Blood Diamonds

June 12, 2023

The movie Blood Diamond helped bring the film’s titular issue, the rise of the conflict diamond, to mainstream attention. While the story itself is fictional, it’s an interesting representation of real-life events in Sierra Leone and other regions.

The movie showed viewers that the jewelry they wear has an impact on the world. From its environmental impact to funding violence in Sierra Leone and elsewhere, the purchase of blood diamonds has unintended and unwanted consequences.

Beyond Leo’s acclaimed performance, the general public might not know much about blood diamonds. What are they? Why are they called “blood diamonds” in the first place? Are there alternatives?

There’s more involved in this than the general buyer may be aware of.

What Are Blood Diamonds and Why Are They Called That?

As defined by the United Nations, these diamonds—also known as “conflict diamonds”—are “diamonds that originate from areas controlled by forces or factions opposed to legitimate and internationally recognized governments, and are used to fund military action in opposition to those governments.”

They’re referred to as blood diamonds because aggression and violence—up to and including kidnapping, murder, civil war, and even genocide—are used to control the production and trade of diamonds. As notes, threats, torture, and murder are routinely used in this diamond trade. The name refers to the blood spilled to mine, ship, and sell the gems, although it also references the ongoing conflicts the trade finances.

Once these conflict diamonds have been mined, cut, and shipped, they appear identical to any other diamond. In essence, they are. The main difference is in how they’re mined and traded.

Where Are Blood Diamonds Found?

While these diamonds have penetrated the diamond trade around the world, they’re mined and sourced from a handful of specific countries where war and conflict have allowed the practice to persist. 

Though containment efforts, which I’ll discuss later, have increased, and even succeeded, in recent years, they’re still illegally smuggled to every country on the planet. Many of them come from the African continent. These include diamonds mined in the following African countries:

  • Sierra Leone
  • The Ivory Coast
  • Republic of the Congo
  • Angola
  • Liberia

It’s also an issue in Zimbabwe and other diamond-rich countries, where humanitarian abuses continue to take place. As Time notes, the African continent is home to 65% of the world’s diamonds. Outside of African countries, a smaller number of diamonds are mined in countries such as Russia, Australia, Canada, and Brazil.

Though most of this is legitimate, the possibility for illegal activity persists as long as diamonds and political conflict coexist in the region where most diamonds are found. Sierra Leone and the Republic of the Congo, in particular, are examples of this continuing illicit trade.

Why Are Blood Diamonds Bad?

As they’re identical to conflict-free diamonds, consumers may wonder why these diamonds are bad. Though the film Blood Diamond fictionalized accounts, it does paint an accurate picture.

Diamond mining in the countries I mentioned has been tied to violence. The trade of such gems finances “militaries and rebel militias,” fueling civil war efforts and funding the perpetrators of atrocities. 

And it’s not always rebel groups. Governments, as well, have been accused of human rights abuses for the sake of diamond mining. Often these diamonds are mined by child laborers, with diamond miners being treated terribly, forced to work in dangerous and inhumane conditions. 

Within the illegal international diamond trade, the BBC highlights how forced labor is routinely used in Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, and more, with mining often taking place in active war zones.

It’s the blood of these innocent and vulnerable victims that the “blood” in the name represents.

In addition to the human costs, conflict diamonds are not harvested using the latest eco-friendly mining methods. Not only are chemicals, including mercury, released into the soil, but landscapes can be irreparably damaged from diamond mining.

What’s Being Done to Tackle Blood Diamonds?

With the worsening status of multiple illegal diamond-related issues worldwide, action was desperately needed to tackle the problem. The United Nations General Assembly has been at work on this for decades. While the issue persists, it’s noticeably improved from decades ago.

Efforts to minimize the effects of blood diamonds endure today. While the trade of conflict diamonds now takes up a fraction of the overall diamond trade, these efforts aim to stamp it out completely by eliminating the revenues generated by its trade, thus removing the financial incentive, and targeting diamond mines tied to blood diamond trade.

The Kimberley Process

The Kimberley Process is a 2003 initiative by the United Nations, the purpose of which is to eliminate conflict diamonds once and for all. The organization reportedly signed up 99.8% of global diamond mines since being established, virtually eliminating the spread of illicit diamonds.

The Kimberley Process monitors diamond mines in key areas and blocks the entry of their products into the market by ensuring that these diamonds can’t be exported from their source country.

It does this by requiring countries with diamond mines to certify where their diamonds come from and that they’re conflict free. A Kimberley Process certification subsequently comes with the diamonds when they’re shipped and sold. The process has been bolstered by the European Union.

Critics of the Kimberley Process claim it is “nothing more than an attempt to conserve the diamond trade, which is unethical at its core,” with mining companies operating in Africa able to ignore economic exploitation of Africans and the diamond industry’s link to colonialism as long as their diamonds are Kimberley Process certified.

But despite these criticisms, the Kimberley Process has been an overall success. By 2009, conflict diamonds made up only 0.4% of the international diamond trade.

Maendeleo Diamond Standards

In Swahili, “maendeleo” means “development and progress.” After years of conflict diamonds funding wars and human rights abuses, the diamond industry was undoubtedly in need of some development and progress.

Established by Resolve, an NGO that focuses on sustainability across a variety of impact areas, the Maendeleo Diamond Standards focus on artisanal and small-scale diamond mines. According to recent reports, there are over 100 million of these worldwide

Because many of “these miners are not regulated [they] are often responsible for environmental, health, and human rights abuses.” In an attempt to regulate the artisanal diamond mining trade, Resolve established the Maendeleo Diamond Standards.

Maendeleo Diamond Standards represent a nonbinding international agreement that focuses on ensuring that diamond mining operations respect human rights, environmental standards, and health and safety standards.

The Maendeleo Diamond Standards demand adherents follow multiple principles, including violence-free and legal operations. Should mines adhere to these, they’re awarded MDS certification, which certifies they’re ethically-produced diamonds.

Ethical Alternatives to Blood Diamonds

The average consumer doesn’t want to fund rebel groups and illegal activities. Finding ethical alternatives to these rough diamonds is a necessity.

Because of efforts taken in the past, especially by the United Nations, this has become quite easy. It used to be that as much as 20% of diamonds had a conflict diamond connection. But now, between the legitimate diamond industry and lab-grown diamonds, consumers have several options for purchasing a conflict-free diamond.

The legitimate diamond industry

With efforts by the United Nations and World Diamond Council—namely the Kimberley Process—the legitimate diamond trade has become increasingly free of conflict diamonds. The majority are now conflict free, with diamond mines being ethically staffed and operated.

The trade employs millions of people worldwide in well-paying jobs free from abuse. Diamond miners are treated well in this industry. They work for legitimate companies and the diamonds themselves are monitored and tracked from the moment they’re mined.

Lab-grown diamonds

Diamond mining is an environmental nightmare, regardless of whether they’re conflict-free or part of the legitimate diamond industry. To ensure environmental sustainability, you should consider a lab-grown diamond for your next diamond purchase.

As the name suggests, these are grown in labs and look identical to their mined counterparts. They also have the advantage of being free from labor and human rights abuses and the funding of civil wars. And the icing on the cake is that they’re cheaper than mined diamonds!

Where Do Ethical Diamonds Come From

Eliminating the “blood” from blood diamonds may not be enough to make the diamond trade sustainable and rule out any morally gray elements of the industry. The introduction of further ethical standards has emerged in an attempt to do so.

Ethical diamonds are a more sustainable alternative to diamonds. In addition to being conflict-free, strict environmental standards and labor laws are enforced in their mining and distribution.

Such ethical enforcement standards include Canada tightening its mining effluent regulation and mining licenses for the mining of Canadian diamonds, though these haven’t proven as effective as previously thought. 

Though rough diamonds from the legitimate diamond industry can be appealing, ethical diamonds go a step further in minimizing their environmental impact. Ethical diamonds are currently sourced in a handful of countries, including Botswana, Namibia, and Canada.

Focusing on diamonds from these countries will ensure that revenues generated aren’t used to fund brutal civil wars. 

Brands that sell ethical diamonds

To be sure where diamonds are sourced from and that they are harvested without exploitation of humans or the environment, consumers should buy from brands that sell ethical and conflict-free diamonds:

How to Identify Blood Diamonds

Identifying conflict diamonds can be difficult. When cut, they look identical to conflict-free diamonds. There are two main ways of identifying the diamonds:

  • The age of the diamond
  • Where the diamond came from

Because the vast majority of new diamonds are conflict free, if your diamond is new, you can be confident it’s not a blood diamond. I recommend avoiding vintage diamonds, as jewelers may not be able to vouch for their source. These days, thanks to UN sanctions and oversight, 99.8% of the world’s new diamonds are conflict-free.

The location the diamond was sourced from will also reveal the likelihood of your diamond being a blood diamond. Conflict-free diamonds come from the countries outlined above, while conflict diamonds come mostly from Sierra Leone, Angola, and the Republic of the Congo, but not only those countries.

Speaking with a jeweler about these factors can help consumers determine whether a diamond is a blood diamond. 

How to Avoid Buying Blood Diamonds

While it’s illegal to buy or sell conflict diamonds, some filter through to the global markets. Given that the proceeds generated from the sale of these gems funds terrorist groups, consumers must avoid purchasing them.

Three main methods should ensure your diamond isn’t linked to civil wars.

1. Buy new diamonds

Opting for new diamonds is an easy and effective way to ensure they’re conflict-free. The United Nations and the World Diamond Council monitor all diamonds from the time they’re mined until they hit retailers.

Thanks to the Kimberley Process, consumers can rest easy knowing that new diamonds aren’t conflict diamonds. Speaking with retailers, as well, can put a potential buyer’s mind at ease.

2. Ask the jeweler

High-quality jewelers have written policies detailing their commitment to buying conflict-free diamonds. You should definitely ask your jeweler about these policies, and any other related questions.

Retailers shouldn’t have a problem detailing how they source their diamonds. If they don’t want to provide certification that the diamond has followed new regulations or if they admit the diamond comes from a questionable source, it could be a blood diamond.

When speaking with the jeweler, consumers should ask the following questions:

  • How can I know for sure that these aren’t conflict diamonds?
  • Do you know where the diamonds you sell come from?
  • Does your diamond have any international certifications that ensure it’s not a conflict diamond?

Getting appropriate answers to these questions will ensure that they’re not conflict diamonds.

3. Buy lab-grown diamonds

If you’re truly concerned about the human and environmental cost of rough diamonds mined from the earth, lab-grown diamonds are a more eco-friendly and sustainable choice. They’re also reportedly more affordable. In short, they make an effective alternative to illegal and legal diamonds alike.

Aside from how they’re sourced—grown in a lab versus mined—there’s no difference between these and traditional alternatives. They have the same chemical makeup and look identical. From all perspectives, they’re the same as traditional diamonds. For more information about lab-grown diamonds, read my complete beginner’s guide to lab-grown diamonds

Lab-grown diamonds are more accessible every day, with many diamond retailers reading the writing on the wall and including lab-grown diamonds in their inventory, or even selling them exclusively. You can learn more about the best lab-grown diamond retailers here

Wrapping Up

Everyone loves diamonds, right? They make great gifts and meaningful heirlooms. But until recently, many diamonds came with a history of threats, torture, and murder. 

Though blood diamonds now make up a fraction of the diamond trade, the revenues generated through conflict diamonds continue to fund rebel and terrorist groups.

While the United Nations and similar groups continue to take action against this with the Kimberley Process, the average consumer must also play a role by knowing how to identify blood diamonds, ensuring you don’t purchase one, and exploring alternative options.