Kanye West sings about them; Charlize Theron rallies against them; Leonardo DiCaprio will star in a movie about them. They're called blood or conflict diamonds.
And how can you be sure you don't own one?
Thousands of brides will walk down the aisle this summer knowing next to nothing about one of the most emotionally charged items they will ever possess -- their diamond rings. But a new technology is now under way to make sure next year's batch of brides know their rock's pedigree.
So perhaps Charlize Theron can finally relax about her diamonds and gems, knowing they are conflict free. Theron is one of Hollywood's leading ladies who oppose conflict diamonds -- diamonds that have been traded for guns, extracted from regions controlled by military forces in rebellion. The cavil is that profits from smuggled diamonds fuel political conflict and violence.
The U.S. government tried to curb the trade and sale of conflict diamonds through the Clean Diamond Act and the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme passed in 2003. Some consumers, however, are still not convinced of the legislation's effectiveness and worry that their diamonds aren't "clean."
These days consumers are increasingly interested in learning the origins of the goods they buy -- whether it's organic produce or faux-leather wallets.
Jewelry retailers have now responded to consumers' demands for a product's history. In a two-page memo, high-end retailer Tiffany & Co. tells its customers it's serious about determining the source of its gems. "Tiffany sources rough diamonds from known legitimate mine of origin sources to ensure adequate supply of high-quality diamonds."
But Michael Haynes, chief executive of Collectors Universe, the parent company of Gem Certification and Assurance Lab, believes consumers need to see cold, hard proof of their diamond's source. By tracking a diamond before it enters the distribution chain all the way until it is in the customer's hands, GCAL makes sure the diamond matches its papers, guaranteeing that the stone hasn't been switched out at any point in the distribution channel.
Haynes provides consumers with what he calls a "source veritas passport," the first third-party certification and source-site verification that caters directly to the buyer, not just the retailer. As these diamonds cross national borders, Haynes tries to make sure buyers get a passport that discloses where their diamonds have been mined.
The passport site would identify the diamond's source and provide a snapshot of the gem's unique reflective pattern for authentication papers. GCAL uses a noninvasive laser technology to imprint the diamond. The pencil-thin laser light goes down from the table of the diamond and captures a refractive pattern that then gets recorded on film. "If anyone loses it we can try to recover it," said Haynes.
Other jewelry retailers, like Cartier, say they laser-imprint technology but only on the girdle of the diamond or gem. Hayes says, "That doesn't make it secure. That's like someone writing with a pencil on a piece of paper. It can easily be erased or written over."
"We imprint the whole table, the whole top of the diamond. That means the only way that imprint can be changed is if you recut the diamond, and that would cause the diamond to lose weight. Obviously, counterfeiters don't want to do that," added Haynes.
This June, diamond industry buyers can start using this unique authentication, grading and source site verification procedure. De Beers will also roll out its own passport program to address the consumer need. "It's not just GIA certificates anymore. People want more reassurance about their diamonds, because today there's a lot more questioning going on with regards to certification," said Joan Parker of De Beers LV.
For a consumer, this means that for the same price you can buy diamonds and gems for the upcoming engagement season and know more details about your diamond than you know about your own DNA. And when that diamond gets passed down generation to generation, there will be pedigree papers to ensure that the emotions attached to that diamond are pride and love -- not worry that it fueled a war in a faraway land.