Blood Diamonds: What They Are & How To Avoid Them
"Blood diamond" is one of the phrases used to describe gemstones that were sold to pay for civil wars in places like the Republic of the Congo, the Ivory Coast and Liberia.
Sold both directly by the warring factions themselves or through a series of shell companies, blood diamonds, also known as "conflict" or "war" diamonds, are believed to have once constituted up to 20% of the diamond market. As such, those in control of these blood diamonds are robbing the indigenous populations of some of the poorest countries in the world of up to about $8 billion-worth of natural resources each year. Historians also attribute more than 3 million deaths since the late 1990's to diamond conflict.
Below, we'll tell you a bit more about the major blood diamond conflicts as well as give you tips for making sure your diamond doesn't have any blood on it.
The Impact Of Blood Diamonds
It's hard to imagine that buying a diamond engagement ring or necklace in the United States could contribute to the deaths of people half a world away. That's why it was so surprising when the connection was first made in the late 1980s, and why the issue has so permeated our consumerist culture. Even Kanye West has expounded on the problem (likely broaching the subject to millions of young people in the process, by the way).
In order to truly understand this connection, however, you must follow the money and thereby retrace a diamond's steps, so to speak. Let's say that you go to a major jewelry store chain to purchase an engagement ring. Like the average consumer, you spend about $4,000. Roughly 25% - 125% of that is profit for the retailer, according to the National Jeweler's Profit Margin Survey, while the rest offsets the amount paid by the jeweler to a diamond wholesaler.
The money works its way up the supply chain in this manner, with intermediaries taking a cut at each stage of the process, until you ultimately make your way back to the product's origin. In each of the major blood diamond conflicts, the parties using diamonds to fund their wars were insurgent groups operating against the government. By commandeering diamond supplies and selling them to unscrupulous distributors, rebels could easily raise millions of dollars to obtain weapons and ammunition.
Below, we'll provide a breakdown of the countries most notorious for blood diamonds.
Angola: Diamonds were so heavily relied upon to fund a civil war between three factions from 1974 to 2001 that an estimated 19% of diamonds that came from the country were deemed to be conflict-connected. One group in particular, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), reportedly sold $3.72 billion-worth of stolen diamonds between 1992 and 1998.
As a result of this illicit activity, the United Nations banned the purchase of blood diamonds from Angola in 1998. The resolutions used to do so were the first to explicitly mention diamonds as fuel for civil war.
Ivory Coast: Following a 1999 coup, the Ivory Coast became a hub for conflict diamonds exported out of Liberia and Sierra Leone until the U.N. Security Council banned all diamond exports from the country in 2005.
Liberia: A 14-year civil war created ample opportunity for the illicit diamond trade to flourish. Not only did Liberia allegedly sell diamonds to Al Qaeda in 1998, but former Liberian President Charles G. Taylor was also accused of selling weapons to fuel the uprising in Sierra Leone in exchange for diamonds.
Despite this history, Liberia is now a member of the Kimberley Process, an effort to stem the trade of conflict diamonds, and its U.N. sanctions have been lifted.
Republic of the Congo: While currently a member of the Kimberley Process, the Republic of the Congo was expelled from 2004 to 2007 for exporting large quantities of undocumented diamonds despite having no diamond mining industry itself.
Sierra Leone: While the diamond industry giant De Beers purchased the rights to all of Sierra Leone’s diamond reserves for 99 years beginning in 1935, widespread smuggling and a lack of government supervision led to a completely unregulated industry. Diamonds have been used to fund intermittent civil war for decades since.
How Common Are Blood Diamonds?
Based on historical production numbers, we can estimate that roughly 450 million carats of diamonds – the equivalent of $33.7 billion, based on 2015 prices – have been bloodied in recorded history.
Blood diamonds have ebbed and flowed into the market over the years, however. During the 1980s, at the peak of the trade, an estimated 19% of all diamond production was tied to conflict. Conflict diamond production rates then hovered around 15% during the mid-1990s, according to Global Witness. And following a period of significant U.N. regulation, blood diamond rates declined to roughly 3% of annual production early in the new millennium, ultimately plateauing around 1% by 2004, according to numerous reports.
The Kimberley Process: Keeping Conflict Diamonds Off The Market?
One of the main reasons why blood diamond rates have declined so substantially in recent years is the institution and gradual adoption of the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme. The well-regarded Kimberley Process is a joint program uniting governments, corporations and non-profit organizations with the goal of stopping the proliferation of conflict-borne stones.
The Process has a number of requirements in support of this objective, including the use of tamper-resistant containers and government certificates when shipping diamonds, as well as a prohibition against exporting diamonds to non-Kimberley Process countries. Eighty-one countries are currently members, including the U.S., all EU member-states and Russia – the world's largest diamond producer.
Despite the strides being made by the organization, it has been criticized on a number of different issues – from questionable accounting procedures to a failure to properly regulate the global diamond industry. It is for this reason that influential organizations like Global Witness have actually pulled out of the Kimberley Process in recent years.
Tips For Avoiding Blood Diamonds
The good news is that blood diamonds are now far rarer than they were just a couple decades ago. The bad news is that they're still out there. And since you obviously don't want to help fund a violent civil war, or any other harmful and illicit activity, we'll give you some tips for steering clear of conflict when diamond shopping.
- Be Wary Of Older Diamonds: Unless you’re dealing with a family heirloom, you'll want to be especially inquisitive about the background of any diamond that is at least a decade old. Blood diamond rates were much higher in previous year, which means an older diamond has a probability of being tainted. While the proceeds from your purchase of such a diamond likely would not contribute to civil war, many people would want to avoid diamonds with a history tied to violence.
- Buy From Trusted Retailers: Reputation goes a long way in the jewelry business. If a particular chain has a history of absolutely avoiding blood diamonds, it figures they aren't likely to jeopardize that image anytime soon. Likewise, if a given store has been known to dabble in blood diamonds, then you'll know to avoid it. Given the historical prevalence of conflict diamonds, the chances are good that most major retailers have sold them at some point in time.Just always make sure to do your research before shopping somewhere because salespeople won’t always have all the necessary information. A 2004 Global Witness report found that employees in 26 out of 30 major U.S. retailers they visited did not know their company's policy regarding conflict diamond screening and warranties. Twenty-five of the 30 retailers officially declined to comment on their policies.
- Request Documentation: You should be able to find out if a particular stone is certified by the Kimberley Process. If it isn't, and also lacks other supporting documentation that might put your mind at rest, it's probably best to pursue other options. Keep in mind that Gemological Institute of America ratings speak only to the quality of a diamond, not if it is conflict-free.
- Pinpoint Your Stone’s Source: You should be able to find out if a particular stone is certified by the Kimberley Process. If it isn't, and also lacks other supporting documentation that might put your mind at rest, it's probably best to pursue other options. Keep in mind that Gemological Institute of America ratings speak only to the quality of a diamond, not if it is conflict-free.
Ask The Experts: Inside The Bloody Diamond Market
Given the complex, murky history of the blood diamond trade, we turned to diamond industry experts as well as historians with expertise in high-traffic country for more insights into how the conflict diamond industry works and who it hurts. Their bios and responses to the following questions can be found below.
- Is there a way to quantify the damage done by the blood diamond industry?
- What are the best ways to avoid blood diamonds?
- Do you think the Kimberley Process is effective? What improvements would you make, if any?
Image: BeRad / Shutterstock
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