Your Money: Dirty Diamonds Dilemma

W A S H I N G T O N, 2000 -- Is it possible the 20th Century American lyricist Leo Robin, who wrote “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” is watching over international geopolitics? If so, he must be smiling. There’s a job waiting for him.

The world’s diamond merchants are struggling, at least in some quarters, over lyrics for a song they’ve been trying to write.

The world’s gem makers produced $6.8 billion in diamonds last year, according to an analysis by a London advocacy group called Global Witness. The world’s diamond retail trade amounted to far more than that, $56 billion, says an industry publication. Americans bought 33 million pieces of diamond jewelry in 1998, spending about $22 billion on those best friends.

But some of the gems have a sordid history: They’ve been used by bloodthirsty rebels in Africa to finance revolutions and criminal organizations.

To protect the legitimacy of their industry, the diamond merchants would like to be able to sing a new song: “Yes, we have no dirty diamonds,” it might go, “we have no dirty diamonds, today.”

The merchants are faced with a dilemma: About four percent of the world’s diamonds come from areas of conflict in Africa, places where hundreds of thousands of people have been turned into refugees and victims of violent amputation.

Marauding bands of rebels, selling to uncaring dealers in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe, reap millions of dollars in blood money, which sustains their insurrections.

“The Europeans just don’t care,” says an American jeweler, James Rosenheim, “there are plenty of illegal gems out there and they want to sell them for a big profit.”

Human rights groups are appalled at the carnage and determined to stem the flow of illicit gems. So are leading Western governments, including Canada, whose U.N. Ambassador, Robert Fowler, has called attention to the black market trade in a stunning indictment. The United States professes to want an end to the trafficking in so-called “conflict diamonds.”

Now, the world’s leading diamond trader, the DeBeers Corporation, has announced a policy it suggests will stop the flow and reassure customers that they are not contributing to the carnage.

In an elaborate public relations effort, the South African corporation, with London operations at its center, guaranteed it will no longer accept diamonds mined and smuggled out of the conflict zone.

“Any diamond coming out of this office is guaranteed not to have ever been held by a rebel,” says DeBeers executive Timothy Capon. His corporation insists its experts can identify places of origin. It wants certification to become an accepted practice in the industry.

Difficult to Verify Origin

The problem is that there is no reliable technology to verify such a guarantee, according to diamond industry officials. Hope is fading for a laser engraving system to install serial numbers or geographical designations.

Jeffrey Fischer, president of the Diamond Manufacturer’s and Importers of America, puts it bluntly: “Right now, there’s no conclusive method of determining the source of the diamond. It’s really pretty much that simple.”

So, well-intentioned though it might be, the DeBeers’ guarantee is more symbol than substance. And what did Leo Robin say about diamonds? Here’s a sample, heard from the lips of Lorelei Lee, a character in the novel that became the play, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes:

The French are glad to die for love, They delight in fighting duels. But I prefer a man who lives and gives Expensive jewels.

A kiss on the hand may be quite continental, But diamonds are a girl’s best friend.

Surprisingly, it was Lorelei Lee who provided the diamond industry with its famous advertising line: “Kissing your hand may make you feel very good,” she says in Gentlemen, “but a diamond lasts forever.”

That was the 1920s, and today, many women no longer feel comfortable with the imagery of being tended like an object, but the appeal of diamonds seems timeless, and the horror of war makes them all the more the object of attention.