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December 4, 2006

Cut, Color, Clarity, and a Clean Conscience

The two new C's you need to know about before buying your next bling.

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Turns out diamonds may not be everyone's best friend. The United States buys $25 billion worth of the gems each year — as much as the rest of the world's countries combined. But the profits don't always go to the people who mine, cut, and polish the stones. Often they go to finance warfare, as seen in the movie Blood Diamond, starring January cover girl Jennifer Connelly. A blood, or conflict, diamond is one mined in an African war zone, then sold to a supplier to finance rebel warfare. And yet buying a "clean" diamond can be difficult because it's often impossible to track its origin.

Diamonds have a long history of being one of the most valuable commodities in Africa, beginning in 1866, when the stones were discovered in South Africa. (In 1870, 269,000 carats were extracted from South Africa; by 2006, the number had risen to about 10 million carats annually.) With subsequent diamond discoveries in other parts of Africa, the rush that followed began a complex story of corruption. It's counterintuitive that the existence of a rich natural resource could hurt, rather than help, the economy, and become a source of violence and bloodshed. But since the early 1990s, rebel groups in Sierra Leone, Angola, and other countries have controlled the mines, coercing workers to labor in them and fund warfare. Rapper Kanye West brought attention to the problem with his 2005 song, "Diamonds from Sierra Leone": "The diamonds, the chains, the bracelets, the charmses/I thought my Jesus Piece was so harmless/'til I seen a picture of a shorty armless."

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