Conflict Diamonds: What Do Consumers Know?

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On a Saturday night in February, Rebecca Houlding was relaxing with some friends in Brooklyn when the conversation turned to wedding engagements. Houlding, a 30-year-old attorney in New York City, had seen the “60 Minutes” piece about diamonds, and she told the group, “if anybody is getting engaged, diamonds are out.”

Her boyfriend chimed in with information about the “60 Minutes” story, and the group — four couples, one of them married — shared their knowledge and asked questions. They wondered, for instance, if it was more or less of a problem to wear a diamond if it was a family heirloom. By the end of the conversation, says Rebecca, “I didn’t get the impression that anyone was still going to get a diamond.”

Houlding and her friends are probably still in the minority in terms of their awareness of conflict diamonds. A 300-person survey conducted last October by MVI Marketing, one week after a conflict diamond segment on ABC’s “Primetime,” found that 93 percent of consumers had never heard the term “conflict diamond.” Seventy-six percent of respondents said they would not buy a diamond or diamond jewelry if they knew it came from a country where production of the stone contributed to social injustice.

But media attention continues to focus on the issue. The “60 Minutes” segment alone, aired on February 18, reached more than 16 million viewers, according to the Nielsen ratings service. And Amnesty International launched a campaign on Valentine’s Day this year, hoping to mobilize consumers to demand change from their jewelers and their legislators. The campaign coincides with the introduction, in Congress, of the Clean Diamonds Act, sponsored by Representative Tony Hall (D-Ohio) and approximately 100 other legislators.

With a “roadmap” assembled for the Kimberley Process — the conference of nations, industry members and civil society that is drafting solutions for this problem — and legislation on the table in the U.S., nongovernment organizations (NGO’s) feel the timing is right to launch campaigns aimed at educating consumers.

“Our goal is to get effective legislation that would cut off access to the U.S. market,” says Adotei Akwei, Africa advocacy director at Amnesty International. Amnesty recently put up a web page, at, entitled “Is There Blood on That Diamond?” The site features an animated video, based on De Beers’ “shadow” ads, showing soldiers cutting off a woman’s arm. In its first weekend, the clip went out to 17,000 people, and Amnesty collected contact information from over 7,000 others who saw the clip. “It’s definitely circulating,” he says. Amnesty has seen especially strong response from its high school and college memberships.

Amnesty has worked closely with Congressman Hall’s office in developing a campaign that can lead to constructive change at the government and industry levels. “We would like consumers to do two things,” adds Akwei. “We want them to go to their local jewelry store owners and ask them what they are doing on the issue, and ask them to push their legislators to act. And we want them to get in touch directly with their congresspeople.”

In addition to the website, Amnesty has organized several leafletting events outside of high-profile jewelry stores like Tiffany and Cartier. Events have already taken place in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco and Chevy Chase, Maryland. Another is scheduled for April 10 in Boston.

The next step for raising awareness, says Akwei, is bringing celebrities onto the campaigns. “They could play a potentially powerful role.” Amnesty has informally approached some celebrities, though Akwei declines to name them.

Several NGO’s commented that they have chosen not to court consumers as aggressively as they could have. Alex Yearsley, a campaigner at Global Witness, one of the five groups that launched the European-based Fatal Transactions campaign, said, “We didn’t really go to the mass media. We could have been a lot worse than we were, but because we’d seen moves from the industry, we didn’t see the need for that. If governments and the industry hadn’t reacted, then the profile of the campaign would have been raised dramatically.” The Fatal Transactions campaign recently received a large grant from the European Union to raise public awareness through conferences, publications and other means.

Yearsley adds that jewelers need reliable information to give to consumers who ask about the provenance of their diamonds. “Jewelers need to be able to give detailed answers as to what efforts are being made” to guarantee that their stones are conflict-free. He cites Jewelers of America’s information packets as a positive step.

“Jewelers, especially in the U.S., are starting to notice that there’s a problem,” agrees Ian Smillie of Partnership Africa Canada. “They can’t say that the diamonds they are selling are clean because they just don’t know.”

Consumers are beginning to pay attention, he adds. “This thing has really caught the media’s attention. Since last spring, almost every major journal or magazine has done a story on this.” He cites a piece by Sebastian Junger in the August 2000 issue of Vanity Fair. “When you get that quality of writer in that kind of magazine, you’re really in diamond heartland,” he says.

None of these NGO’s have collected data to measure the consumer impact of their campaigns, and they are careful to indicate that they are not calling for a consumer boycott. “In all the work that we do, we mention the positive side of diamonds. That’s why we’ve never called for a consumer boycott,” says Yearsley.

“We’ve been trying very hard to steer away from any mention of a boycott or even the threat of a boycott,” agrees Akwei. It’s been a challenging campaign because of that, he says. “It represents a new level of fine-tuning, but we all agree that we need to do that so we don’t ruin a legitimate industry.”

But the nuances of certification schemes and sanctions may be lost on consumers, especially those whose impressions are formed not by the NGO campaigns but by the news media. Karen DeMarco* was planning a major jewelry purchase when she saw the “60 Minutes” show. “I wanted a diamond in the worst way,” she says. But now she can’t forget the images from the amputee camp. “Diamonds used to make me think of Marilyn Monroe, but now I just see a picture of that little girl with her arms missing.”

The Monday after the broadcast, at the public relations firm where she works, “we all talked about it,” says DeMarco, 24. “It was the water cooler topic.” Before the “60 Minutes” piece, she added, none of her colleagues “had any clue” about conflict diamonds.

De Marco and her boyfriend eventually went to Tiffany, where she bought a silver bracelet instead of a diamond. “If there’s going to be any decrease in diamond sales,” she says, “it’s going to come from women. My boyfriend couldn’t care less what he gives me as long as I’m happy.”

The truth is, most consumers get their information from the mass media. And, as Alex Yearsley from Global Witness notes, the conflict diamonds story has “all the elements you need — diamonds, war, pictures of models on catwalks and nasty men with guns.”

“Consumers are learning from these media programs,” adds Deborah DeYoung, senior aide in Tony Hall’s office. “They are being instantly turned off. And that’s the real danger for the industry. If this situation doesn’t get dealt with in an effective way, then people will recoil from diamonds.”

*not her real name

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