The last few weeks, Russell Simmons, the hip hop mogul, has been on the news everywhere, combatting negative effects the film Blood Diamonds might have on his bling business.  Last summer, the diamond industry launched a $15 million PR campaign in anticipation of the film’s release.

Diamond Mine near Freetown, Sierra Leone (l);
Chocolate cake decorated with 50 carats of diamonds, on sale for $850k in Japan (r)

Cross posted to ePluribusMedia

Probably depends on the girl.  From a Global Witness press release, 12/5/06:

"The diamond industry is spending millions on a publicity campaign to complicate the issues," said Charmian Gooch, Executive Director of Global Witness. "But the story is clear-- blood diamonds are still being sold, and consumers cannot completely trust that these blood-soaked gems are being kept out of stores. Instead of spending millions on publicity, why doesn’t the diamond industry put that money and effort into solving the problems? And why aren’t governments checking up on the diamond industry’s promises to police itself?"

Blood diamonds are gems that have been used to fund rebel groups in wars in Africa, leading to more than 4 million deaths and millions more people displaced from their homes. Diamonds have also been used by terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda to finance their activities and for money-laundering purposes.

The diamond industry is spending a reported $15 million on a coordinated PR campaign around the release of the film. That campaign has included the creation of a new website, increased advertising, and even a "fact-finding" tour in Botswana and South Africa by Russell Simmons.

New York Times, 12/3/2006:

In a 1938 a memo sent to Harry Oppenheimer, whose family founded the DeBeers diamond cartel, outlined a bold new advertising strategy: "Motion pictures seldom include scenes showing the selection or purchase of an engagement ring to a girl.  It would be our plan to contact scenario writers and directors and arrange for such scenes."

Ever since then, from Marilyn Monroe’s baubles to J. Lo’s rock, the diamond industry has used the reflected luster of celebrity to sell its wares, a shrewd marketing campaign that has helped to create a luxury business worth more than $60 billion a year.

Diamonds are live.  Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.  Diamonds are forever. ... And they have been used to finance some of the most brutal warfare of the last two decades.

New York Times, 12/17/06:

Creating new markets is the genius of DeBeers. Getting African-American men to wear bling works for them as well as their 1950’s campaigns to get Japanese brides to demand solitaires. To my mind, bling shootings and pre-marital tiffs over the rock just prove that any diamond can aspire to be a conflict diamond.

At the beginning of December, Simmons made a trip to visit African diamond mines, and launched something called the Diamond Empowerment Fund (DEF) (no website to link to, but with brand association with his Def Jam Records), for 1/4 of the proceeds from bling sales to go for charitable purposes in Africa.  He made a YouTube post of the trip.

Screen capture of Simmons visit to a diamond mine in Botswana

Simmons is on board for the marketing of diamonds, that’s for sure.  This from his wife Kimora in January 2005:

"Simmons Jewelry Co. believes that fine quality diamonds can be affordable," says Kimora. "You don't need to spend a lot of money to live the diamond lifestyle. Everyone can afford to have my look, you can be 'phabulous' at any pricepoint."

The Diamond Diva collection will consist of over 75 pieces, while prices will range from $350 to $3,500 with distinctive themes such as "Phabulous," "Paparazzi," "Grand Entrance" and "It's All About Me."

No mention of blood diamonds or shaving some proceeds off for charity.  (Not until Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond movie went in to production, anyhow.)  In fact, an article called Dog Whistles for the Very Rich in McLean’s (12/11/06), described Simmons as "known for his Court of Versailles lifestyle."

More from the paper of record:

The lust for that glittering gravel, extending unbroken from African thieves to British royals to domestic Bridezillas — is manufactured. Hard carbon, as even Nicky Oppenheimer, the charming chairman of DeBeers, has admitted, has no intrinsic value except as grit. DeBeers, which manages the cartel that has kept diamond prices up far more efficiently than OPEC ever did with oil, fosters that romance. It has run the "A Diamond Is Forever" ads since 1948 and still quietly advises gullible grooms that it is "customary" to spend two months’ salary on a ring.

Kanye West has displayed a different ethic than Simmons on this:

For years, some have questioned hip-hop's bling binges when the major component of so many adornments - diamonds - have such a controversial industry behind their cultivation in Africa. Indeed, earlier this summer Kanye West, who addressed the issue in his Diamonds From Sierra Leone track [see the video at the link], participated in the documentary Bling: A Planet Rock and urged the hip hop community to "bling responsibly." Some human rights activists have gone farther and called for all-out boycotts of the diamond industry.

A few frames captured from Kanye's video

Simmons wants you to know that it wasn’t real blood.  (Thanks for clearing that up...)

From NY Times again:

In 1997, while covering the election of Charles Taylor — a warlord who had raised whole armies of child soldiers — as president of Liberia, I half-jokingly suggested to an aid worker that her group design a poster.  It would show a young woman displaying the stump of her chopped-off arm. Below, it would say to American brides, "I can’t wear a wedding ring so that you can."

One of the victims in Sierra Leone;
DeBeers controls 2/3 of the world’s diamond trade


"My country has paid dearly for these precious stones that people in this country give as a symbol of love," Sorious Samura, a documentary maker from Sierra Leone, told a news conference held by Global Witness and Amnesty International.

Angola and Liberia have also suffered civil wars partly fueled by illicit diamonds, but the Ivory Coast has become the most recent focus, with nongovernmental groups saying rebels are smuggling gems out of the country.

Global Witness and Amnesty International warned that conflict diamonds remain a problem despite industry assurances more than 99 percent of diamonds are "clean," and called for more industry regulation.

"Russell Simmons is being played by the industry. It’s another diamond industry publicity stunt," Alex Yearsley, a Global Witness conflict diamond specialist, said. "We would suggest that’s out of a guilty conscience."

Nowadays, ground zero for conflict diamonds has moved from Sierra Leone to Ivory Coast (and a few other countries).

CNN,  1/18/2001 (for student news):

But as De Beers spokesman Andrew Lamont told CNN, "There is a great danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We have heard the siren calls that diamonds could go the same way as the fur trade. But diamonds don't kill people, people with guns kill people, and these guns are supplied from the West. ... Having spent hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising its product, De Beers is deeply concerned about anything that could damage the image of diamonds as a symbol of love, beauty and purity."
De Beers also has backed the plan for global certification of rough diamonds agreed at the World Diamond Congress in Antwerp in July 2000.  "We want to ensure that if somebody goes to buy a diamond from a jeweler's shop, they know that when they put it on the finger of their loved one, they are not pledging a diamond that has cut off the finger of a child in Sierra Leone or Angola," said UK Foreign Office Minister Peter Hain.
De Beers voices the fears of legitimate diamond-producing nations such as Botswana, South Africa and Namibia about the campaign against conflict diamonds. They say consumer confidence could be eroded and, at worst, could lead to a consumer boycott which they say would ruin the economies of Botswana and Namibia.

Sounds good, really.  How well is it working?

I like the cynical snark from the (unusual, brutal) rotten.com website.

Diamonds are very valuable. Artificially so, as anyone who has studied the history of the DeBeers company can tell you, but still incredibly valuable. If you have them, you can make a lot of money selling them, and that's money that can go to plenty of good uses, like luxury homes, kick-ass meals by the finest chefs, and paying for your army to recklessly slaughter thousands of your people.
Obviously, it is in the best interest of DeBeers and other diamond merchants to keep this unpleasant aspect of things away from the dinner table, and so begins an endless soap opera of accusations, defenses, stonewalling, exposes and all the other fun that happens in a situation like this. Meanwhile, those diamonds are getting sold, people are getting fucked over, and people continue to think putting a nice big rock on a ring means you'll love them forever.

Detroit Free Press (AP)

Some officials say loopholes remain in the Kimberly Process Certification Scheme, which is the diamond industry's response to growing world concern about blood diamonds. It was established in 2002 and aims to stem the flow of conflict diamonds by forcing participants to certify the origins of the diamonds being traded.

"The U.S. government can play a pivotal role to be sure that the Kimberly Process works," said Amy O'Meara, a spokeswoman for Amnesty International.  O'Meara also said consumers can help by asking retailers questions and showing interest in where their diamonds come from.

Those officials include Amnesty International, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (pdf), and the UN’s Global Policy Forum:

The Kimberley Process was seriously flawed from the beginning. The Kimberley system of "voluntary self-regulation" on the part of the diamond industry has meant a significant lack of transparency and independent monitoring efforts. The [Tel Aviv-based] World Diamond Council, initially established to represent the diamond industry at the Kimberley Process, has failed to coordinate effective industry monitoring. Governments, too, have been uninterested in monitoring and regulating the diamond trade. Some say the Kimberley Process amounted to little more than a public relations stunt for the diamond industry, and recent reports by Global Witness and other NGOs have found little evidence of genuine attempts to deliver on industry commitments.

The Guardian (UK) reported in 2004:

And now, almost two years after the diamond industry agreed to a self-regulation system to prevent the trade in diamonds from regions of conflict, many UK jewellers are unable to assure customers that the diamonds they are buying have not been sourced from conflict regions.

Members of Amnesty International visited more than 330 high street stores to question them about their diamond policy and found that only 38% of salespeople said they had received training about conflict diamonds.  Almost half of the diamond retailers said they could not provide a copy of their company policy on conflict diamonds and more than a fifth said they had no store policy on the issue at all.  Leading British jewellery retailers Asprey, Theo Fennell and Debenhams did not respond to letters requesting written information about company policy on conflict diamonds. In the US, Costco Wholesale Corporation, TJ Maxx and Kmart did not respond.

Amnesty International surveyed in the US, and had similar results:

  • Only 27% of shops were able assure us that they had a policy on conflict diamonds.
  • 30% of the shops that said they had a policy were unable to produce a hard copy of or explain it.
  • Only 13% of shops provided warranties to their customers as a standard practice.
  • 110 shops refused outright to take the survey.
  • And so on.

Nelson Mandela is one of those who’s defending the diamond industry.  And there’s something to it:  For some African countries, particularly Botswana & Namibia (also South Africa to a degree), it’s the primary foundation of the nation’s economy.  In Namibia, they take it very seriously:

I once visited Namibia’s "Forbidden Zone," the 180-mile-long beach where the DeBeers company sifts diamonds out of the sand where the Orange River sweeps the diamond pipes of Lesotho and Kimberley out to sea. The clean, well-run mining town is the engine of Namibia’s economy.

It is an eerie place. Since 1936, no vehicle has ever left, in case diamonds are hidden in it. Pet pigeons are forbidden, because they have been caught with gems sewn into tiny jackets. No visitor leaves without a full-body X-ray. Mine detected gravel in my boot soles, so a guard picked out each speck. If one had been a diamond, I could have spent 10 years in jail.

According to Global Witness:

Most damning, many buyers and many jewelers do not care. Ms. Gilfillan described a documentary in which British film-makers took an actor posing as an African military man into Manhattan dealerships offering diamonds without certificates. He found ready buyers.

About half the world’s retail sales of diamonds are in the United States.  So, what’s a shopper to do?

Tom Zoellner, who researched the industry for his book "The Heartless Stone" (St. Martin’s Press, 2006), said the Kimberley Process doesn’t concern itself with objectionable practices like the use of child labor in India, where most diamonds are polished. But he said because many Africans depend on them for their livelihood, a boycott is not the answer. The best defense against dirty diamonds, he said, is to ask questions.

If you must buy diamonds, the least you can do is ask for Kimberley Process certification.  And decline to purchase if the store can’t provide it.  And no matter how exemplary the other mining conditions, the landscape is always scarred:

In a story called Diamonds are for Never?, the NY Times reports:

"It’s unconscionable for us for the sake of vanity to contribute to the destruction of a country," said a bling-free Jennifer Connelly late last month at the New York premiere of "Blood Diamond," which also stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou. "So I think trying to make more effective the system of warranties is a pretty clear choice."

I haven't had the chance to see the movie Blood Diamond, which hasn't played in my area our one local theater.  But the issue of "conflict diamonds" predates the movie, and (presumably) inspired it.  Don't know how successful the film's been, though probably not great - with less than $20 million box office the first week.  But viewers on imdb.com give it a decent 7.7 rating, and the professional reviewers have had positive, if not rave reactions.  David Denby of the New Yorker said:

Africa breaks your heart - that’s the simplest and most persistent emotion that bursts out of such recent films as "Hotel Rwanda", "The Constant Gardner", "The Last King of Scotland", and, now, "Blood Diamond", the best and most enjoyable of this cycle of movies set against the background of civil wars, ethnic conflict and Western meddling and exploitation.
"Blood Diamond" is [Edward] Zwick’s best movie. ... Like a proficient Hollywood director from sixty years ago, he has found the right balance between star glamour and social conscience. ... And, without sensationalizing, Zwick shows us the workings of a recurring phenomenon that goes beyond heartbreak to the most sordid tragedy: the way warlords give boys a sense of power with guns, liquor and drugs, and turn them in to joyous killers.

In addition to the usual website for the movie, the filmmakers and stars have launched a separate website on Blood Diamond Action, with a well-organized and edited array of info on the issue.  Well worth a look.

I was gonna write about the problems associated with gold mining, too.  But this diary’s already way too long.  You can check out gold-related issues, and efforts to limit the market to (relatively) responsible mining at No Dirty Gold.

Originally posted to Land of Enchantment on Tue Dec 19, 2006 at 08:19 PM PST.

Your Email has been sent.