Tuesday, 14 July 2015

History of Jewellery - Part XVII

There is, you know, a dark side to jewellery, to precious gems. I've long heard the phrase 'blood diamonds' but didn't really know what that was about. I thought maybe it meant something to do with the dangerous business of mining. Susan didn't tell us about those, but rather about pearls. 

Apparently in the time before the technology of making cultured pearls ('farmed pearls') was discovered, slave boys were weighted down to help them get deeper for the larger pearls. Of course, some drowned whilst others died from the bends (internal bleeding caused by surfacing too quickly). Pearls brought up by boys who died had higher value. Sometimes, perhaps if the pearl was big enough and they survived, they might be freed. Charming story, eh?

Consulting Wikipedia, I learned that blood diamonds are AKA conflict diamonds (and their are of course other conflict resources) mined in a war zone and used to fund an insurgency or over-throw of the government. Various countries in Africa are given as examples. In 2000, the World Diamond Conference at Antwerp adopted a system of international certification to allow only import of officially sealed packages of diamonds and to impose criminal charges on traffickers in conflict diamonds. However, apparently the system isn't fool-proof as demonstrated by the Marange diamonds in Zimbabwe, where there are rumours of forced labour, etc.

In more recent years rich diamond sources have been found in Australia and Canada, but the history of diamonds is generally connected to countries in Africa. When you consider the dangers of mining, the great wealth attached to owning mines and the racial inequality that has existed, what do you think might have been the number of deaths attached to gaining that wealth? And what percentage of those deaths do you think were white people? Those ideas don't just attach to diamonds and pearls but to most gemstones, I expect. I think we should all look at our jewellery and consider what its real cost might have been.

We can't talk about the history of diamonds without mentioning De Beers. When I first moved into this house my neighbour was a lovely old lady named Dorothy. I often regret that I didn't spend more time talking with her. She was still quite beautiful in her own serene way, always friendly but never nosy. She told me briefly that she'd been in the WAAF's during WWII. She'd long been a widow when I met her and she mentioned that her husband had been older than she. Also that they had lived for a number of years in South Africa because her husband worked for De Beers; I think she said he was an engineer. I wished I'd asked her more about her life as I imagine she had some great stories to tell...well, some stories, anyhow. 

My favourite diamond ring, Grandma's engagement ring. They were married in Feb. 1913. The centre diamond isn't that large, but it flashes beautifully in the sun (which is in short supply today). I think Grandpa did pretty good, considering he was only 19 when they married!

The name De Beers belonged to the brothers who sold their farmland to Cecil Rhodes. Given that we have Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, Rhodes University in South Africa and the Rhodes Scholarship, funded by his estate, one wonders why the diamond company was named De Beers. I'm sure he had his reasons. I'll spare you all the business details (most of which I don't understand anyhow) but some of the relevant dates are:

1888 - Founded by Rhodes and Rudd. Cecil Rhodes was chairman of the board.
1902 - Rhodes died. De Beers controlled 90% of the world's diamond production.
1927 - Ernest Oppenheimer became chairman of the board; the Oppenheimer's ran De Beers from then on.
1947 - American ad agency working for De Beers coined the phrase "Diamonds are Forever". Equating diamonds and love, the market in engagement rings was thus boosted.
2011 - The Oppenheimer family sold 40% of their De Beers holdings to Anglo-American (which an Oppenheimer started, but later sold), giving Anglo-American 85% ownership. The Oppenheimers apparently decided they wanted out of the diamond business. (Love the link above: Diamonds aren't forever.)

Over its nearly century-long diamond monopoly of the diamond industry, entries for De Beers under 'Legal' on Wikipedia include

  • Sherman Anti-Trust Act
  • South Africa's missing billions
  • Diamond prices (which De Beers controlled by withholding or flooding the market)
  • Industrial diamonds (needed for its hardness and thermal conductivity for grinding, polishing and cutting in industry and science - so not just a pretty rock)
  • European Commission
  • Conflict diamonds and the Kimberly Process
  • Forceful relocation of indigenous San people in Botswana
Sadly, vast money and power do not seem to make people nicer.

On a possible more positive note - though entirely through self-interest - Susan said that De Beers is responsible for keeping the jewellery industry thriving, through grants for new designers.

The best part of Grandma's ring isn't the diamonds, it's the sweet little hearts on each side of the setting.

If you want to know more about diamonds (and why De Beers wanted men to 'surprise' women with proposals of marriage) read on here.

No comments: