It's the issue the diamond business just can't shake -- right at the time of year when many people hide a gem in a heart-shaped box.
The "conflict" or "blood" diamond problem first drew wide notice in the late 1990s, when reports highlighted that rebels in African countries were using diamonds to fund brutal campaigns. Faced with the besmirching of the gem that represents love, dozens of countries signed on to the Kimberley Process, named for the South Africa city where they met. It requires that diamonds mined after Jan. 1, 2003, be shipped in tamper-resistant containers accompanied by government-validated certificates.
In recent months, it has become clear that it isn't foolproof. Diamonds from rebel-controlled areas of Ivory Coast appear to be reaching the market disguised as conflict-free gems. Both Kimberley Process members and the United Nations Security Council have met to try to stop it.
[Avoiding Blood Diamonds chart]
Now, entertainers are weighing in, putting the topic in front of millions of consumers who might have never considered it -- frightening diamond-industry image-minders. On Wednesday, Kanye West is up for a Grammy for his song "Diamonds from Sierra Leone." This month, Leonardo DiCaprio begins shooting the film "Blood Diamond."
How can you make sure you don't get one? By demanding that jewelers tell you where their diamonds were mined. The problem is, they usually don't know. The Kimberley Process doesn't require miners and exporters to mark each gem -- or even certify each one on paper -- with its origin country. Instead, jewelers are simply supposed to get a boilerplate warranty from suppliers with any batch of gems certifying their conflict-free status.
That means the system is only as good as its weakest link: You've got to trust that someone, somewhere, over thousands of miles and months or years of transactions, didn't slip a bad rock in the pile.
The odds that you actually have a conflict gem tucked in a velvet box for Valentine's Day are small. Take the Ivory Coast: Only 300,000 carats come out of the ground there each year. World-wide, 155.7 million carats of "rough" diamonds were mined in 2004, according to Rapaport Diamond Report. "But if you had a case of beer, and you knew one bottle was poison, would you be drinking?" asks Brian Leber, who sells mostly Canadian diamonds at Leber Jewelry in Western Springs, Ill.
Meanwhile, why no individual certificates? "It would be a million trillion pieces of paper," says Cecilia Gardner of the World Diamond Council, an industry group. What about laser markings on each gem? Impossible, she says, noting that many African diamonds are mined by individuals and that the infrastructure is limited.
Until more countries mark gems after mining, you could buy Canadian gems. Some are marked with invisible-to-the-naked-eye maple leafs and polar bears. This month, Global Witness, a nonprofit that has published reports on conflict gems, will post a shopping guide on globalwitness.org.
The Kimberley Process's own Web site says that its "most important" tip for consumers is to use intuition when picking a salesperson. But it's too bad that the best the industry can offer in most cases is an admonition to trust your gut.
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