There's no denying the beauty of a diamond, but some of these stones have ugly origins. Conflict diamond sales can be used to finance violence, and human rights abuses can run rampant in diamond mines. Of course shoppers don't want this shadow hanging over their jewelry.
That's where "conflict-free" diamonds come in. These are diamonds whose origins are purportedly tracked and are certified to have a violence-free pedigree. There's just one problem: An estimated 5% to 10% of diamonds are traded illegally — and consumers may be paying a big upcharge for ethical gems that are anything but.
We'll tell you why real conflict-free diamonds are so hard to find, then offer tips on how you can get truly ethical gems.
Conflict-Free Diamond Certification Is Flawed
The diamond industry has a certification process to assure buyers their gems aren't involved in violence: the Kimberley Process. But the certification has loopholes that allow blood diamonds to go into circulation.
The first flaw is in the definition of a blood diamond. The Kimberley Process explicitly defines a conflict diamond as a rough diamond "used by rebel movements or their allies to finance armed conflicts aimed at undermining legitimate governments." The problem with this phrasing is perfectly illustrated by Zimbabwe, where the government kills and tortures mine workers — but the diamonds the country mines are still certified as conflict-free by the Kimberley Process.
As you can see, these conflict-free gems are only guaranteed to be free of one very specific type of conflict. Kimberley Process stones still can (and do) fund human rights abuses.
But the Kimberley Process' limited definition of what makes a conflict diamond actually isn't the biggest issue when it comes to ensuring conflict-free diamonds. The second part of the problem is that it's difficult (or even impossible) to track exactly where an individual diamond comes from.
The Kimberley Process only tracks batches of gems, as opposed to individual stones. Diamonds may change hands up to 30 times before they reach the reseller you're buying from, and each time there's a chance an unknown diamond has been added to the batch.
Because every step in the process isn't tracked and audited for every stone, it's easy for gems to slip into the market from anywhere and still have all the paperwork to assure they're conflict-free.
Even if the Kimberley Process has banned a country from exporting diamonds — as it does with countries that don't meet its standards — those diamonds can be smuggled across borders and then sold as KP-certified gems.
How Do You Know if You've Bought a Conflict Diamond?
Physically, there's no difference between a conflict diamond and any other diamond. An expert can't examine a diamond and tell you whether it came from a Zimbabwean mine or a Canadian one. Once the gem has changed hands repeatedly and been cut, it's impossible to trace it back to its source.
The sad truth is, you'd probably have no idea if you purchased a conflict diamond. As we've noted, even gems that are Kimberley Process certified or advertised as "ethical" could well be blood diamonds.
What to Look for When Diamond Shopping
It's difficult to be certain a diamond is fully conflict-free, but shoppers can take some steps. Ignore all advertisements about how "ethical" a diamond seller is, and instead ask for proof of where the diamond came from. A responsible reseller should be able to trace the stones to the country (or mine) of origin and provide documentation from its suppliers stating its gems are conflict-free. Any seller who dodges the question is suspicious.
If the diamond you're considering is from Zimbabwe or Angola, you may want to say no. While there's no guarantee it's a conflict diamond, both countries have bad track records with human rights abuses in their mines. Instead, look for diamonds from a country with a solid human rights reputation, like Namibia or Botswana.
Diamonds from Canada — the third-largest diamond-producing country in the world — offer easy reassurance to shoppers. The country lacks the kind of conflict that might result in a blood diamond, and ensures stones are mined sustainably and ethically. Expect to pay more for a genuine Canadian diamond, but you can buy guilt-free.
A Canadian diamond should come with paperwork verifying its authenticity, and most retailers will allow you to check the diamond's ID online to verify it. A couple of resources to consider are the Canadian Diamond Code of Conduct and CanadaMark, which allow you to verify gems by serial number.
What About Brilliant Earth?
This online diamond retailer advertises that its gems are "beyond conflict free." However, the claim is specious at best — and outright deceptive at worst. A recent investigation by The Next Web suggests the company makes that assertion by not paying very close attention to where its diamonds come from.
Though Brilliant Earth gives you its word that its conflict-free stones come from Canada — and gives them the price tag to match — the company can't independently verify the source of its stones. As we mentioned above, Canada keeps close track of its diamonds, which often have unique identification numbers that can tell you exactly where the stones came from. This makes Brilliant Earth's lack of proof tough to believe.
Whoever you're shopping with, remember that if you want an ethical diamond, ask where it came from. If anything the company tells you seems off, just walk away.
Consider Synthetic Diamonds
Lab-grown diamonds have just as much sparkle as their mined counterparts, but you can be assured they aren't blood diamonds. As a bonus, they're often cheaper — especially if you're looking for diamonds in specific colors. You really can't find a better deal in the diamond market.
Readers, have you ever shopped for a conflict-free diamond? What was your experience like? Tell us about it in the comments below.