Back in 2006 was the release of the film Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The phrase and the wider issue of blood diamonds had been only too familiar to the gemstone industry and even the general public for more than a decade prior thanks to widespread media coverage, so the blockbuster was just the last nail in the coffin.
It perpetuated the idea that the diamond mining industry has always been and will always be, at least to some degree, harmful to developing nations and third-world diamond miners.
15 years after the film’s release, and 22 years after the events it depicts, how has the situation progressed and are blood diamonds or other ethical issues still a concern?
The film ends with a meeting in the South African city of Kimberley that came about as a result of conflicts such as the one in Sierra Leone that Blood Diamond depicts.
That meeting resulted in the Kimberley Process. Since the Kimberley Process (KP) was brought into place in 2003, countries have been able to sign up to the agreement which sets out the requirements for controlling rough diamond production and trade.
According to the KP’s website it now has 56 participants representing 82 countries.
River Mounts is a diamond-set ring supplier. Manager Nathan Warburton sums up the history of the industry and its controversies thus: “Diamonds have been traded for over 1,000 years, and over the course of that history there have been times of strife.
“Most recently, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the industry was rocked by the reporting of blood diamonds, news which caused the market to falter. But,” he adds, “the diamond trade is an $81 billion industry and a lot has been done in the last 20 years to improve standards and reduce the potential for trade in conflict diamonds.”
But what exactly have those efforts to stamp out blood diamonds looked like, and how successful have they really been? Consensus among companies in the know seems to be that the problem is almost eradicated.
“The vast majority of diamonds now and then were mined by large companies who all have made enormous efforts to address any issues that affect the industry and the wellbeing of those involved,” says RM Shah managing director, Nilesh Shah. “The blood diamond crisis refers to a very small part of the industry in a particular period of civil wars and associated troubles in certain West African countries.
“No reputable dealer would have dealt with the diamonds being smuggled out of those countries.”
Diamnet’s Howard Levine believes that the blood diamond era is behind us, “at least for all developed countries”.
He goes on: “Of course, there will always be those with no morals but we must look at where the majority of today’s diamonds come from.
“With Indian cutting behemoths handling most of the diamond production in the world, I believe we can be sure that these stones are 100% Kimberley compliant.” Non-compliant companies would have “far too much to lose” if they were caught, he argues.
Others agree that “virtually all” natural diamonds are now conflict-free, but this still leaves the possibility that some are not.
Knowing that, how do retailers ensure that they select a trustworthy dealer? Nikolay Piriankov, Taylor & Hart CEO, tells Professional Jeweller that the London bespoke jeweller mostly works with Indian diamond suppliers.
Today’s technology ensures that a diamond can be traced from raw stone to finished product”
“All of them are reputable, multi-generational diamond polishers with thousands of employees and they’ve built their large businesses based on trust,” he explains. “They engage with us in discussions on what they’re doing to improve transparency around their supply chain and have committed to sharing with us the data they have relating to a diamond’s provenance.
“We also work with suppliers who employ transparency solutions such as Diamond Timelapse, shown on our diamond search tool on our website, which allows us to pass along a full certificate of origin to our customers about their diamond.”
Online retailer 77 Diamonds’ co-founder and managing director, Tobias Kormind, concurs fully with Piriankov that working with “large, credible suppliers” is the key, and says that traceability solutions are becoming more readily available all the time.
“We can already answer to specific requests for diamonds issued from Canada or Botswana,” he says, indicating the degree of traceability already on offer.
What sort of technology is being used in this mission for ultimate supply chain transparency?
Suraj Poddar, director of diamond manufacturer Uniglo, explains: “Today’s technology ensures that a diamond can be traced from raw stone to finished product. A serial number is lasered onto the diamond, practically not visible by the naked eye, but it allows professionals to know where the stone comes from.”
River Mounts’ Nathan Warburton expands on this description: “With future technology and innovation, systems such as blockchain will enable greater traceability from mine to mount.
“Already it’s possible to laser inscribe a QR code which holds valuable information online and can be accessed anywhere, meaning paperwork could be a thing of the past.
“The market price can be updated instantly. The retailer could even use the code and inscribe a similar one inside a mount and use live pricing metrics to track all stock and purchases.”
When it comes to transparency and ethical sourcing, I believe our industry is ahead of many others”
Quick to admit that more work still needs to be done, he also adds: “Much like we are now seeing in the gold market with options for fair trade gold and single mine origin, the diamond industry will at some stage be in a position to better replicate this work.”
Looking at the situation from another – arguably more important – angle, Uniglo’s Poddar emphasises the significance of the strides made in implementing industry-wide ethical and sustainable business practices that benefit the countries and communities in which diamonds originate, and says that the research into continued improvement on that front is never-ending.
Gemological Science International (GSI) co-founder and president, Debbie Azar, expands: “The regions where diamonds are mined and polished rely on the economic stability the diamond industry offers in addition to the jobs, healthcare, clean water and education its helps provide.
“We believe in giving back to all the communities where we operate our laboratories by providing things like education, jobs and charitable initiatives.
“When it comes to transparency and ethical sourcing, I believe our industry is ahead of many others,” adds the GSI president. “That said, we are always looking for ways to improve.”
So what power does the party making the purchase really wield in making sure that their stone is sustainably and ethically sourced? How can buyers – both within the industry and end-consumers – ensure that their diamond is genuinely conflict-free?
For now it seems the best course of action is to never buy a diamond without a trusted certificate.
“Always ask for the Kimberley certificate before buying any rough diamond to avoid a source that is unethical,” Shamas BVBA director, Anuj Sahny, advises manufacturers.
For those closer to the consumer end of the chain, he adds: “You can also demand a guarantee from your polished diamond seller. They can add it to your invoices and should state the stone’s source.”
SETTING THE GOLD STANDARD
Diamond mines catch most flak when it comes to unethical practices, but how do precious metals mining companies stack up?
Have they rightfully garnered less criticism or do they deserve equal scrutiny? We spoke to Betts Group non-executive director, and co-founder at Hummingbird Resources, Dan Betts, to find out.
How do precious metals mines compare to diamond mines on sustainability and ethics?
Mining has been the subject of negative publicity in the past, mainly around human rights abuses, environmental problems and resource-driven conflict. Gold mining has moved on though.
Fairtrade and Fairmined gold are initiatives with emphasis on health and safety and environmental and social issues.
What is Hummingbird Resources doing to make its business responsible?
We actively develop responsible gold mines and ensure projects are beneficial to host communities. This connection has provided the Betts family with direct access to every element of the gold industry – exploration, mining, refining, product manufacture and recycling.
This led to the development of Single Mine Origin (SMO). All SMO-certified gold is currently sourced from Hummingbird Resources’ Yanfolila Gold Mine in Mali. Our view is that a properly run corporate mine can be a force for good within a community.
Is the precious metals industry worse than the diamond industry in any way when it comes to these issues, or does it have any separate problems specific to precious metals?
There is a lot of crossover, with many similar issues. The likes of Blood Diamond and the Kimberley process have led to a wider public awareness of issues around diamonds and at a much earlier stage than we’ve seen in terms of gold mining.
There continue to be mines operating in dangerous conditions. Unregulated mining can be hugely damaging, with the use of mercury posing real threat to human life and the environment.
The work of Fairtrade and Fairmined has been so important in creating safer environments for workers but there’s a long way to go. It’s likely to be a continual journey where mines are signed up to good practice, standards evolve and the bar gradually gets higher.