Diamonds, they say, are a girl’s best friend. However, despite the positive press, the diamond industry has a long and torrid past that does not always live up to the romantic ideal. Today, the western world sees a diamond as a symbol of love and devotion to one’s partner. However, diamonds are neither as rare nor as valuable as many in the western world believe them to be. The existence of this disconnect is one of the most interesting and complex stories that have emerged since the Industrial revolution. Although the western world has come to know at least a little bit about the history of diamond mining and the existence of the conflict diamond trade, there is much that is still misunderstood about the modern-day diamond industry that should be more transparent for the customer.
Before discussing the modern-day diamond industry, it is important to understand the history of the diamond industry. The first modern-day diamonds and diamond industry grew from a single diamond mine in Kimberley, South Africa (Carlowicz 1997). During this time, a number of large and very valuable diamonds were found in the area, and the Kimberley diamond mine became very large and the area around the mine grew into a mining town. According to Carlowicz (1997), “From 1871 to 1914, 50,000 miners dug the Big Hole with picks and shovels, yielding 2,722 kg of diamonds, and by 1873 Kimberley was the second largest town in South Africa, having an approximate population of 40,000” (Carlowicz 1997). Diamond mining became a large industry in South Africa, and it became an even more significant industry after large mines were found in Sierra Leone, Botswana, Angola, and Zimbabwe. Indeed, all of these countries have been touched by the diamond trade, often falling into conflict as a direct result of the diamond trade (Carlowicz 1997).
In modern day diamond mining, there is one name that stands out as more powerful than all others. De Beers is the company that owns most of the diamond mines in Africa, and has an incredible amount of power in the industry. One thing that is important to consider is that although the United States has laws forbidding monopolies, it does not stop De Beers from consolidating the diamond industry in the international market both vertically and horizontally (Goldschein 2011). As Goldschein writes, “Under Oppenheimer, De Beers and its Central Selling Organization established exclusive contracts with suppliers and buyers, making it impossible to deal with diamonds outside of De Beers The structure of the business remained the same for much of the 20th century: A De Beers subsidiary would buy the diamonds. De Beers would determine the amount of diamonds they wanted to sell, and at what price, for the whole year. Each producer would then get a cut of the total output, and buyers would take their diamonds to be resold in places like Antwerp and New York” (Goldschein 2011). However, De Beers also recognized that their monopoly was in danger-- there were too many diamonds, and demand was too low.
During the 1930s, De Beers began a campaign to make diamonds popular again. Prior to the 1930s, only the rich bought diamonds; however, after this time, more and more Americans began to believe that a diamond ring was an appropriate symbol of love for a marriage. Today, the diamond industry has convinced the American public that they should spend a large amount on a diamond ring prior to engagement (Goldschein 2011). Today, this belief has led to the unrealistic inflation of diamond prices in the American and global market. Diamonds are not particularly rare or particularly valuable, but the De Beers corporation has done an excellent job controlling supply and provoking demand (Goldschein 2011).
Unfortunately, the diamond industry has caused many problems. Because a foreign corporation-- the De Beers corporation, in this case-- owns a large number of the diamond mines in Africa, there has long been conflict in areas with diamonds. Diamonds that are mined in areas with civil wars are often called “conflict diamonds,” and many western countries have bans on the sale of diamonds from these areas. Conflict diamonds are considered to be “blood diamonds” because they are mined in areas where people suffer heavily from the mining process. Although many Americans understand that conflict diamonds exist, they do not consider the potential effects that purchasing diamonds may have on the local economy and political stability in African nations (Brilliant Earth 2014).
Conflict diamonds are also problematic because of the labor concerns in areas where conflict levels are high. Children are often sent to work in mines that are unsafe, and are injured or killed by the mining process regularly (Brilliant Earth 2014). Forced child labor even occurs in some of these places. According to a recent study, Cleveland (n.d.) writes, as many as one million children are employed in African diamond mines against international laws forbidding child labor (Cleveland n.d.). These children make less than two American dollars per day, and often face exploitative conditions (Cleveland n.d.).
Diamonds are not only problematic because of the conflicts that take place in areas where diamonds are mined. Diamond mining-- especially irresponsible diamond mining-- can cause irreversible environmental damage. Brilliant Earth (2014) writes, “A century of reckless diamond mining has taken a heavy toll on Angola’s environment. Irresponsible diamond mining has caused soil erosion, led to deforestation, and forced local populations to relocate. Angola’s diamond industry has been particularly careless in protecting rivers and streams from exploitation. Diamond miners have re-routed rivers and constructed dams to expose riverbeds for mining, with disastrous effects on fish and wildlife In extreme cases, diamond mining can cause entire ecosystems to collapse” (Brilliant Earth 2014). This ecosystem collapse also functions into the conflict that can occur in these areas; as the ecosystem collapses, the local farming communities also collapse, and soon the only place for individuals to work is in the diamond mines (Brilliant Earth 2014). Competition for jobs becomes high, instances of smuggling increase, and diamond mining becomes an industry not unlike the cocaine industry in South America (Brilliant Earth 2014).
The diamond industry has a torrid past, but its present is not much better. There are many problems that the industry seems unwilling or incapable of solving. Until these issues are addressed, labor, environmental, and human rights issues should remain at the forefront of the discussion insofar as diamond mining is concerned.
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Carlowicz, M. (1997). DeBeers unchallenged. Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union, 78(12), 126. doi:10.1029/97eo00081
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