A Conversation with Tom Zoellner, author of The Heartless Stone
Q: Why are diamonds such a big deal in America?
A: Its now a $25 billion dollar business. Seven out of every
ten American women own at least one. But as it turns out, the idea of a diamond
as a popular luxury item is fairly new in this country. A magazine advertising
campaign sponsored by De Beers created the consumer desire just a few years
before World War II. They sought to make diamonds not just rare, but
essential for every man seeking to get married. Famous painters such as
Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali were commissioned to create landscapes next to
advertising text that had a strange fixation on death, of all things. But De
Beers tried to plant this subtle idea that diamonds are a kind of shield against
mortality. "Diamonds are the most imperishable record a man may leave of his
personal life," said one of the ads. Thats part of the source for the famous
slogan they eventually cooked up in 1948: "A Diamond Is Forever." A phony
"tradition" was also established: a groom must spend two months salary on his
wifes stone. But this was not a global standard. British men were viewed as
more stingy and were told to save one months pay. The Japanese, seen as more
obedient, were told three.
Q: Who is De Beers and what does your book say about them?
A: De Beers Consolidated Mines, based in Johannesburg, South
Africa, has dominated the industry for more than a century. It was founded by
the imperialist Cecil Rhodes, who managed to corner almost all of the mining
claims in South Africa in the 1870s and thus make diamonds "rare" when theyre
really not. If there was ever a truly free market in diamonds, these stones
would cost a fraction of their current price, so no free market could be allowed
to exist. This philosophy has kept jewelry prices sky-high ever since. Despite
new discoveries in Canada and Australia, De Beers still has enormous amount of
control over the diamond trade. DeBeers influences every diamond purchased in
the world in some way or another, and yet so little is known about them and how
they do business. This book is really the first to explore the history and inner
workings of the organization in a complete fashion.
Q: What inspired this book?
A: A lot of it was because of the weird relationship I had with
the diamond ring left over from a broken engagement. I was pretty depressed and
found myself dealing with the heartbreak in an odd sort of way. I became
slightly obsessed with the ring my ex-fiancée gave back to me. The thought of
selling it was too hard to contemplate. But at the same time, I knew it was only
a polished piece of carbon and I had never been very interested in jewelry
before. So why did I care so much about this ring? Finding the answer to that
question took me around the globe.
Q: The reporting took you to six continents. What did you find?
A: I met some people I will never forget. Many of them were
working in the most obscure places you could imagine dingy factories in India,
distant hilltops in Brazil, villages in Central Africa, warehouses in Siberia,
mining camps above the Arctic Circle. The stories I heard were incredible.
Diamonds have made fortunes and ruined lives in places you wouldnt expect.
Q: Were there some dangerous moments?
A: There were a few occasions when I was mistaken for a diamond
smuggler. I was arrested and briefly detained in a central African country for
reasons that were unclear to me at the time. I got feverish and sick from bad
water. But other than that, it went pretty smoothly.
Q: What are "blood diamonds"?
A: These are diamonds that are mined in violent places and used
to buy guns and landmines. Children are also forced to pick up shovels and dig
for stones that eventually will become a part of somebodys wedding ring in
America. At one point not so long ago, nearly one in six of the diamonds sold in
this country had probably come from such circumstances. The problem is, its
impossible to know. De Beers and the rest of the diamond industry have taken
steps toward correcting the "blood diamond" problem, but the solution they
devised, known as the Kimberly Process, is full of flaws and loopholes. And so
diamonds with violent pedigrees are still being sold as "symbols of love" in
America, and the consumer has no way to know about it. One of the biggest
problems is that it takes a formal state of war to trigger a sanction against a
diamond-producing nation. But several regions in Africa are permanently
unstable, with people being robbed, beaten and killed around the mines every
day. The workers often have to swallow the bigger diamonds to smuggle them out,
and people are sometimes sliced open like fish so their intestines can be
searched for hidden stones. Those are very bloody diamonds, but so far as the
industry is concerned, theyre pure as a snowflake. Theyre under the glass
right now at your local shopping mall. future projects?
Q: If diamonds can be so unsavory, why do people continue to buy
A: Theres an old saying in the business: "If diamonds didnt
exist, we would have to invent them." This book goes deeply into the psychology
behind the desire to wear a brightly colored stone. I think it goes straight to
the heart of the experience of being alivethis urge to possess and coexist with
a sliver of perfect beauty. De Beers and the rest of the industry have built a
brilliant mythology around this simple urge. And so theres this collective myth
about diamonds in American society, in Japanese society, in European society, in
just about every place that diamonds have been marketed. The ironic thing is
that diamonds are fundamentally worthless. Theyre just rocks that twinkle under
the light. I mean, big deal, right? They are valuable only because weve been
taught to project our own longings onto them. Thats the REALLY interesting
thing about diamonds: the way they become these little sparkling holding devices
for our own primitive emotions and hungers. I experienced this myself in a very
personal way when I found myself mythologizing my ex-fiancées diamond as some
kind of symbol of what the relationship had been and would never be again. And
Im a slobby, beer-drinking guy who had never cared about jewelry before.
Q: After all that youve experienced, do you think youll ever
be able to purchase a diamond again?
A: I understand the appeal. I bought one for someone once. But
Ill never buy another one again.