Lucy’s Diamonds: The Ethics of Modern Consumption

diamonds-1My girlfriend cannot look away from jewellery shop windows. Their lustrous displays hold a startlingly magnetic power over her. One particular item proves more intoxicating than any other – the diamond ring. When quizzed on why she found herself so drawn to this particular carbon compound over all others she was lost for words: “I can’t explain it, it’s just something I’ve always wanted.” The very thought of never receiving a diamond engagement ring made her reel in horror. “It’s just the done thing, it’s how things have always been.” The reality of course is that diamonds are most certainly not forever – quite the contrary. 

De Beers Consolidated Mines, founded in South Africa in 1887, was the catalyst for the canonisation of the diamond into the ultimate object of love and desire. In a bid to keep demand high and prices up, diamonds became deliberately entangled within the relational nexus of love, marriage and eternity. Their relentless marketing was arguably the most successful campaign of modern capitalism – ensuring that diamonds bore the phantom of historical continuity. This kind of historical re-invention reminds us that ‘tradition’ is often a hollow entity, and something that owes its creation more to market values than human ones. This championing of profit over humanity reached its apex in the diamond-based conflicts that raged across Sierra Leone and Angola, gaining increasing international exposure in the late 1990s. 

Soon the inevitable question surfaced: If bling requires blood, how can one justify one’s contribution to the bloodshed? To put a ring on someone’s finger can be at the expense of five fingers of someone involved in the production process. In the modern West it is all too easy for us to forget the sadistic origins of our consumptive desires. For evidence of this one needs only to wander into the nearest supermarket to see our battery-farmed meat clinically packed in tight cellophane and plastic. For most consumers, slaughter should be a bloodless endeavour. Consequently, in a dual bid to assuage the collective guilt of Western consumers whilst simultaneously protecting the image of a 70 billion Dollar industry, the Kimberly Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) was established in 2002 to ensure that the diamond on your fiancee’s finger was sourced exclusively from ‘conflict-free’ areas. The purpose of the KPCS was to stop blood-diamond money from funding separatist groups – intending both to stem the violence and stabilise legitimacy of globally recognised governments. Unfortunately, the KPCS contains an internal paradox that both embodies and reflects the economic power axis that runs between the First and Third Worlds – just because a State is deemed ‘legitimate’ it does not mean that it is not violent or capricious. 

Just as jewellery stores endorse the KPCS logo with redemptive fervour, so do corrupt regimes wear the rubber stamp of ‘UN legitimacy’ as a badge of honour – allowing them carte blanche to mine their diamonds under conditions of slavery, murder, rape and torture. Even with the emergence of synthetic diamond technology – the gemstones are practically indistinguishable – the traditional mining industry has gone out of its way to marginalise this new development, valorising the significance of ‘natural’ production so as to keep prices high. The entanglement between blood and vanity has grown so dense that to wrench this commodity desire from the depths of our cultural repertoire will take some doing – but it is an endeavour that surely must be undertaken.

The ‘white’ market that diamonds occupy is driven by what Marx called commodity fetishism, whereby the object itself has no particular use value but an enormous exchange value. Thus for the industry to maintain its multi-billion dollar status, people must continue to want it. Through its skilfully engineered cultural potency there is no shortage of lust for diamonds. The irony lies in the fact that this white market is in fact  propped up by the unregulated and often cruel nature of diamond mining – hidden from view behind the glossy sham of the KPCS. Much of politics happens when we are dead. Suffice to say, the diamond market will only stop when people are no longer under its spell of enchantment. Abstaining from purchase is the only ethically conscious move I can make, even though I am quite sure that I will never see any real change in my lifetime. Collective change is essential in order to make a difference, but this will require significant foundational shifts in society’s approach to the issue. 

A plea to all men: Don’t put a ring on it!

safe_imageJoshua Burraway is an Esrc funded PhD student at UCL studying anthropology. He is currently researching the politics of intoxication among London’s homeless population.

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