In November last year, Sotheby’s auctioned a flawless pink diamond for a world record price of US$83 million. At 59.6 carats and the size of a plum, the “Pink Star”, renamed the “Pink Dream” by its new owner, fetched almost $1.4 million per carat. According to Sotheby’s it had been cut from a 132.5 carat rough stone that had been mined in 1999 by De Beers “somewhere in Africa”. Beyond that, it origins are unknown. Mystery, of course, is part of a valuable diamond’s allure; its mystique. For generations, mystery has also been a hallmark of the diamond industry, whose secretive ways and their sometimes violent outcomes are described in my new book,Diamonds.
Gem diamonds less spectacular than the Pink Star can still be worth tens of thousands of dollars per carat, but even the least of them has only one legal purpose: decoration. Because they have the highest value-to-weight ratio of any substance however, diamonds have additional, not-so-legal uses as well: money laundering, tax evasion, an alternative currency for drugs, guns, terrorism and other activities of interest to law enforcement agencies.
Despite the best efforts of a cartel established more than a century ago by the great robber baron Cecil Rhodes – a cartel that survived two global conflicts, the Cold War and other vicissitudes – regulation of the diamond trade has proven almost impossible. I was closely involved in the most comprehensive effort – the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme – which involves industry and more than 80 governments. The KPCS was a product of NGO lobbying to end brutal diamond-fuelled wars in Angola, the Congo and Sierra Leone. In the process of that campaign, I was the first witness at the war crimes trial in The Hague of Liberian warlord Charles Taylor, now serving the first decade of a 50-year prison sentence.
But when I continued to see diamond statistics, government claims and certificates that made no sense, and when I saw regulators look the other way as a member state used its armed forces to gun down artisanal diamond diggers, I knew I could spend my time more constructively elsewhere.
Diamonds describes the geology, the political economy, the glitz and the hard, calculating rationale behind diamonds. It tells the story of blood diamonds and the attempt to regulate them, and it looks at what future development potential there might be in the dozen or so very poor countries where diamonds are mined.
The Pink Star is only the latest in a series of mysterious diamonds and even more mysterious diamond stories. I have experienced some of them from the inside, and I have written about them in my book,Diamonds.
Ian Smillie currently chairs the Board of the Diamond Development Initiative, a non-governmental organization working to improve the condition of Africa’s 1.5 million artisanal diamond diggers.
He has written extensively on the issue of conflict diamonds and was directly involved in the negotiations leading to the creation of the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme.