Ethically Derived Diamonds

A couple nights ago, I came across the first installment of what looks like a riveting documentary miniseries on the Knowledge Network called Diamond Road. The series goes around the globe and penetrates various social strata to look at all sides of the diamond trade, from De Beers to the advertising agency behind its successful multimillion dollar campaigns, elite consumers, impoverished diamond miners in Sierra Leone, the Diavik Mine on aboriginal land in the Northwest Territories, to an industry insider fighting to promote "fair trade diamonds."

Thanks to Leonardo DiCaprio's film Blood Diamond, a considerable number of people know about diamonds from mines in conflict zones that are used to fund bloody civil wars. That part of the documentary came as no surprise to me. What did astonish me, however, was how the top tier of diamond traders gain so much and the diamond miners so little. One of the subjects in Diamond Road lives in Sierra Leone and sifts through clay beds daily for diamonds for a wage of about $1 a day. He talks about the hard economic choices he has to make, and prays to God daily for a big diamond that will relieve his financial woes and help him take better care of his family. This is a free man who is a diamond miner of his own accord, unlike Djimon Hounsou's character in Blood Diamond, but his life doesn't seem much better. What's more surprising is his father was a diamond miner before him, and neither know the "true" value of a diamond; they know that it's worth more than what they earn, but exactly how much is a mystery.

The documentary is also very critical of the advertising and marketing hype behind De Beers's "A diamond is forever" campaigns and raises some points I hadn't even considered, such as the contention that every film, image, and song (e.g. Marilyn Monroe singing "Diamonds are a girl's best friend") that depicts a woman receiving diamond jewelry and equates diamonds with eternal love is in essence a savvy product placement strategy on the part of De Beers's advertisers. Behind the scenes at a convention, industry insiders congratulate themselves on being so successful at selling a product that nobody actually needs. When faced with competition in the form of manmade diamonds, De Beers molds the rhetoric around diamonds to roughly equal "He doesn't love you as much if he buys you a 'fake' diamond."

That last part was interesting. I later asked a friend if she cared where a diamond came from--whether it was natural or manmade, from an "ethical" source--if a boy gave her diamonds as a present. Her immediate answer: "I don't care as long as it's gorgeous and expensive." She later reversed her answer as I told her about the documentary. It seems as though there is no way of knowing your diamond jewelry uses ethically derived diamonds unless you make sure you buy Canadian or manmade. (I refuse to call them "artificial" or "fake" as De Beers employees call them, because technically they are real diamonds...same chemical composition and everything. It's misleading and part of the marketing hoopla to denounce them as fake.) I'd be interested to see if the industry insider is successful in implementing fair trade diamonds.

Anyway, it's all very interesting food for thought, and if you have a bit of time on your hands on Tuesday evenings, Diamond Road airs at 10 pm on the Knowledge Network.


  1. I wonder how large a carbon footprint the manufacture of man-made diamonds has, compared to the mining of naturally occurring diamonds. Mining and refining gold is notoriously bad for the environment, especially white gold.

  2. That's a good point, and I definitely know what you mean about the environmental devastation of mining as I used to date a mining engineer. Diamond Road only focused on one firm that had the technology to produce manmade diamonds, Gemesis in Texas. They had machines that looked like incubators and simulated the environment that diamonds are formed in. The diamonds were produced in four days, but I think the process would require huge amounts of energy to maintain the environment conducive to diamond formation.


Back to Top