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Local Jewelers Call Their Gems "Conflict-free"

Local Matters


Published January 10, 2007 at 1:26 p.m.

VERMONT - Blood Diamond is a "great movie and a good story," says Susan Grannis, co-owner of a Burlington jewelry store. "The story is over, though."

The gruesome civil war in Sierra Leone depicted in Edward Zwick's big box-office film ended five years ago, Grannis points out. Rebels in the West African nation no longer smuggle diamonds to finance a terror campaign that involved abductions and amputations. And an international movement has largely squelched the illicit diamond trade that helped bankroll bloodshed in other diamond-producing African nations, namely Angola, Congo and Liberia.

Today, 99.8 percent of the diamonds entering the global market are reliably certified as "conflict- free," says Carson Glover, a spokesman for the New York-based World Diamond Council. This trade association helps track the origin and processing of diamonds as part of the Kimberly Process, a multinational monitoring system put into place four years ago in response to outrage over atrocities of the sort graphically portrayed in Blood Diamond.

Retailers in Vermont appear well apprised of the Kimberly Process. The owners of five jewelry stores surveyed in Burlington and Middlebury all say they buy solely from diamond suppliers who comply with a tracking system that now includes 71 countries with their own laws against trade in blood diamonds.

This commitment on the part of Vermont gem dealers contrasts with the findings of a 2004 survey conducted by Amnesty International. Only about one-quarter of 246 jewelry stores visited in 50 U.S. cities presented Amnesty activists with proof of a policy designed to prevent sale of blood diamonds.

"In Vermont, we tend to be more socially oriented than is the case nationwide on this issue," says Kent Wood, owner of Fremeau Jewelers in Burlington. The Grannis Gallery, for example, has posted signs since 1999 declaring its diamonds conflict-free, Susan Grannis notes.

All the Vermont retailers praise the diamond industry for taking what Wood describes as "pro-active steps" to ensure that its merchandise is not tainted by blood from hacked-off hands. "As someone involved in a business that's all about expressions of love," adds Kevin Carpenter, owner of Middlebury Jewelry and Gift Works, "I am vehemently opposed to anything that supports the type of illegal or immoral activity shown in that movie."

Because the U.S. diamond trade is largely family-controlled, wholesale transactions involve a high degree of personal trust that can be violated only once, Wood says. "All I have to do is pick up the phone and have incredible amounts of money sent simply on the basis of my word," adds the owner of the Church Street business established in 1840.

But the Kimberly Process does not ensure that only diamonds from reputable sources are reaching the commercial market, Amnesty International warns. Along with the London-based group Global Witness, Amnesty cites weaknesses in the oversight system stemming from reliance on volunteer monitors. The Kimberly Process, named for the South African diamond center where it was formulated, does not have the status of an international treaty and lacks adequate funding, the activists complain.

Global Witness maintains that as many as 20 percent of diamonds sold on world markets are smuggled or mined and processed under abusive labor conditions. And blood diamonds - those that directly finance civil war - continue to be extracted in the Ivory Coast. The United Nations estimates that combatants in that West African country are making up to $23 million a year by smuggling diamonds into neighboring Ghana or Mali, where they are falsely certified as conflict-free, the Kimberly Process notwithstanding.

Glover of the World Diamond Council says the industry will not be satisfied until 100 percent of the global trade has bloodless origins. And he concedes that the Kimberly Process does not have the power to stem all diamond smuggling. "It's not a police force," he notes.

In hopes of avoiding any association with atrocities, some Vermont retailers strive to steer clear of diamonds known to originate in Africa. Tick Tock Jewelers owner Beth Garbo displays a letter from her store's main supplier of diamonds attesting to their conflict-free status. The diamonds for sale in her 60-year-old Burlington store come mainly from Canada and from American suppliers of antique gems, Garbo says.

Shoppers who are still concerned about blood diamonds can allay their misgivings by purchasing other types of precious stones, she suggests. But there's not much evidence of such worries. "Very few customers ask me about conflict diamonds," Garbo says, echoing the observations of other Vermont diamond dealers.

Retailers will never have complete certainty about where diamonds actually originate, adds John Wallace, owner of Autumn Gold in Middlebury. Unlike some other gem stones, diamonds exhibit no distinctive coloring or texture that indicate where they were mined.

Some of the diamonds set in rings for sale in his shop may well have been unearthed in Africa, even though Autumn Gold buys mainly from suppliers who do business in Russia, Wallace adds.

There's nothing inherently bad about diamonds from Africa, cautions Susan Grannis. "If the African diamond trade slows because Americans aren't buying diamonds because of the movie, some Africans are going to go hungry," she adds.

Hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons is making the same point. He notes that most diamonds from Africa are mined in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Tanzania - all countries with no recent history of civil warfare. "Africans need this industry," Simmons declared last month when he publicized his own line of jewelry. "Diamonds pay for education and medical treatment in Africa."