Blood & Diamonds Part 1: History

Diamonds are forever, right? Well, the truth is that diamonds have not always been the symbols of love and commitment we see them as today.

In fact, diamonds have only been readily available to the public for less than 150 years. Today we’ll be examining exactly how and why diamonds rose to prominence in our lives. This video discusses the role of diamonds in ancient times, and their relatively recent explosion thanks to the discovery of the Kimberley Mines in South Africa in 1866, and Cecil Rhodes’ creation of the De Beers diamond trading company.

This is somewhat different topic for the channel, but I think it’s an important one. I think that – much like eating animals – earth mined diamonds are an archaic obsession that no longer serves us.

In this is a three-part series, I’ll be talking about the history of diamonds, the advertising campaign that brought diamonds to the prominent place they now hold in our culture. And in the final episode, I’ll talk about more ethical alternatives.

What I hope comes across throughout these videos is the fact that the “tradition” of diamonds as a symbol of love, luxury and commitment is actually a recently created, mass marketed fiction.

Prior to the 1870s, diamonds were a rare and precious commodity. Only a pound or two were found each year world-wide – generally in Indian rivers. But things changed drastically after the discovery of the mammoth Kimberley mines in South Africa. These mines were positively bursting with precious gems. Suddenly, several thousands of pounds of diamonds were unearthed each year, rather than the paltry few pounds discovered previously. A single year of diamond mining in South Africa proved more rewarding than centuries of previous work.

Rhodes Lead to Riches?

One young man saw the writing on the wall and knew that he had a chance to make history with this discovery. That man was Cecil Rhodes. The infamous father of both the Rhodes Scholarship and the former British Colony of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Rhodes knew that the only way to prevent a drastic drop in world diamond prices was to act quickly to form a monopoly.

Rhodes immediately set about to purchasing every diamond mine he possibly could. One of the first he encountered belonged to a couple of brothers named De Beers. The brothers eagerly parted with their mine for the paltry sum of 6400 British Pounds. Little did they know that they stake would have been worth millions. But Rhodes didn’t stop there. He continued to buy up land and mines at breakneck speed, managing to consolidate nearly all mines in Africa under the control of his newly formed De Beers corporation prior to his death in 1902 at the age of 48.

Although he didn’t live long, Rhodes had a profound impact on the world. And his powerful monopoly, the De Beers company, controlled world diamond prices for over a century (and still has a powerful sway).

The De Beers corporation only controls about 40% of the diamond market today, but it doesn’t much matter. The various diamond producing nations (and corporations) of the world, have realized that it’s better to cooperate than to compete in this industry. The result has been relatively stable supply and prices.

Diamonds and Conflict

Diamonds have a long and sad history of being behind serious conflict, particularly in Africa. In fact, one could argue the Boer Wars were the first international conflicts fought over gemstones.

It’s difficult to say how much of the $72 billion dollar a year business goes to funding terror and insurgence around the globe, but the answer is quite clearly A LOT.

Conflicts in Sierra Leone, Angola and the Congo were bolstered by the sale of illicit diamonds, which are often exchanged for weapons. Much as in other parts of the globe plagued with smuggling problems, these conflicts may have begun as political movements, but quickly devolved into endless wars over resources – in this case, diamonds.

After some of the most horrific abuses of the conflict in Sierra Leone came to light at the end of the last century, people began demanding proof that the diamonds they bought weren’t funding war, slavery, death and dismemberment. This lead to a reform known as the Kimberley Process, intended to stem the flow of gems from these war-torn regions.

The Kimberley Process

The sad reality, though, is that the Kimberley Process simply doesn’t work. Firstly, the scope of their concern is incredibly narrow: only diamonds from areas involved in armed rebel conflict are avoided. A nation can be actively engaged in violence against its citizens, child labour violations and the like without any reprisal. And even in the case of diamond sales supporting armed conflict, Kimberley is rather toothless. In 2014, the Guardian had an excellent piece explaining that Kimberley was actually a perfect cover for smuggling. Because Kimberley does not trace individual diamonds (diamonds are certified conflict-free in large shipments), it’s quite easy for smugglers to relabel entire groups of diamonds and spirit them smoothly through international borders. And many blood diamonds escape the process completely by popping up in countries bordering conflict zones (such as Liberia) and being certified conflict free from there.

How do we know this is happening? Well, since the implementation of the Kimberley process, the quantity of gem-quality diamonds coming from previously unimpressive locales has exploded. Prior to Kimberley, Liberia and Gambia, were not known for either the quantity or quality of their diamonds. Since Kimberley, their level of exports has grown massively.

The Strange Case of the Swiss Diamonds

And then there is the strange case of the “Swiss diamonds”. Of course, diamonds are not mined anywhere in Switzerland. And yet,  in 1999 over 40% of the stones imported into the UK listed Switzerland as their country of origin. 

How did this happen?

In a baffling instance of mendacity so bold it would make a hardened criminal blush, for years smugglers labeled any diamonds that pass through free trade areas as “Swiss.”

What is perhaps even more offensive is that De Beers and the other merchants simply chose to look the other way in the face of such belligerent actions.

The swiss diamond phenomenon has largely gone away, thanks to the Kimberley process. But stones from conflict regions still make their way to the world market. And Kimberley doesn’t seem to be stopping it. 

Conclusions

Although the violence in Sierra Leone brought the world’s attention to blood diamonds, conflict over these gems is nothing new. And it will continue for as long as we permit the false narrative of diamonds as priceless symbols of love and devotion. I hope that learning a bit more about the history of these gems will demystify them somewhat. In Part 2, I will be discussing the advertising campaign that told us “diamonds are forever”.

 

One Response to “Blood & Diamonds Part 1: History

%d bloggers like this: