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Tom Zoellner Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Tom Zoellner
© Paul Charest

Tom Zoellner

How to pronounce Tom Zoellner: zollner

An interview with Tom Zoellner

Tom Zoellner discusses his book The Heartless Stone - a panoramic and unflinching look at the modern diamond industry which uncovers the secrets behind one of our most luxurious and costly status symbols.

Q: Why are diamonds such a big deal in America?
A: It’s 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. That’s 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 wife’s stone. But this was not a global standard. British men were viewed as more stingy and were told to save one month’s 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 they’re 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 wouldn’t 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 somebody’s 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, it’s 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, they’re pure as a snowflake. They’re 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 them?

A: There’s an old saying in the business: "If diamonds didn’t 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 alive—this 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 there’s 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. They’re just rocks that twinkle under the light. I mean, big deal, right? They are valuable only because we’ve been taught to project our own longings onto them. That’s 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-fiancée’s diamond as some kind of symbol of what the relationship had been and would never be again. And I’m a slobby, beer-drinking guy who had never cared about jewelry before.

Q: After all that you’ve experienced, do you think you’ll ever be able to purchase a diamond again?
A: I understand the appeal. I bought one for someone once. But I’ll never buy another one again.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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