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Guilt-free diamonds: beyond blood to human rights

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Gad Zak and his wife, Maria Da Costa. The couple founded the ethical jewelry company Igloo Diamonds in 2003. (Photo courtesy of Gad Zak)

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1 carat round diamond from ethical jeweler Brilliant Earth, originating from the Ekati mine in Canada. (Photo courtesy of Beth Gerstein)

On posh Madison Avenue in New York City, the window display of Leviev glitters with millions of dollars worth of jewelery. The store’s opening last year was marked with a glamorous party that even the Oscar-winning actress Susan Sarandon attended.

But these days, distancing would-be shoppers and gawkers from the glitz and glamour of the boutique, is the ongoing protest on the sidewalk outside.

Three times since the start of the year at the New York City store, and most recently at his London branch, demonstrators have picketed against the owner, Lev Leviev, the 210th wealthiest man in the world, according to Forbes magazine. His mining practices in Angola, in south-central Africa, have involved, they assert, the use of agencies that violate human rights.

This is a new kind of protest in the $13 billion diamond industry. Ten years ago the debate was over conflict or “blood diamonds.” The term was bought into the mainstream by the 2006 Leonardo DiCaprio film, “Blood Diamond,” which explored the complicated relationships between the diamond mining business and the funding of bloody civil wars that plague some African countries.

But since 2002, with the inception of the United Nations’ diamond certification initiative, the Kimberley Process, 99 percent of the diamonds in the U.S. are deemed nonconflict.

“Conflict diamonds are not the main problem now,” said Martin Rapaport, an industry price analyst turned Fair Trade activist. “What we need to do now is find ways to help the poorest people in world, artisanal diamond workers--that’s what the new fair trade movement is focused on.”

Like the fair-trade coffee and green movements, the focus has now shifted to trading in an “ethical” commodity-–diamonds acquired through humane practices. The central belief is that originating from a war zone is not the only stain a diamond can have. Leaders in the movement point toward human rights abuses, low wages, slave labor and a host of other egregious practices that still take place in nonconflict mining countries.

The new ethical diamond market holds great potential for retailers to carve a lucrative niche, and for consumers to invest their DeBeer’s mandated two months’ salary with clean consciences.

Often overlooked in the din of the African disputes, Canada boasts a wealth of natural diamond mines and has become a treasure trove for ethical diamonds. For Beth Gerstein, 32, of San Francisco, it held the answer she was looking for.

“I was looking for an engagement ring that came with a guarantee it wasn’t associated with diamond mining abuses,” she said. “I couldn’t find one.”

Her experience sparked a business idea. In 2003, she co-founded Brilliant Earth, a company that trades only in diamonds mined from Canada. “We wanted to make sure that everything sold was produced with environmental and moral decisions in mind. The Kimberley Process is purely to stop the sale of war diamonds. It doesn’t take account of wage conditions or anything else. In fact, it was not even designed to.”

The diamonds sold by Brilliant Earth originate from two Canadian mines where the cutting and polishing are also undertaken. The company donates 5 percent of its profits to benefit local African communities, and Gerstein says her diamonds are often cheaper than the big industry sellers because of lower overhead.

“I think that markets are changing the industry,” Gerstein continued. “I feel that having a demand for ethical diamonds is waking the industry up to the problems. At the end of the day, it’s consumers who are going to have to be the pressure to make the change. There is no other way.”

Michael Dimyan, 32, of Silver Spring, Md., is one of these new consumers. Last year, he decided it was time to propose to his girlfriend of four years. But he had a problem.

“I knew that Jane would have issues with Africa,” he said. “I didn’t want anything tainted by immoral practices, which was problematic because I knew nothing about the diamond trade.”

Dimyan found Igloo Diamonds. A Canadian-operated company trading only in native diamonds, Igloo was started in 2003 by Gad Zak, 54, and his wife, Maria Da Costa, 42, both from Montreal, Quebec. They donate 40 percent of the mark-up price on every diamond sold to Adopt-a-Minefield, an organization that works to clear landmines left over from conflict in parts of Africa.

So far they have raised $23,000 for the charity and Adopt-a-Minefield gives each customer a certificate and map of the landmine-ridden land that their purchase has helped to clear. “Many of them are intensely proud,” he said. “Some have even hung the certificate in their living room.”

Despite being in the diamond business for over a decade, Zak has noticed a recent spike in interest in ethical diamonds. “There is an increased awareness and demand now,” he said. “This new initiative is clear and the acceptance that Kimberley is not enough any more is coming through.”

Eventually Dimyan paid $5,853 for a 1.03-carat Canadian diamond. His wife, the new Mrs. Dimyan, was ecstatic. “It’s part of the story I tell my friends about our engagement and a number of them have now followed our course,” she enthused. “I just didn’t want a symbol of our love to be tainted by the immorality of the diamond trade, and I think we achieved that.”

E-mail: mk2939@columbia.edu