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Arts What’s the conflict?

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When it comes to diamonds, it’s hard to know friend from foe

“Good morning, this ain’t Vietnam still / People lose hands, legs, arms for real / Little was known of Sierra Leone and how it connect to the diamonds we own”

In “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” Kanye West berates fellow rappers for being obsessed with the “bling,” connecting the status-symbol jewelry to the deaths of Africans in diamond-fueled wars. He’s not the only star calling attention to conflict diamonds: Jennifer Connelly and Leonardo DiCaprio have signed on to star in The Blood Diamond, a film about a diamond smuggler who has a change of heart when a friend’s son is kidnapped into the Revolutionary United Front’s child army in Sierra Leone.

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“The diamonds, the chains, the charmses / I thought my Jesus Piece was so harmless / ’til I seen a picture of shorty armless.”

“Conflict diamonds” refer to diamonds mined by rebel groups to finance civil wars, such as those in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. In Sierra Leone, the Revolutionary United Front — a guerrilla army that uses murder, torture, and mutilation to fight the government, intimidate civilians, and keep UN Peacekeeping Units at bay — was able to gain control of several diamond mines, trafficking $25 million-$125 million annually to fuel a conflict that killed an estimated 50,000 civilian between 1991 and 1999.

In 2000, as the result of pressure from human-rights groups, major diamond trading and producing countries, diamond-industry representatives, and advocacy organizations created the Kimberley Process, a voluntary system in which member countries, including Sierra Leone, agree to certify that shipments of rough diamonds are free of conflict diamonds. Kimberley Process participants, according to the member website, now account for 99.8 percent of global diamond production.

Yet, according to a June report by Global Witness, a human-rights organization, diamonds continue to fuel armed conflicts and the Kimberley Process is a work in progress. In particular, there are issues with statistical reporting (i.e. the United States submits its reports in such a way that they can’t be compared to other countries’), and member organizations are not in agreement on whether or how to administer peer or third-party monitoring.

“These ain’t conflict diamonds, is they Jacob? Don’t lie to me man.”

That leaves the consumer in a quandary. “It’s a complicated process. If anyone tells you that there is an absolute fail-safe way, that would not be a true statement,” said Scott Shibley, vice president of Tiffany & Co., which recently opened a store at the Shops at La Cantera. In a 2004 report, Global Witness lauded Tiffany & Co. for its efforts to control its rough and polished diamond supply. “We go to extraordinary measures to make sure, but no one can guarantee that `conflict diamonds` can’t make their way to market.”

For that reason, although Tiffany “maintains records of all of the processes for diamonds along the way,” from the mines to its stores, it does not provide customers with a warranty that the diamond is conflict-free.

Not all jewelers have a policy regarding conflict diamonds. At the Austin Highway Wal-Mart, Candace Wilson, who has worked in the store’s jewelry department for five years, said she’d never heard of conflict diamonds. “We are such a big company, you know ... I’d hate to think ... blood diamonds? Oh, that’s terrible.”

At press time, Wal-Mart’s district manager hadn’t returned the Current’s calls regarding the company’s conflict-diamond policy.

Chamade Jewelers owner, Karmae Doman, said “to be honest, people rarely request bloodless diamonds.” When they do, she tries to buy diamonds mined in Canada, and even then, she asserts, there’s no guarantee. “The last time, the vendor said, ‘There’s probably a little blood on this diamond, but maybe not as much,” she said. “To prove it was bloodless, you’d have to trace it step by step, and if you do that, `the buyer` is going to have to spend way too much money.”

“People askin’ me if I’m gonna give my chain back/ that’ll be the day I give the game back.”

According to Shibley, the best a consumer can do is either not wear diamonds, or trust that the Kimberly Process is working. “Some of our diamonds are mined in Canada; we can verify the source of that stone, but is it absolutely fail safe?” he said. “There’s a way for us to tell you with some certainty, but that doesn’t account for human error or a diamond being switched out. There’s not a fingerprint — `i.e.` that particular mineral comes from Canada. It’s not like DNA, you just have to trust.”

By Susan Pagani


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