Do Conflict-Free Diamonds Exist?

- August 14, 2012

"...diamonds being sold today can come from sources that perpetuate human and ecological atrocities and still be certified “conflict-free...” "

When someone claims to sell a “conflict-free diamond,” it means that the diamond is Kimberlery Process Certified (KPC). The terms, blood diamonds and conflict diamonds are used interchangeably, particularly after the "Blood Diamond" film in 2006. However, technically, the notion of “conflict” in the term "conflict-free" is narrowly defined to mean diamonds purchased that fund wars. Conflict-free, as defined by the KPC, does not necessarily encompass human rights abuse and environmental degradation.

The result of this ambiguity is that diamonds being sold today can come from sources that perpetuate human and ecological atrocities and still be certified “conflict-free” under the KPC system almost all jewelers rely upon to assure their customers concerned about blood diamonds. By civil society standards, many diamonds coming out of Zimbabwe are sourced from areas where terrible human rights violations are well documented, but these diamonds KPC certified, or “conflict free.” Even Canadian diamonds, which are the default choice of most ethical jewelers, including myself, have an environmental impact which to some might constitute conflict.

But to even begin to understand these issues, it helps knowing a little bit of history.

The Birth of Kimberley

The name, Kimberley, after which the Kimberley Certification Process is named, comes from the Earl of Kimberley, a noble from England for whom the original diamond mining area of South Africa was named. The first diamonds were found in deep “Kimberlite” veins, which sink into the ground like giant carrots.

Kimberley was also the location of the first DeBeers mine named after the DeBeers Farm. Back in those days, there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of small scale artisanal miners—all of whom were white and European in ancestry. The 6000-acre allotments given to Boers where diamonds were found were actually occupied by tribal societies. These early miners utilized disenfranchised tribal people as cheap labor.

Big holes were dug. Boom towns rose up. The early Kimberley veins were so dense, they created markets that were quite unstable. Eventually, the boom and bust diamond business of the 1870s and 1880s enabled Cecil Rhodes, financed by the Rothschild’s, among others, to buy up all the white, small-scale artisinal miners and consolidate the diamond market. DeBeers, known as the Diamond Trading Company (DTC) controlled the diamond market for over a hundred years. They basically built the entire diamond market’s association with engagement. Previously to the DeBeers marketing campaign, colored gems were much more popular as center stones.

From the late eighties to 2003, regional wars in Africa were funded by the diamond trade. The Kimberley Process was created to stop these wars. In fact, if there was one positive outcome of the blood diamond tragedy, it could be the Kimberley Process Certification. But its success has been limited. The difficulty has been in creating a comprehensive treaty with more than 70 countries that encompasses all diamond producers and purchasers. Given the complexity of the diamond sector from mine to market, and the number of countries involved, even getting a basic framework was somewhat miraculous, but by 2003, a coalition of diamond mining companies and NGOs had formed, with the objective of eliminating conflict diamonds from entering the supply chain.


Small-scale diamond miners in Sierra Leon, where some of the worst blood diamond Atrocities took place in the 90s. . Photo by Greg Valerio

KPC was a valiant attempt to deal with issues that are extreme complex and ever changing. But many issues could not be resolved by a central organization working with developing countries with weak and sometimes corrupt governance. A widely respected diamond and human rights expert told me that 20% (twenty percent!!) of diamonds enter the supply chain through the black market. By the time these diamonds reach the public, they are certified as “conflict-free." Many of these KPC diamonds can be mined under terrible mining and labor conditions by diamantiers who collaborate with corrupt governments. Too many diamonds remain products of humiliation and misery.

In late June, 2011, KPC decided that they would certify diamonds from the Marange field in Zimbabwe, perhaps the richest diamond field in all of Africa, as conflict-free. Diamonds from Marange are widely considered blood diamonds. Many in the jewelry sector condemned this new policy. Nevertheless, blood diamonds from Zimbabwe now legitimately enter the supply chain and be sold to customers as ethically sourced.

The Marange issue has been extremely political. Huge amounts of money are involved. Some believe that engaging with Zimbabwe and bringing them into the KPC process. Even before Zimbabwe diamonds was formally allowed into the KPC, diamonds were being smuggled into India and South Africa. There are also reports that the Chinese are putting in polishing operations in Zimbabwe—only unpolished diamonds, not polished diamonds are not subject to KPC.

For many, allowing Zimbabwe’s participation in KPC rendered the treaty meaningless. Global Witness, the NGO which to a large degree was responsible for exposing the blood diamond issue to the public, resigned from the KPC in December, 2011. Ian Smillie, a widely respected author and academic who helped to frame KPC, also resigned.

No One Held Responsible For Three Million Deaths

To me, perhaps the most disturbing fact about the blood diamond tragedy is that to date, no one in the diamond sector has ever been held accountable for hiring the paramilitary groups, which resulted in the deaths of approximately three million Africans during the blood diamond funded wars. All jewelers who sold and continue to sell diamonds are to some degree responsible for perpetuating the blood diamond tragedy. People responsible, directly or indirectly, for the blood diamond tragedy, also had a strong voice in framing the Kimberley Process.

The treaty was a valiant attempt to create a framework for traceable diamonds. But it also supported governments and large scale mining to gain more control over the diamond sector. Unfortunately, it did not address the social and economic relationships which were the cause of the blood diamond tragedy. Let’s look at the real outcome, its two main results. What it essentially accomplishes is:

  • Provides perfect cover for the marketing of diamonds in the jewelry sector. Even today, jewelers say their diamonds are conflict-free when they cannot prove that they are. Everyone can continue to claim Kimberley compliance even though the black market continues to thrive.
  • To some degree, depending upon the country, KPC disenfranchise small scale artisan miners by setting up channels which make their attempts to be fairly compensated for the digging much more difficult (which accounts for the black market trade.)
  • Give large-scale mining added advantage, since they easily comply with Kimberley without any real burden. Large-scale mining (the key stakeholder that framed the Kimberley Certification Process) now provides the greatest assurance of mine to market custody. (Large scale mining= Real Kimberley Process Certification.)

The irony of naming the current legal document Kimberley, which disenfranchises once again the small-scale miner, certainly could not have been lost to some of those who framed the treaty. For those who know history it is kind of an inside joke—like the Native Americans who opened casinos around my home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, naming them, “Cities of Gold.”

Where To Buy Your Diamond

As a diamond seller, I get calls all the time offering massively discounted diamonds with prices that are not available through official large scale mining who adhere to a transparent and traceable supply chain. I have no way of knowing where the “bargains” are coming from, just as a purchaser would have no way of knowing where a cheap diamond comes from. This may or may not matter to you. But if you want to be sure that the diamond on your engagement ring is not connected to human rights abuse and environmental degradation, you have to buy from a jeweler who cares about these issues.

To some degree, all diamonds have a social and environmental cost. What constitutes “conflict-free” depends upon how you define conflict. The critical issue is that your diamond can be traced to a particular mine or location. In my next article, I’ll talk about the best options out there.

Marc Choyt is President of Reflective Images, an ethical jewelry company that selling unique designer wedding rings online and conflict free diamond artisan wedding and engagement rings at Artisan Wedding Rings. His company produces eco-friendly, recycled gold, platinum and palladium wedding and engagement rings and ethical Celtic wedding and engagement rings. Marc also is a jeweler activist and director of Fair Jewelry Action, USA, supporting green, fair trade, socially responsible jewelry practices.