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December 4, 2006

Cut, Color, Clarity, and a Clean Conscience

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In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), about one million diamond diggers work for less than a dollar per day. The majority of the operations involve alluvial mining: People, including children, stand in a stream with a sieve or other simple tool, sifting through dirt and working inhumane hours under grim conditions with no guarantee they'll find anything. And while the DRC has 30 percent of the world's diamond reserves and produces $2 billion worth of diamonds annually, 90 percent of its population lives in poverty. Even more devastating: Since 1998, four million people in the DRC have died in civil war conflicts.

"It's diamonds for guns," explains Beth Gerstein, 31, who, in December of 2004, was about to get engaged when she and her boyfriend saw a PBS Frontline report on conflict diamonds. Conflict diamonds can enter the trade when rebels smuggle the diamonds across the borders into "conflict-free" zones, where they are sold to the international market. Money made from these sales is then used to buy arms for rebel militias in countries like Sierra Leone. "We didn't want this symbol of our commitment and love to be implicated in the suffering of others," she says. But most of the jewelers they approached claimed they didn't know the issues. "When we'd ask, 'Where does this diamond come from?' they said they couldn't tell us. They said, 'Trust us, it's not a problem.'"

In theory, it shouldn't be a problem. In 2003, the United Nations passed the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, wherein countries agree to voluntarily monitor their diamond supplies to ensure they're not financing rebel militias. Most of the larger diamond companies have reported drops in the rate of conflict stones in their supplies since Kimberley — saying that less than 1% of the gems on the market are conflict diamonds, according to the World Diamond Council — but Amnesty International points out that change is slower than people may think. In a September 2006 survey of jewelry retailers, only 27% said they had a policy on conflict diamonds; and of those, only half issued warranties. Many were unable to explain the conflict-diamond crisis and were unaware of the Kimberley Process. Furthermore, 110 out of 246 shops across the U.S. refused outright to take the survey.

"There's a vast imbalance between public relations effort and the effort made to ensure that the Kimberley Process is really working," says Amy O'Meara, an associate with the Business and Human Rights program for Amnesty International USA. The Kimberley Process is self-regulated, so it's difficult to trust. Those in charge of monitoring are also the people who stand to profit from the diamonds. "The industry has agreed to police itself. While we're happy they made that commitment, they have a lot of history to overcome," O'Meara says.

Gerstein thinks people should take matters into their own hands. "The industry is only going to change if consumers demand it," she says. Which is why she co-founded Brilliant Earth, a company that sells only conflict-free diamonds — mining them from Canada, where a third party regulates, monitors, and tracks the gems. She also co-founded Diamonds for Africa Fund (DFA), a nonprofit that provides medicine, food, and books to African communities ravaged by unethical mining.

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