Sunday, December 31, 2006

Local jewelers avoid blood diamonds

THE RECENT WARNER BROS. thriller "Blood Diamond" placed national attention on the illegal diamond trade. But so far, area jewelers say, the action flick has generated little buzz at their stores.

"I don't think the movie itself has created a stir," said Jerry Ulman, owner of Ulman's Jewelry on Caroline Street. "This conflict diamond issue is not new. The movie has made the public more aware." Customers at Crown Jewelers on William Street are not asking questions about the precious stones' history either, according to the store's owner, Bill Sale. "I think they trust us," he said. "I don't remember the subject ever coming up." Set in the 1990s, "Blood Diamond" chronicles the illegal diamond exchange used to fund civil war in Sierra Leone, West Africa. The film, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou, raised questions about the origins of diamonds sold in the United States.

The diamond industry reacted almost immediately to the movie's implications. Shortly before the film's Dec. 8 release, DeBeers, the world's largest diamond importer, called for more government regulation of illegal stones. And local jewelers maintain they only sell certified, "conflict-free" gems. "Every invoice that I get from the diamond suppliers that I use reads that the diamonds are known to be conflict-free," Ulman said. The Zale Corp., which operates a Zales jewelry store in Spotsylvania Towne Centre, has an official conflict diamond rule. "We have a policy, which all of our vendors have to certify to us in writing, that the diamond product they are supplying to us has not come from these conflicted areas," said David H. Sternblitz, vice president and treasurer of the Texas-based company.

"Jewelry is a very emotional gift," he said. "We want to make sure that our customers feel as comfortable as possible in purchasing those diamonds, that they feel that they're not supporting terrorism or wars in other countries." While the conflict in Sierra Leone has subsided, the illegal diamond trade continues to fuel civil strife in countries such as the Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rebel groups, who have physical control of the diamonds mines, use the gems as raw materials to exchange for weapons. "When the diamonds are stolen and traded illegally, that money doesn't go into funding infrastructural developments, and the middle men got extremely rich moving these cheap diamonds out," explained Kim Lanegran, a Sierra Leone specialist with Amnesty International USA. In 2003, the diamond industry, governments and nongovernmental organizations created The Kimberly Process Certification Scheme, an agreement to monitor and eradicate the flow of illicit, rough diamonds. The pact is signed by 71 nations including the United States, where it is enforced through the Clean Diamond Trade Act. "The industry is supposed to police itself, and the governments are suppose to watch their industries," Lanegran noted.

Ulman says reputation is key in the diamond industry, and most importers would not risk selling an illegal stone to a jeweler. The industry still relies on the age-old tradition of handshake deals, and very few contracts are signed, he said, "so if a handshake deal is reneged upon, that pretty much ends one relationship."Sale said he's dealt with the same, trusted diamond distributors for several decades. "Those are very reputable firms," he said. "It's a long-standing relationship."

Still, DeBeers and organizations including Amnesty International are exerting public pressure on the U.S. government to better enforce the Clean Diamond Trade Act. In September 2006, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that the government is not doing enough to monitor the importation of blood diamonds. Lanegran said some unlawful diamonds are slipping through the cracks by entering the U.S. and other countries as conflict-free gems. "We know that there are still millions of dollars worth of diamonds that are getting false certificates," she said. Sale admitted there is no sure way of knowing that every single diamond is clean. "Who knows?" he said. "We don't get them from the mines." Lanegran hopes "Blood Diamond" will encourage consumers to shop more conscientiously. "We're hoping that consumers will continue to remind jewelers that they want honest diamonds and to press the jewelers to call for a strengthening of the Kimberly Process," she said. "Diamonds are a symbol of love and consistency. They should not also be a symbol of rebel movements, that rape and abuse citizens and turn children into soldiers."At his store, Ulman said he gets the occasional shopper who refuses to buy an African diamond. "We've had customers who would prefer to have a Canadian diamond," he said. "Those stones, of course, have no connection to Africa."

Source: Fredericksburg.com - Local jewelers avoid blood diamonds