The Genteel
November 24, 2020


The world's largest yellow diamond, sun drop, at 110 carats. Source:
A diamond dealer from Zimbabwe displays
diamonds for sale in September 2010.
Source: © 2010 Reuters.

In an industry sustained by antiquated ways of doing business - a handshake over a few million dollars uttering Hebrew locutions of good luck - a degree of uncertainty persists in the trading and buying of diamonds. The sparkling, white gemstones that have been weakening the knees of women for centuries have a dark side marred by corruption, funding of rebel political groups and human rights abuses.

Just weeks after Partnership Africa Canada (PAC) alleged the plundering of two billion dollars worth of diamonds by Robert Mugabe's government in the world's blood diamond capital, Zimbabwe, the hopes of achieving an ethical diamond industry in Canada is being called into question by the industry watchdog.

Canada, one of the world's top five diamond producers, mines "conflict-free" rough diamonds, as defined by the Kimberley Process, a joint government, industry and civil group initiative that began in South Africa in 2003 to prevent the circulation of conflict diamonds. "Blood diamonds," a term popularised by the 2006 film of the same name, are so-called because they "financ[e] conflict aimed at undermining legitimate governments," and are otherwise indistinguishable from diamonds that were mined conflict-free. 

Many industry pundits, however, are unhappy with the Kimberely Process' definition of a "conflict diamond" because it precludes diamonds that engender human rights violations, including inhumane labour conditions and torture, often times at the hands of the governments themselves. In March 2012, a document proffered by PAC exposed the Kimberely Process' shortcomings, noting that it "can't continue to ignore [that] the majority of human rights abuses occurring in diamond producing areas today are perpetrated by state actors and private security companies, not rebels."

Mugabe and his ruling circle's sins stretch farther than the cars parked in their garages, as PAC's November 2012 report alleges. If the rough diamonds Mugabe used to buy himself a new Rolls Royce, for example, continue to evade the Kimberley Process, one of those rocks could wind up on your left ring finger. 

Even Canadian-mined diamonds are cut, polished and set in Antwerp, Mumbai, Tel Aviv, Vietnam, China and other cheap labour cutting centres - the same places Marange diamonds go.

The Canadian Diamond Code of Conduct (CDCC), a non-profit industry body, considers a "Canadian diamond" to be "a diamond mined in Canada that may be cut and polished in Canada or abroad." [italics added] The CDCC's definition, however, does not coincide with the definition of a GOVERNMENT CERTIFIED CANADIAN DIAMOND issued by the government of the Northwest Territories; only diamonds that are mined, cut and polished in the Northwest Territories can receive the certification. 

In addition to the discrepancies surrounding the definition of what makes a diamond "Canadian," Canada's small diamond manufacturing (cutting and polishing) industry increases its vulnerability to loopholes in the Kimberely Process. Some Canadian-mined, conflict-free diamonds travel in their rough form to cutting and polishing centres around the world, journeying a long way before being ensconced in little blue Tiffany boxes under your Christmas tree. "A conflict diamond can potentially enter the Canadian market especially in the absence of a centralised, vertically integrated industry here," explains diamantaire, Jeffrey Brenner, of Toronto-based !Xam Diamonds and Fine Jewellery and The Responsible Jewellery Council, "even Canadian-mined diamonds are cut, polished and set in Antwerp, Mumbai, Tel Aviv, Vietnam, China and other cheap labour cutting centres - the same places Marange diamonds go."

Brenner's company, !Xam Diamonds, aims for greater transparency in the Canadian diamond industry. Hailing from South Africa, where his mining company, Rockwell Diamonds Inc., produces, cuts and polishes alluvial stones, Jeffrey and his brother, Terry, hope to apply the company's vertically-integrated business model in Canada. "We trace our diamonds from their rough form in the earth, to their cut and polishing, their setting and design, all the way to their purchasing as fine jewellery," claims Brenner. "Most Canadian jewellers cannot tell you where their diamonds comes from with an unequivocal degree of certainty. I, however, can."

Ultimately, "as long as diamonds from places like Zimbabwe continue to exist in the marketplace," Ottawa journalist, Lee Berthiaume reports, "it will taint Canada's conflict-free gemstones." Canada needs more dealers of rough diamonds and cutting and polishing facilities in order to compete with other international diamond centres. Presently, there are four diamond producing mines in Canada and a few modest cutting and polishing centres in Sudbury and Yellowknife. The majority of the diamonds you and I will own will have journeyed from somewhere abroad, if not produced entirely in another country - and with that comes the risk of purchasing a conflict diamond.

The Diavik diamond mine in Canada.

"Buying a diamond is a blind purchase," says Andrew Tatarsky of GS Laboratories, a Canadian diamond grading company. In his experience, most customers are not concerned with the origins of their gemstones, "the vast majority are more concerned with the beauty of the diamond, how many carats, the colour and clarity." It's often enough to supply a piece of paper stating participation in the Kimberely Process - which is increasingly becoming an empty signifier - to ascertain a diamond's ethicality.

Since customers generally turn a blind eye to the potential of purchasing a conflict diamond, the impetus to stop Zimbabwe's Marange diamonds (among others) from trading freely by reforming the Kimberely Process lacks exigency from the consumer standpoint - it remains an intra-industry issue.

If Canada could contain its diamond industry within its borders, selling a conflict-free product to retail markets such as neighbouring America, which accounts for more than 50 per cent of the world's retail diamond sales, it could exert the kind of pressure onto the global diamond industry - and consumers -  to move towards greater transparency. "Countries such as Botswana and Russia are doing it [vertical integration] with a lot of success; there is no reason Canada cannot have a contained diamond industry creating hundreds, if not thousands of new jobs, while establishing itself as a world-class producer of conflict-free stones," says Brenner. "Canadian diamonds should be the most popular in the world," concludes Tatarsky. 



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