You can feel it. That proposal is right around the corner. Maybe you have already started looking at rings online (just for fun, chill Daniel!) or maybe you’ve done some casual window shopping admiring the brilliance of diamonds IRL. Selecting and receiving diamonds is thrilling! But, amidst all of the happiness surrounding proposals, there are some questions we should be asking: Why do diamonds mean so much to us? Why are they so expensive? Also, where exactly did this sparkly little fella come from?
In this post, we’re exploring the history of diamonds and the impact they have on our planet, both environmentally and socially.
Learning to Love Diamonds
Owning a diamond ring is about so much more than telling the world you have a partner. In addition to being a symbol of love and marriage, it’s a display of wealth and power—a marker of status in our mega-social world as humans. But the diamond wasn’t always the star of engagement season.
Historically, humans have been known to use a variety of valuable materials for marriages, such as ivory, flint, bone, copper, and iron. It wasn’t until 1477, that a diamond was first recorded to have been used on an engagement ring by Archduke Maximilian of Austria. Furthermore, it wasn’t until the mid-1840s that diamond rings began to appear in the United States.
While the sales of diamond rings struggled to gain steady traction in America, South African-based diamond cartel, De Beers, hit the jackpot after discovering an abundance of large diamond mines in South Africa. However, the mine operators recognized that in order to make big profits they needed to market diamonds as being exceptionally rare, a.k.a valuable, leading them to stockpile their diamonds and only release enough annually to create the illusion of scarcity. With the help of a New York ad agency, N.W. Ayer (hello, Donald Draper), De Beers was able to manipulate both the supply and demand of diamonds by also reinventing their image among the American public.
They launched their first commercial in 1938, in which they persuaded men to believe that diamonds were the exclusive symbol of romance and that the measure of a man’s love, and even his personal and professional success, was directly proportional to the size and quality of the diamond he purchased. Additionally, they convinced women that a diamond was the official marker of marriage. They spent the rest of the century marketing this idea across the world, eventually coming up with their famous slogan, “A Diamond is Forever”.
As a result of billions of dollars spent on advertising, generations of women continue to demand diamonds as a stepping-stone to marriage and men continue to feel the pressures and obligation of spending weeks’ worth, even months’ worth, of hard-earned wages on these ordinary rocks. Despite this tradition’s less-than-pure intentions, diamonds are still widely acknowledged as being rare, valuable, and the strongest symbol of everlasting love.
I know, I know…they’re so pretty! But these little beauties have a long and dirty history of supporting corruption, violence, child labor, and the destruction of eco-systems.
There are 6 steps involved in the diamond supply chain, and the step with the most negative impact is mining. Mining conditions, especially in Africa, are often unsanitary and dangerous involving children and providing miners with as low as $1 per day. This highly unregulated industry is also ubiquitous for allowing diamonds to cross borders into politically-restless nations where diamonds are used to finance civil wars or barter for weapons.
While certification systems, like the Kimberley Process, exist to prevent “blood diamonds” from entering the market, there are still too many loopholes and little oversight involved to ensure that there is no “mixage”—an industry term used to describe conflict diamonds that make their way into legitimate supply. In addition to falling short on this singular goal, KPCS (Kimberley Process Certification Scheme) fails to pay notice to the myriad of other issues associated with diamonds, like human rights violations, abusive labor practices, and water pollution.
Also, more than 90% of the world’s diamonds—whether conflict-free or not—travel to India for cutting and polishing where labor is highly skilled and low-cost. So even if you are purchasing a certified Canadian diamond, chances are it traveled across the world and back before making its way to the United States.
Where Does This Leave Us?
You may be familiar with Brilliant Earth, a San Fransisco-based jewelry company dedicated to ethical sourcing. An initial visit to their website is sure to impress you as they thoroughly display their knowledge of mining’s global impact. They share some of the ways in which they support and advocate for a brighter future in the industry, such as providing funding for schools, medical care, and industry-specific training; even if those programs are not located within the countries they source their jewels from. A portion of their profits is donated to the Diamond Development Initiative, an industry body dedicated to investing diamond wealth into programs that strengthen the communities that mine them. As well, their jewelry comes in FSC certified packaging to lower your footprint even more.
They advertise their diamonds as being responsibly sourced from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Russia, and Canada, as well as selling lab-grown and recycled stones. However, one independent investigation revealed that they are unable to keep track of their diamonds since they don’t own their inventory, and instead buy them from dealers in India (keep in mind, this investigation only focused on Canadian diamonds).
So, while they are certainly taking a step in the right direction, it’s important to know that in this dangerous and highly-unregulated industry it’s nearly impossible to keep an accurate paper-trail on these shiny little beauties. The industry as a whole is working toward creating more transparency and accountability, but it will take some time before consumers can truly obtain credible information.
Don’t Give Up On Diamonds
This is not to say you can’t buy diamonds! But now that you’re aware of the inherent risks associated with purchasing engagement rings, you can go forth feeling more confident in your search for a sustainable stunner. It might take a bit more work than you originally anticipated, but wouldn’t you rather look down at your ring knowing that it doesn’t have a shady past?
While the diamond’s history isn’t exactly flawless (pun intended), here are some steps you can take to reduce your risk of purchasing a “blood diamond” and lower your global impact:
- Avoid diamonds that come from Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Angola, Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo where human rights abuses have been well documented by organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
- Search for Canadian diamonds where labor and environmental standards are rigorously enforced. Though, keep in mind that supporting Canadian miners doesn’t help African communities improve unless you purchase through a company that donates profits to African communities, like Brilliant Earth.
- Donate to the Diamond Development Initiative.
- Don’t accept easy answers from sellers. Responsible jewelers will have considerable knowledge about your diamond’s path to the market. Also, don’t settle for vague assurances about having the proper certification without physical verification.
- De Beers (ya know, the guys who told us we needed diamonds in the first place) sell a collection of rings called Forevermark. You won’t be able to trace the diamond to an exact source, but the company invests in local communities by building schools and hospitals near its mines in Botswana and South Africa.
- Tiffany, Signet, and Cartier are investing in Botswana factories that will do the cutting and polishing, which means more of the diamond income stays in the country.
- Hume Atelier, Brilliant Earth, and Chicago’s Leber Jeweler have all made a commitment to ethical sourcing and advocating for a better industry.
- Consider lab-grown and recycled diamonds!
- Lab-grown diamonds have the exact same properties as mined diamonds and have been found to use slightly less energy to produce. However, energy-usage isn’t the only piece to the puzzle. We have to consider the whole process from sourcing or growing to the emissions used to transport the stones, and the labor practices involved with cutting and polishing. Nonetheless, if mining is the issue that keeps you up at night than lab-grown could still be a good option for you!
- Maybe you’ve been offered a family heirloom that isn’t quite your taste. Many jewelers can repurpose antique pieces (it doesn’t have to be a ring!) to create a completely custom design, so even though the stones may have had a bloody start, reusing them for your ring instead of opting for a newly-mined stone significantly reduces your footprint.
- Check out: Erie Basin and Doyle & Doyle for some beautiful options!
List adapted from TIME