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Turning Led into Gold: Ethics in the Jewelry Industry

Aug 18, 2007
"The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic." - Joseph Stalin

"We've dodged the bullet," is the consensus opinion of the Jewelers Vigilance Committee, according to Frank Dallahan. "A job well done," though, as the title of the opinion piece suggests, "The Gun Is Still Pointed at Us" by "arrogant" NGOs.

Blood Diamonds got mediocre reviews and was not widely seen and has had no real effect on diamond purchases. Sierra Leon is at peace. Kimberly is in place. Our business can return to worrying about bankruptcies, the internet, consolidations, the latest move by DeBeers.

Yet right now, there are thousands, perhaps tens of thousands-the number will never be known - of American men who spent a few months of their salary to unknowingly purchase a conflict diamond. To these consumers, diamonds represent love and commitment-but to someone in Sierra Leone, they signify something altogether different.

One death can have a profound effect on a family, community or even a nation. How are we to understand 3.7 million deaths, which is what Amnesty International lists as the death toll due to wars funded by conflict diamonds? In the calculus of the human heart, such a number easily becomes an abstraction- which is why Blood Diamond was essential.

Though there has been an attempt at truth and reconciliation in Sierra Leone, little has been done to bring the victims of conflict diamonds together with the executive who ultimately purchased them. Nor has there been any widespread apology to customers. Instead, business continues, now with new ethics rules which ring shallow, to me, because there has been to real truth and reconciliation.

To the jewelry industry, the deaths of Africans have become mere statistics.

Certainly the diamond business is not the only business questionable ethics. We could have a film entitled, Blood Oil, but such a film is not needed when we have reality TV. Jewelry is different than other commodities. It is marketed as an emotional purchase, representing, often, the highest of human aspirations. This marketing is a despicable distortion when the true cost of a piece is environmental destruction and human suffering.

Many in the diamond business are Jewish, like myself. As a group, we are sensitive to history. I consider what happened in Africa as a result of conflict diamonds, a modern holocaust. Many might consider this comparison extreme, but there are numerous holocausts caused by human greed, bigotry and power. All are equally terrible.

It is undeniable that the Kimberly process is a huge step forward. If the world, because of Kimberly, could say: "NEVER AGAIN," then at least there would be a modicum of redemption. But NGOs report conflict diamonds are still being bought and sold... though not a soul in the industry is "out of compliance."

Our destinies, to some degree, are all interwoven in this universal human tragedy. Tribal cultures were destroyed and people were enlisted as chattel to gather commodities for European powers. This wealth was exported to build empire and many ventured forth to Africa in search of fortune.

I have a picture of my grandfather. Izzy Weinberg. Age 27. Camp's Bay, South Africa, 1905.

Izzy is dressed formally in a black suit and vest sporting a boulder hat, sitting in a cart. Instead of a horse however, there is a black man in shirtsleeves and bare feet, as the beast of burden. Even worse than this, one detail, over a hundred years later, still fills me with horror: this black man is wearing a set of horns, tied securely under his chin.

Everyone in the jewelry industry selling diamonds, including myself, are in the cart being pulled by the black man with horns. We have all benefited by DeBeers massive diamonds are a girl's best friend campaign, which has created the demand for diamonds, leading to these wars.

Some are in the cart comatose, pretending the blood diamond issue is gone. Others are in the cart with the reins, fighting the NGOs tooth and nail with a public relations campaign saying that blood diamonds are no longer an important issue. Let us just have business as usual because... no one is out of compliance with Kimberly.

Some have stepped in the cart without wanting to be in the cart: the unwitting customer who walked into the jewelry store some time in the nineties and with months of salary saved up to buy diamonds for their finance.

How much have things really changed over the last hundred years?

Unfortunately, we are so sophisticated now we do not see ourselves in the cart. There's marketing, technology, supply and demand. Governments are involved. No one wants an African diamond boycott-not even Nelson Mandela. Still, it would not be difficult to conclude that some evil in our industry still views an African's life as merely a commodity, like cattle or slaves.

My conviction is that those 3.7 million dead Africans are actually members of the lost tribe of Israel, which make them my brothers and sisters. I took care of their antecedents when I lived in Haiti-a country of former slaves. For two years, I worked as a volunteer in Mother Theresa's clinics while running an orphanage for a charity organization funded by the international diplomatic corps.

This suffering in the developing world is not some abstraction to me. I know we are all one global community that is interdependent. The reason that Haiti is so poor is because we are so rich. This is why I advocate Fair Trade. We need an absolutely clear connection between the miner and the consumer who purchases the diamond.

By writing such things, some will accused me of "slapping the face" of the jewelry industry. Perhaps it is true, but a slap is clearly not the same as a punch or a whack. To slap, according to Webster means, "to strike with an open hand, or with something broad or flat." A slap is usually between intimates; sometimes even lovers. My livelihood is in the jewelry industry-it provides for me, my wife and employees, so I am intimate with it.

My wife, whom I have been with for nearly twenty years, fortunately, does not slap me, though there were times, certainly, when I deserved it. We do have real conflict however, more of the H I3 variety than the D VSS variety. After the fight, or the slap, a couple has a choice. They can marginalize each other or they can make up, which begins with dialogue and ends, at best, in a more intimate engagement. Indeed, Webster's also defines a slap as a Scottish word meaning a gap in a wall or a dike or to make such a gap.

My slap, then, can be viewed as an invitation, now that we have 'dodged the bullet', to take the plunge and become more introspective about our part in this story. We are witnessing the end game of a terrible cycle; the oppressed becoming oppressor. It has morphed into an often painful commercial connection between that person in Africa and those in Antwerp and Mumbai.

There is a reason that the bullet was aimed at us. We ignore or dismiss this type of bullet to our own detriment, making ourselves more vulnerable. We also miss the opportunity to turn the lead of the bullet into gold.

Just last week I had the largest sale in our companies' history, three platinum ring wedding set, from a customer who found us on line and purchased from us specifically because of our stance issues expressed on this website. I was happy for the sale, but sorry to hear how this customer from an affluent California city could not find anyone in his area who could meet his ethical standards.

Many in our industry have been so concerned about creating "image" and "brand" that they miss what was right in front of them-the twenty percent of the population interested in socially responsible business practices.

On this blog you can read how anyone can take real steps to make changes. I urge you to join me. Educate your customers about the benefits of a fair trade, ethical jewelry market. Those who jump on this market early are going to reap potentially staggering benefits with the added bonus of using business to do good in the world.

By the way, my grandfather had no luck in South Africa. He moved to Boston. I happened upon the jewelry business by mere chance, just eleven years ago, mainly because my wife is a talented designer. If fate had been different, I might have been born into the diamond business, which is another way of saying that everything in the world is interconnected

"With a boundless heart cherish all living beings, radiating love over the world, upward to the skies, downward to the depths." - Metta Sutta
About the Author
Marc Choyt is President of Reflective Images, www.celticjewelry.com, a jewelry company that practices socially responsible business.Marc authors www.fairjewelry.org a movement website for consumers and jewelers supporting green and fair trade jewelry. He also originated The Circle Manifesto,
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