Thursday, October 19, 2006

Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend?

In 1953, Marilyn Monroe sang the Jules Styne and Leo Robin song, "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend," in the popular movie, "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," and the link between beautiful women and fabulous diamond jewelry was forever burned into our collective consciousness. Such is the power of film. But over fifty years later, we now know that there are a few things we need to consider about diamonds that most people weren't even remotely aware of in Marilyn's heyday. Recent news reminded me of those considerations.

On October 9th it was announced that a 4.2 ounce uncut diamond had been sold to the South African Diamond Corp. for $12 million. Called the Lesotho Promise, this 603 carat white gem ranks as the 15th largest diamond ever found. It will be cut into one large and several smaller stones, vastly increasing its value.

It is easy to figure out who will enjoy those spectacular finished diamonds: a few incredibly wealthy individuals. But I wondered who found that golf-ball-sized, uncut stone. Who works in that diamond mine? Who lives in Lesotho? What kind of lives do they lead?

When I heard the story of the diamond find on an NPR news segment, I didn't even have any idea where Lesotho was, other than somewhere in Africa. A quick perusal of available information provided the following facts:

Lesotho is a land-locked, mountainous enclave of South Africa. Slightly smaller than the state of Maryland, and formerly known as Basutoland, Lesotho gained its independence from the UK in 1966. It currently has political stability and has been governed by a parliamentary constitutional monarchy since 2002, although its previous history included military rule and violent protests. The population is a little over two million people. There is projected negative population growth, in part due to the AIDS epidemic that plagues much of the African continent. In Lesotho, 28.9% of the population has HIV or AIDS (2003 statistic). The economy is primarily based on subsistence agriculture and is currently being negatively affected by drought. The unemployment rate is 45% and 49% of the population live below the poverty line. Not a very pretty picture in Lesotho. The GDP is about $1.362 billion (2005), so that diamond find is significant -- the mine where the diamond was found is co-owned by a private company and the Lesotho government.

Many people have heard of "blood diamonds," now euphemistically renamed "conflict diamonds," in an effort to make them seem less horrific -- not unlike "global warming" being renamed "climate change." In December, the release of the motion picture, "Blood Diamonds" starring Leonardo DeCaprio, will undoubtedly inform many more. Once again, such is the power of film.

Blood diamonds are sold on the black market by rebel forces to raise money to fight legitimate governments, or to raise money for terrorists, including, perhaps, funding al Qaeda. The Kimberley Process was created in 2002 to prevent trade in blood diamonds through a voluntary documentation system that tracks the diamond from its discovery to its ultimate point of sale. The process, while still flawed, appears to have had some success in stemming the flow of blood diamonds into the commercial marketplace. Lesotho is a signatory nation and agrees to abide by the Kimberley Process, so if you are a fabulously wealthy person who ends up owning a diamond cut from the Lesotho Promise, you won't be buying a blood diamond.

Think this is more information than you need to know about diamonds? Sorry, but a thoughtful consumer must admit that in our complex, inter-related, global economy, every decision we make about purchasing an item connects us to that item's source. Shouldn't we at least make an effort to be aware of that source and the impact of our purchase?

If we do decide to purchase a diamond, we should know that it must be certified by the Kimberley Process. Making the process mandatory rather than voluntary would strengthen it -- can we help make that happen? We should remember that our diamond started as a rough hunk of rock in a mine in a distant country that may be suffering from an AIDs epidemic -- can we help? We need to be aware that the workers who struggled to get that rock out of the mine are most likely living in extreme poverty -- can we help? We need to understand that having the ability (the discretionary income) to purchase any beautiful piece of jewelry with even the tiniest, glittering, polished stone in it is an example of our incredible good fortune. With such good fortune, wouldn't it be apppropriate to ask a few questions about the source of that diamond, about the people who started the chain of events that allowed our jewelry to be created, and then ask ourselves, "Can we help?"

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

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