Why De Beers Wants You 'Blood Diamond'-Savvy

  • Share
  • Read Later
Diamonds may be a girl's best friend, but not if that girl happens to have had both her hands chopped off by Sierra Leone rebels who're financed by the little gems. You'd think this was information that De Beers, the 500-pound gorilla of the diamond industry, would want to keep as far as possible from the minds of young lovers shopping for an adornment to symbolize their commitment. And you'd be wrong. De Beer's, in fact, wants every diamond shopper to know that the industry has sustained years of violence that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and limbs in Angola, the Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone by turning a blind eye to the origins of the stones that eventually make it into the jewelry stores — and the reason is that the South African corporation, which controls almost two thirds of the world's diamond supply, has decided to change its ways.

Starting next July, De Beer's will certify that its diamonds come from clean sources, forcing its suppliers to accept "best practices" rules that outlaw buying from insurgent groups and stones mined by child labor. That's a sign, of course, that the company is feeling the heat. After all, diamonds derive their value from a combination of scarcity and demand generated almost exclusively by advertising, all of which leaves the industry vulnerable to negative publicity and the threat of consumer boycotts.

De Beers is trying to inoculate itself by becoming the "dolphin-friendly tuna" of the diamond industry, which of course raises questions about the origins of non-De Beers diamonds. And that's a sound business decision, in light of the fact that the South African company has seen its market share drop precipitously in recent years, as competition from Russia intensifies. The company also announced Wednesday that it will flood the market with some of the millions of diamonds it has traditionally hoarded to keep prices high, suggesting that De Beers is hurting. Throwing open the vaults may bring prices down in the short term, but it could hurt the competition a lot more than the industry giant. And the company hopes to keep the market alive by spending $170 million on advertising this year alone.

With the trade in "blood diamonds" on the agenda of the G8 summit later this month, De Beers is moving quickly to rebrand itself as a concerned corporate citizen of the world. Still, the company may struggle to contain the market backlash that could result from diamonds' being associated with brutality in Africa. De Beer's spokesman Andy Lamont, speaking in London, sounded a defensive note when pressed on industry responsibility for financing insurgencies. "Diamonds don't kill people," said Lamont. "People kill people." Shopworn NRA slogans won't necessarily mollify a potentially fickle market — De Beers may do better to emphasize the "dolphin-friendly" tack.

TIME.com's Jessica Reaves notes:

Once upon a time, it was all so simple.

One enchanted evening, your prince charming was supposed to drop to his knees at your feet, open a velvet box, and slip a diamond on your left hand as you choke back happy tears and mentally calculate how quickly you could find a phone. These days, thanks to a very millennial mix of political correctness, collective guilt and obsessive individuality, it's not quite so simple.

In the past year or so, I've watched 10 friends and acquaintances get engaged, married or divorced. And the role of the ring has fascinated me, in part because while the vast majority of American brides-to-be still clamor for a diamond, quite a few women I know wear bands encrusted with a variety of more interesting (and less controversial) stones like emeralds, rubies and opals. And in the eyes of our mothers and grandmothers, at least, that constitutes something of a revolution.

Of course, in hyper-liberal circles diamonds have been viewed with suspicion for years, a sentiment fed in equal parts by disgust for the infamous DeBeers cartel and a growing sense that perhaps wearing a measure of one's fiancÚ's net worth on one's hand might not be the most practical use of two months' salary.

And now, after years of rumblings, the atrocities of the diamond wars in Angola and Sierra Leone have finally infiltrated the mainstream American press, and ever so slowly, the assumptions about engagement rings are starting to change. That shift, which strikes so many as a callous dismissal of age-old tradition, actually represents something of a throwback — the colored gems finding favor in today's market were also extremely popular among 18th- and 19th-century brides.

Diamonds, in fact, were introduced under the guise of economy; the strength of the stones combined with the occasional downturn in the fluctuating diamond market meant lucky suitors could find themselves a real bargain: A ring that would last literally an eternity at a reasonable price. It was only when De Beers cemented their stranglehold on the world's diamonds and starting setting prices that the gems' snob appeal really took hold. The company also pours billions of dollars into global ad campaigns, deftly establishing markets where none existed before."