nation of Sierra Leone (see Sierra Leone map.)

The stones also funded armed conflicts in Angola, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (See Africa map.)

Today the illicit diamond trade is believed to fund armed conflict in Côte D'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and may finance terrorists groups such as al Qaeda.

(Watch video: "'Blood Diamonds' Leave Costly Legacy in Africa".)

Clean Diamonds?

The diamond industry is eager to assure consumers they can confidently purchase one of the precious gems knowing its history is untainted by bloodshed and war.

"We have to start by knowing that 99.8 percent of all diamonds coming into the market are conflict free," said Eli Izhakoff, Chairman and CEO of the New York-based World Diamond Council.

"Everybody agrees on that percentage."

The figure stems a government-to-government certification plan set up in 2003 called the Kimberley Process that requires all diamonds transported across borders to be accompanied by a certificate that they did not fund conflict.

Member countries are banned from trading with nonmembers.

In addition the diamond industry voluntarily includes a warranty on the invoice of every diamond sold stating it is conflict free, Izhakoff said.

The warranties follow the stones from the mine to the factories to the retail stores.

"Those are traceable, making it possible for retailers to give assurance the stone they're selling is conflict free," he said.

But human rights organizations are quick to point out weaknesses in the Kimberley Process that allow conflict diamonds into the international market.

Recent reports by the United Nations and the U.S. government found that an estimated 23 million U.S. dollars' worth of diamonds from Côte D'Ivoire may have been smuggled into the legitimate trade.

Evidence suggests the diamonds are taken into neighboring Ghana, where they are certified as Kimberley Process compliant, according to the Washington D.C.-based advocacy organization Global Witness.

"On the consumer side there's no way to be sure that the diamonds they're buying are conflict free," said Corinna Gilfillan of Global Witness, which has campaigned against conflict diamonds since 1998.

The organization is urging the U.S. to strengthen and enforce a trade act that implements the Kimberley Process as the best way to ensure the diamond trade is 100 percent conflict free. It is also calling for independent verification of the industry warranty system.

Consumer Tips

Until industry self-policing and international law keep all illicit stones off the market, human rights and diamond- industry organizations are telling consumers to ask their jewelers a series of questions about their wares.

Suggested questions:

• Do you know where your diamonds come from?

• Can I see a copy of your company's policy on conflict diamonds?

• Can you show me a written guarantee from your diamond suppliers stating that your diamonds are conflict free?

• How can I be sure that none of your jewelry contains conflict diamonds?

If the jeweler is unable to produce the paperwork or otherwise prove the diamonds are conflict free, "the consumer shouldn't buy from that store," Izhakoff said.

A more robust system, Gilfillan noted, is to augment the paperwork with technologies such as laser engraving and optical signatures to track every stone individually, "but we are not there yet."

A Washington D.C.-based organization called the Conflict Free Diamond Council has established a set of strict guidelines to guarantee a diamond is 100 percent clean, including laser engraving and ensuring that its entire production was conducted within one country.

So far only one government's diamond certification program—that of the Northwest Territories Province in Canada—meets the organization's standards.

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