Where can you find truly conflict free diamonds? The unfortunate reality is that one in four diamonds are conflict ridden in today’s diamond industry even though they are sold under the industry’s process of self regulation.

Many of the world’s diamonds are mined using practices that exploit workers, children, and communities. A million diamond diggers in Africa earn less than a dollar a day. Miners are dying in accidents, child labor is widespread, and corrupt leaders are depriving diamond mining communities of funds badly needed for economic development.

It’s important to realize, first of all, that as long as there has been a diamond industry, diamond mining has been beset by violence, smuggling, worker exploitation, and environmental degradation.

These problems have existed for decades – since even before diamonds became the most popular choice for engagement rings in the 1940s. Unsavoury diamond practices go all the way back to when diamonds were first discovered in South Africa in the late 1800s.

Terrible abuses have long taken place at diamond mines run by large companies, as well as in connection with artisanal diamond mining – a form of mining in which individuals mine for diamonds using simple methods like digging pits or panning in riverbeds.

However, it was not until the late 1990s that the diamond industry began to confront a consumer backlash. Bloody civil wars were then raging in Sierra Leone, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other African countries. All of these wars had one thing in common: they were all fueled by diamonds.

Global Witness and Partnership Africa Canada, two non-profit groups, took the lead in exposing the problem to the public. Rebel groups were seizing control of diamond mining regions and exchanging diamonds for money and weapons. The diamond industry was buying up these blood-stained diamonds and selling them in jewelry stores.

Press coverage soon made the terms “blood diamond” and “conflict diamond” more familiar to diamond consumers. And mounting public concern caught the attention of diamond industry executives. They were smart to realize that if consumers no longer recognized the beauty in diamonds, if all they saw was violence and hardship, then sales could plummet. This is what led to the development of the Kimberley Process.

The Kimberley imposes certain requirements on its members, which enables them to certify shipments of rough diamonds as ‘conflict-free’ and prevent conflict diamonds from entering the legitimate trade.

So how do conflict diamonds still make it to your local jewelry store?

There are a number of points in the standard diamond supply chain where diamonds get completely mixed, to the point where it is simply impossible to keep track of a single diamond’s route from source to store. One particularly interesting example of where conflict diamonds are knowingly being inserted in to the supply chain is in India.

The vast majority of the world’s diamonds pass through India for polishing. India’s Directorate of Revenue Intelligence keeps track of rough stones that are imported for polishing. They then seize any stones that have illegally been smuggled in from Africa without the proper paperwork. What do they do with these stones? They allow the Indian government to auction them off. As written on their site “It [MSTC] also sells diamonds on behalf of NMDC as also confiscated diamonds of Customs dept. Mumbai.”.

Local and international diamond firms are then free to bid on the lots. Stamped with a new origin in a Kimberley-approved country, these blood diamonds are handed right back to the global market — now totally untraceable and indistinguishable from legitimately sourced stones (source: Foreign Policy).

Most stones never get caught on the way to the rough trading markets in the first place. There are two other primary ways of laundering conflict diamonds. One is by taking them across the border to a non-conflict zone, Zimbabwe to Botswana for example. The other is by forging certificates. As the Foreign Policy article puts it, a Kimberley certificate is “…about as easy to fake as an old driver’s license”. It is just a simple piece of paper that states the country of origin and and the contents of the parcel. 

What can you do to make a difference?

Now that you understand that the traditionally touted “conflict free” claim is not enough to ensure that you are not funding child labour and black markets – what do you do?

A new wave of responsible jewelers has emerged in order to drive change in the industry. The only way to be sure that you are “voting” responsibly with your purchase is to know what the origin of your diamond is. This is a relatively new practice in the industry and is only offered by a select few jewelry venues.