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Diamond shoppers increasingly seeking "ethical" gems

From coffee to clothing, "Fair Trade" shopping offers consumers a chance to make a difference with their purchases. That practice also includes an expensive luxury item.

In making what is for most the largest gift purchase of a lifetime, the holiday diamond shopper reviews a series of key concerns: price, clarity, cut, price. And in recent years, the ethics connected to a diamond's origin have become a growing consideration.

According to University at Buffalo assistant professor of geography Trina Hamilton, the buying public became aware of the ethics of diamonds after news emerged from the civil wars in African nations like Sierra Leone and and Angola, where violence was funded by the sale of diamonds. Precious, expensive jewels earned the dubious name of "blood diamonds."  

"That was the initial concern. Almost at the same time, diamonds were found in the far north of Canada. So then you had this contrasting where people said let's sell and buy Canadian diamonds. We believe the Canadian government is looking after these environmental and social issues. You started getting a boycotting of all African diamonds. All of Africa was painted as a source of Blood Diamonds even though those wars were limited to a small handful of countries within Africa."

The United Nations established the Kimberley Process which was used to certify that diamonds were not used to finance violence. Hamilton says retailers sought the certification to market their diamonds, but some doubts remained over the commitment to sell only ethical diamonds. So, Hamilton conducted a survey of some retail claims.

"So our survey showed about half of the companies marketing themselves as  "ethical" just met that minimum standard. There are these other companies going beyond. I think there's a problem with saying "Canadian diamonds, you can be 100 percent guaranteed there's no conflict" because there is conflict even within Canada. Some of these diamond mines are in regions with indigenous populations, some of whom support the economic development and others who believe it's going to harm their traditional lifestyles and cultures. As with buying anything, I would be weary of 100 percent guarantees that there is no conflict. That said, I do think there is benefit in trying to have our money do good. That's why I say if you can find a retailer that's going beyond conflict free and is really trying to develop an alternative sort of trade, I do think that's useful."

According to Hamilton, as civil wars were settled, retailers once again began purchasing and marketing diamonds from many African nations. And with that ethical standards have been raised.

"Now we have seen some of those same retailers, some have switched, and now are saying we believe that diamonds from Namibia, Botswana, even from certain mines in Sierra Leone, are what they consider "Development Diamonds," so they're going to help contribute to rebuilding and development in some of these countries. Some of them are offering Canada plus these others, others have switched totally to just offering African diamonds. Now, you've got lab-created diamonds, which are synthetic diamonds, re-cycled or "upcycled" diamonds. There's really been a proliferation of new meanings of ethical diamonds."

That development has given the ethical consumer more to consider.

"It's really difficult to do a  strict comparison because if anyone has done diamond shopping they know there's all these different sees for color and clarity so it's really difficult to compare one diamond to another. But there is a general sense that there's an ethical premium as there is with other so-called Fair Trade products.That said there are recycled diamonds where you can have an antique diamond put into a new setting, which might be more cost-effective. But in general the idea is that consumers have to pay more so their money can does more on the ground."


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Jay joined Buffalo Toronto Public Media in 2008 and has been local host for NPR's "Morning Edition" ever since. In June, 2022, he was named one of the co-hosts of WBFO's "Buffalo, What's Next."

A graduate of St. Mary's of the Lake School, St. Francis High School and Buffalo State College, Jay has worked most of his professional career in Buffalo. Outside of public media, he continues in longstanding roles as the public address announcer for the Buffalo Sabres of the National Hockey League and as play-by-play voice of Canisius College basketball.