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Books | World

August 3, 2006

Deconstructing the 'Diamond Song'

Author Tom Zoellner talks to Gelf about his new book The Heartless Stone, in which he uncovers the PR campaign that has turned diamonds from mere rocks into potent symbols of love and power. He also talks about the future of diamond mining as it (hopefully) moves away from the battlefield and into the lab.

David Goldenberg

Four years ago, while living in Zambia, I met a man from Brooklyn who wanted to buy my car—if it had enough hidden compartments. When I asked him why his vehicle-accessory wish list included concealed spaces, he smiled and said, "Diamonds." The man explained that he had become friendly with an Angolan army officer who had offered to split with him the mineral profits from a recent battle over a mine—provided that the New Yorker would undertake the task of getting the stones from Angola to buyers in the States. So this guy wanted my car to get the gems into Zambia, and—oh, by the way, would I be interested in making some quick cash by taking a few oddly-colored diamonds to a dealer in Harlem?

Tom Zoellner
Author Tom Zoellner
I relate this anecdote to Tom Zoellner, who is unsurprised. After spending a year traveling through six continents to report for his new book The Heartless Stone, Zoellner is well-versed in the seedy nature of the diamond trade, so to him, the propositioning of a writer for diamond mule duty doesn't sound far-fetched. (For the record, I refused.) While researching his book, Zoellner himself was mistaken for a smuggler more than once.

How did Zoellner get into this? He started his investigation after he was left with a ring from a broken engagement. He wondered why he could have such a strong attachment to a rock so long after the relationship it was based on was over, so he decided to look into the roots of the diamond business. What he found was that the stones themselves are not that special. They are naturally deposited in larger quantities and in more places than you'd think (Arkansas, anyone?) and their simple chemical composition means they can be easily (and cheaply) synthesized in the lab.

Diamonds are considered so valuable, Zoellner found, because of one of the most successful PR campaigns in history. Over the last century, the De Beers Company has managed to convince the diamond-buying public that these rocks are rare, precious, and irreplaceable symbols of everything from success to true love. (In the book, Zoellner sometimes takes that symbolism a little too far; he can't resist comparing many of his subjects—including both rebel leader Jonas Savimbi and rapper Master P—to the stones.)

Zoellner weaves an impressive narrative connecting the child soldier in Africa to the child laborer in India to the young actress sparkling on the red carpet. This mythology surrounding the gem—the "diamond song," as he calls it—is at the root of much death and destruction, and we are lucky that Zoellner was intrepid and brave enough to expose how the corrupt industry really works.

Gelf caught up with Zoellner over the phone just as he was finishing up his book-publicity tour in Boston. The following interview has been edited for clarity.

Gelf Magazine: Several times in the book you talk about how diamonds are artificially rare. How do we know that?

Tom Zoellner: We don’t have any idea how many there are still buried in the ground. That's a geological mystery. One thing is for sure: There is no free market in diamonds. This market exists because of artificial scarcity. If diamonds were treated like any other commodity like copper or cobalt or what have you, the price would plummet.

GM: Do you have any idea what that price would be?

TZ: It's anybody's guess. I did not attempt to arrive at that figure in my research. But I don’t think anybody in the diamond industry would say with a straight face that these stones go straight to market for the market price. That's never been the idea with the modern diamond industry.

GM: In your book there's a big section about how diamonds can be made synthetically, which was also the subject of a Wired article a few years back. When I read both the article and your book, I said "Wow, this is really happening." And then I tried to find evidence that this is happening, but I haven’t seen any real results yet.

TZ: It's off the ground. The leading company is making a healthy profit. It's called Gemesis.

diamond ring
Courtesy Wikipedia.org
It don't mean a thing if it aint got that bling.
GM: So why do diamonds still cost the same amount of money if there are these cheaper diamonds flooding into the market?

TZ: This in an industry in its infancy. They're only putting out about 500 carats every month. They're only doing yellows, for a couple reasons. Yellow diamonds are more expensive and the profit margin is greater because they're rarer in nature, but paradoxically it's easier to make a yellow diamond in a machine because of the slight amount of nitrogen impurities that get into that graphite. It's possible to make a colorless diamond in what's called a BARS machine, but it's not economical at this point. However, the technology is only going to get better. What you're looking for—that infinite-supply-driven collapse of diamond prices—may well happen.

GM: So would you suggest to people who own a lot of diamonds to sell now?

TZ: (Laughing.) When I wrote the book, I didn’t want to be prescriptive and tell anybody what to do with diamonds they now own or with diamonds they will one day acquire. I didn’t want to be this sort of censorious tut-tutter. I didn’t want to sit up here on some pedestal and say "Bad people. No diamonds." What needs to happen is a real knowledge of what lies behind the mythology that keeps this commerce alive. It's really this silly little rock. The only thing that makes it anything at all is this grand mythology that's been structured around that. Take that away, and you've got nothing. You've got an empty little pebble. It's the most ridiculous thing in the world.

GM: In terms of this mythology, do you think De Beers has a chance to convince people that these synthetic diamonds—even though they're the same thing, chemically—are actually different?

TZ: You hit on exactly what it's going to come down to. This is going to be the duel of narratives. When I asked the director of external relations for the De Beers Group in London, a guy named Andy Bone, if they were worried about this, he went into a response that was just pure poetry. A pure hagiography of the diamond.

[Editor's note. Here's a sample of the rambling narrative Bone gives Zoellner in Chapter Nine:

[Natural diamonds are] as old as time itself. They are made of the same thing we are—carbon. And when you give one to a woman, it's a symbolic exchange of commitment. You have to remember, a diamond is much more than a physical thing. The physical intercourse between men and women is something without words, and that's what a diamond conveys—something without words. Now take a diamond created by this mysterious process of nature and put it next to one created in a lab in Florida six months ago. Which of these are you going to choose to carry your message? The diamond created in the laboratory has lost the mystery."]

It's going to come down to who can spin the most convincing back story around their stone. If those who make diamonds above ground can make the same sort of romance around that product that the purveyors of diamonds from the ground have been able to do, then, yes: You're going to see a real titanic shift in this industry.

GM: If this titanic shift occurs, what effect will this have on diamond-related fighting in Sub-Saharan Africa—in Angola, Sierra Leone and Congo?

TZ: It will certainly help dry that up. No question. If outsiders stop going into Africa to offer these tempting prices for the stone, then a really efficient funding of civil conflicts will be gone.

alluvial mining
Courtesy Wikipedia.org
Alluvial mining in Sierra Leone.
GM: In the long run, will the fact that these natural resources that these countries have are no longer worth as much going to hurt them?

TZ: You've opened up a real question mark here, and I have been asked this quite a bit. If you took diamond-mining away—let's say you could wave a magic wand and basically strip diamonds from the countries where they have been deposited by nature or by God—would that be a good thing? Certainly in the short run, it would not be, because tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of people would be instantly out of work. One of the only sources for getting out of absolute, grinding poverty in some of these places where alluvial mining is done would be gone. In the long run, however, I do think diamonds have mostly—I don’t want to make a total statement here because diamonds have been used for positive development purposes in a couple of places; Botswana and Namibia are the shining examples—but for the most part this stone has been a real curse for Africa instead of a blessing, and I think that the people who are unfortunate enough to live in some of these areas where there is a sprinkling of diamonds—by the hand of nature or the hand of God—they have been more wounded by them than they have benefited from them.

GM: After writing your book, do you think that it is at all possible to keep the non-blood diamonds from mixing in with the blood diamonds?

TZ: I think it's possible to tighten up the existing system certainly. The existing system is almost more PR than it is an effective tool for ending the blood diamond trade. You can take steps towards eradicating this problem and more can be done, but no, in the long run I'm a pessimist about this. A diamond has been judged to be so valuable by the rest of the world and it is so easy to smuggle and it is so easy to conceal its origin that I don’t think this problem will ever be completely resolved as long as we have this fairly silly obsession with diamonds in the Western world.

GM: Have you heard from anyone in the diamond industry since your book was published? I can't imagine that De Beers was that psyched about your book.

TZ: De Beers did meet with me afterwards, and they wanted me to be aware of everything that they're doing to help end the trade in conflict diamonds. As I said before, that's absolutely true. They have been taking steps to make sure that this issue—I don’t think anyone can ever make it go away—that the trade in these stones is reduced. I appreciated them reminding me of that. They do have to be given a certain amount of credit for acknowledging the issue and stepping up to the plate and making small steps in the direction of trying to end this.

GM: In the book you go from this very journalistic style to this very personal style of writing about your ex-fiancé. Have you heard from her at all since you wrote the book? Was she pissed that you wrote this big book about the diamond that you gave her?

TZ: I sent her a copy but I have not heard from her.

GM: One of the things you talk about a lot is the role that Hollywood has played in terms of hyping diamonds' mystique...

TZ: Hollywood has been a handmaiden of De Beers in this whole thing.

GM: Is that an acknowledged relationship?

TZ: It was a somewhat unadvertised partnership that De Beers had with Hollywood studios and also with screenwriters and Broadway lyricists. And there was their shameless manipulation of the celebrity press. They were masters at making sure that diamonds made their way into these bits and pieces of celebrity journalism.

GM: Do you still see that today?

TZ: Not as much. Certainly the industry—we're going beyond De Beers here—they love to see diamonds portrayed in the popular media: JLo's big six-carat ring; the diamond-coated dress worn by Maria Menounos to the Oscars. Diamonds have always benefited from their association with royalty, and the royalty that we have in this country is our celebrities.

GM: There's a new movie coming out called Blood Diamond starring Leonardo DiCaprio. I saw an article in the Independent that said that this movie is going to be putting the diamond trade in a pretty terrible light.

TZ: They're on the defensive. De Beers announced that they're going to be spending $15 million on a PR campaign to try to save their image from this movie. It underlines a central truth to the diamond trade, which is that image is everything. Instead of focusing this time and energy on correcting some of the root causes, they're going to be focusing on this PR campaign to save their image. In fairness, De Beers has since the late 1990s taken steps to eradicate this trade at the source. They were a big driving factor behind the Kimberley Process—they don’t like blood diamonds any more than you or I or any reader of your magazine does, if for no other reason than it really hurts their image. A diamond depends on that image to be something that people will coo over, that they spend large amounts of money on. If you throw a bucket of blood on that, if you turn it into the mink-fur kind of thing that has a certain social taint to it, then they stand to lose not just their market share but also their entire industry.

GM: But if it's just an image thing, then it's just as good for them to be spending it on PR as to clear up the root cause.

TZ: As a business strategy, it's certainly characteristic of what a smart diamond executive would do. My contention is: Fix the problem where it starts, on the ground in Africa.

GM: One of the things that you talk about in the book is that there have been cultural shifts away from diamonds in Japan in particular. Do you think that's possible in the US? What needs to change for people to say, "We're no longer interested in diamonds as an engagement ring?"

TZ: What happened in Asia was due to the shocks of the Asian financial crisis which convinced the majority of Japanese that they had better things to spend their discretionary income on, particularly where the crucible of people's interest in diamonds is in that time of engagement. In your 20s, when you are making your first major purchases, establishing a pattern for the rest of your life. Young Japanese couples were worried that their jobs might not be as secure as they used to be, and we've got to do something about this. I wouldn’t want to wish a national depression down on us, but I wonder what would happen to diamond purchases if that were to happen.

It could be that the if the industry does not move to correct some of these problems with diamonds being used to fund civil conflicts in Africa, with diamonds being polished by children in India, if some of these really ugly aspects of the industry don’t get cleaned up and if they get enough attention here in the US, it could be that more and more brides will say this is not the kind of mark I want to be wearing on my finger. It is a rock, but really it's the symbolism behind it that makes it worth much of anything.

Kanye West album
Kanye West's album, Diamonds From Sierra Leone
GM: You also talk a little bit about the relationship between rappers and diamonds. You mention that Kanye West has started speaking out about diamonds. Do you see that relationship changing at all?

TZ: As for Kanye, that song Diamonds from Sierra Leone really reflected I think not so much a rejection of diamonds, as a real ambivalence about diamonds. In that, he was sort of speaking for a lot of people in the hip-hop community who have a real double-vision about diamonds. On the one hand, they do realize that these are very potent symbols of success and ostentatious display that you've arrived. But on the other hand, there's an awareness that these stones do come from Africa, and often from not-so-great places. I don’t think the verdict is in on what the hip-hop community is ultimately going to make of diamonds.

GM: One of the things we saw that we thought was cool was that on your book's website you put corrections on there. [Editor's note: Gelf does a quasi-weekly roundup of notable corrections.] Why did you decide to do that?

TZ: I wanted to be transparent about everything. It comes from my background as a newspaper reporter. If you got something wrong, the newspaper was going to highlight it the next day on page A2. If you write a nonfiction book and an error is called to your attention, you need to correct it at the first possible opportunity, which for me is the paperback edition. Those goofs are going to be corrected in the paperback, and it's not perfect, but you want to try to be as accurate as you can be.

GM: The Wall Street Journal did a review of your book, and one of the lines was that your geology was lacking. I believe you actually ended up doing a correction based on it. Did you feel that in general you didn’t have the background for it or they just pointed out one or two facts you messed up?

TZ: I think it was the latter. First of all, I have no geological training, nor have I ever claimed to have any geological training. The Journal was absolutely correct. I am not a geologist. I was relying on the word of the experts whom I was dealing with. Of his contentions, one I'm still investigating; another I'm not going to correct because I heard it from a professional geologist who has a PhD; and the third he did bust me correctly on—I said that a type of diamond in Australia is 16 billion years old, which he pointed out, somewhat amusingly, is older than the solar system. He's absolutely correct. What happened is, I misplaced a decimal point. It's actually 1.6 billion years old. I went back and checked. I deserved to be busted on that one.

GM: Have you seen anything change since publishing that you would add on now?

TZ: The book has only been out two months, but I think the impact of the movie (Blood Diamond] is going to be interesting. The paperback will be coming out next year, and there may be some revisions and updates.

Zoellner, who recently coauthored An Ordinary Man, the memoirs of Paul Rusesabagina—the inspiration for the movie Hotel Rwanda—is about to start work on another book about the mining business. (He won't say which gem he's taking on this time.)

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.







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Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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