Global Policy Forum

Getting Engaged With -


By Verena Dobnik

Associated Press
July 19, 2000

Most diamond buyers think about cost and quality - not bloody African wars. But the diamond industry has now thrown in the moral question: Was a gem mined amid a brutal African conflict fueled by sales of the shiny stones that stand for love - and luxury - in America?

"I want a diamond. Where it comes from, how it got here, I don't really care," said Christine Sabo of Marlboro, N.J., shopping Wednesday in Manhattan's Diamond District for "a band to update my wedding ring." "It may sound self-serving, but it wouldn't make a difference," Sabo added, eyeing a lineup of rings in a window on West 47th Street. "If I like it, I'll buy it - if the price is right."

Price was not the hot topic this week in Antwerp, Belgium, where 85 percent of the world's rough diamonds are traded. Officials at the World Diamond Congress announced strict new measures to clamp down on the trade in "conflict diamonds" used to pay for wars in Africa.

The measures include a certification system to track rough diamonds from the time they're mined, as well as penalties against dealers who break United Nations embargoes on diamond sales by rebels in Angola and Sierra Leone. The move comes in response to charges that several African groups have financed civil wars using proceeds from illicit diamond sales. The world's largest diamond company, De Beers, asked its customers to boycott the stones sold by the rebels. The company announced in October it would no longer buy diamonds from Angola.

But in American jewelry stores, reality - and price - is quickly undercutting that ideal.

"As long as I give a seller a check and he gives me an invoice - it's legal," says Leon Nektalov, whose Leon's Diamonds on 47th Street is lined with engagement rings set with stones from Russia. The certified gemologist comes from four generations of diamond experts in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan; his father ran a diamond-cutting factory there. Nektalov doesn't believe the diamond industry is in a position to enforce the new rules. "It's next to impossible to trace a rough diamond," he said. "As a merchant, how will I know if it's from Africa or Brazil?"

By the time an illegally exported diamond reaches a retail buyer with a certificate, it often has passed through a dozen wholesale hands. In addition, the world supply of already mined diamonds, worth tens of billions of dollars, will last for years.

But the idea of not buying an engagement ring paid with human lives sure sounds like "a good cause" to Peter Georges, an executive with a high-tech Silicon Valley firm. "I wouldn't buy a diamond ring that comes from a place where people are suffering or getting killed for it!" he said, ripping open his flowery shirt to show off a chest tattoo that reads "Takayo" - his girlfriend's name. He planned to return home to San Jose, Calif., to propose to her bearing a 2.01-carat, platinum-set stone that costs five figures. And Georges is confident their union will be graced by a diamond with a politically correct provenance - from Yakutsk, Russia, with love.

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