Professional Jeweler Archive: Mission Impossible

February 2000


Mission Impossible

A bill now in Congress aims to thwart Angola’s civil war by requiring country-of-origin reports on diamonds. Gemologists say it’s not that easy

There’s no gemological way to conclusively determine a diamond’s country of origin, say gemological experts. This means a bill U.S. Rep. Tony Hall (D-OH) introduced in November to require country-of-origin documentation for diamonds could be ineffective if passed into law.

The bill, H.R. 3188, is intended to identify diamonds from Angola so consumers can boycott them to protest human rights atrocities in the ongoing war between the country’s government and rebel UNITA guerrillas. Both sides have sold diamonds to finance the war, so boycotting the diamonds would slow the flow of funds to buy arms.

However, diamonds flow across borders easily, legitimately or by smuggling, so gemological identification is the key to making such a proposal work.

Gemologically Stumped

The problem, say gemologists, is that origin can’t be confirmed consistently once a diamond has left a mine. It’s especially difficult once the diamond has been cut. Cutting erases any clues pointing to a source that may have been present in a diamond’s morphology.

“There are two types of rock in which diamonds crystallize: peridotite and eclogite,” says John Koivula, chief gemologist at the Gemological Institute of America, Santa Monica, CA. These two types of rock are found in dozens of locations around the world, and many of the rock formations run through two or more countries. “Even if you knew you could nail the country of origin for 90% of the diamonds, the remaining 10% would render the outcome irrelevant,” says Koivula.

Other geological factors would skew the results even further. Many diamonds are found in alluvial deposits, which means they were carried from their point of origin in water or through erosion.

Even if researchers can point to certain similarities among diamonds in a run-of-mine operation, it still isn’t an exact science, says Andrew Lamont, De Beers’ spokesman in London. Scientists at De Beers’ research center in Maidenhead are looking for gemological ways to separate diamonds by origin. “So far an exact fingerprint identification has escaped them,” Lamont says. “Then there is the logistical aspect: How does one identify the fingerprint in hundreds of millions of diamonds? World diamond production stands at about 25 tons annually – or 120 million carats.”

Not Cut and Dried

Hall’s proposal also calls for certification of diamonds at their source (in lieu of gemological means of identifying the source). But this could unwittingly set the stage for new corruption in countries with already unstable governments. The sale of false certificates could become big business.

And there’s the question of how to deal with the many diamonds in De Beers stockpile bought before the current uproar. Assuming there’s a way to determine country of origin, De Beers would have to test its entire stockpile to separate those from Angola.

“What we’re dealing with are mere hints about a diamond’s origin,” says Martin Haske of Adamas Gemological Laboratories, Brookline MA. “By studying batches of diamonds you might get some clues. But that would still never be enough to make a call with any degree of scientific certainty.”

As American satirist Will Rogers once said: “Communism and prohibition are both good ideas. But they don’t work.” Much the same can be said about this bill in Congress.

– by Robert Weldon, G.G.

Copyright © 2001 by Bond Communications