To Bling Or Not to Bling This Holiday Season

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To Bling Or Not to Bling This Holiday Season

To get to South Africa’s largest diamond district, visitors fly to Johannesburg then drive about 60 miles on dirt roads pockmarked with holes the size of a well until they arrive at Cullinan village. For an in-depth look into the daily routines of a working mine, Cullinan Diamond Mine (owned by the world’s largest diamond producer, De Beers, until 2007 when Petra Diamonds purchased it) tours range from complete five-day tours of the village, to surface tours, to four-hour underground tours. I took the later—complete with hard hat and dust. I learned the intricacies of two types of mining and about working conditions (among the best in African mines. Reportedly, the worst conditions are found in Congo’s diamond mines). Alluvial diamond miners pan surface deposits, riverbeds, where diamonds eroded from pipes are found. Faulty machinery or flooding present the greatest dangers to alluvial miners. Underground miners dig on their hands and knees, backs, or stomachs, typically in confined spaces with very low roofs. Unsecured gallery walls lead to frequent accidents, sometimes fatal. Mine shafts are deep, cold, dangerous. Lighting, very poor. In recent years large mines such as Cullinan and the Kimberley adopted electricity throughout underground tunnels; candles and miner’s caps remain in high use inside stopes and shafts. Unique underground mine dangers include mud rushes, explosion, mine fire, cave-in, or exposure to harmful gases. The Cullinan tour ends with an opportunity to purchase a gem. Leaving the village, I spoke briefly with an underground “shifter.”  According to our translator he said “I can’t think of a worse way to make a living.”

Three years ago when my proposer joked that baring access to the family ring, two inches of twine would’ve appeased my “political correctness,” I understood that he missed the point. These days “PC” verges on faux morals or, as my best friend says, polite public consciousness. My refusal to participate in the purchase or giving of gems is bigger than that. It’s about recognizing that certain people make up the backbone of the gem industry and these people are among the most disfranchised and least protected of workers the globe over. It’s about noting the violation of human rights—including lack of sufficient health care in extremely hazardous work conditions—in employment opportunities that target poverty-stricken communities. And, it’s about contradiction. Ironically, any parent group in an American school district will (rightfully) protest the attendance of their children to asbestos schools; contractors refuse to work on asbestos sites; builders are slapped with exorbitant fines for failing to remove asbestos; yet a symbol of love, or a sign that you’ve arrived (somewhere), is represented by the bling mined by asbestos victims.

(Sidenote: I always loved that Oprah Winfrey hosted her show bare-handed—no stones of any kind—and I cringe whenever she takes to the red carpet draped in diamonds, especially after  opening her school for girls in Johannesburg, a site of great exploitation of miners.)

Here are a few fun facts you should know about bling:

• Since the Kimberley diamond strike (1868), South Africa remains a world leader in diamond production. The break down of global bling production: the southerly region of Africa (including South Africa, Angola, Botswana, Dem. Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone and Namibia) Ghana and Sierra Leone-56%; Russia-23%; Australia-13%; and Canada-8%.

• A South African miner’s average workday: 12 hours, for which he is paid approximately 415 Rand a month ($250.00), or $1/day in Angola and the Dem. Republic of Congo. In small mining communities, diggers don’t receive a wage but are paid in food. Conversely, in large communities in addition to a minimum wage a premium is paid each employee in proportion to the value of the diamonds he finds.

• On average, an underground miner experiences 3 serious accidents in the course of his career.

• Underground miners have the option to receive lungs x-rays on a periodic basis to monitor for the development of disease. Consistently, tremolite-actinolite asbestos fibers are identified in miners’ lungs.

• Tremolite-actinolite opens the door to a plethora of asbestos-related diseases, including asbestosis, mesothelioma, silicosis (a type of lung disease), and/or pleural plaques. According to the article, “The Risk of Asbestos Exposure in South African Diamond Mine Workers,” published in the Oxford journal The Annals of Occupational Hygiene, April 2011, the aforementioned diseases appear with great frequency in the autopsies of miners.

• The families of miners are the most poverty-stricken in South Africa’s industry sector.

• In 1998, the United Nations sanctioned a “monitoring mechanism” to investigate the illegal trade of conflict diamonds or, more bluntly, “blood diamonds” to fund conflict in war-torn areas.

In addition to militia warlords who use diamonds in exchange for arms to fuel Africa's endemic civil wars.

• Women and girls of all races are trafficked (for sexual labor) in exchange for diamonds.

• In 1997, The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions cited child labor on extreme rise in Western India’s diamond industry.

• Diamonds continue to fuel civil wars in Central and Western Africa.

• Countless studies have proven the negative environmental effects of diamond mining.

I still stop to ogle diamond rings on display at Bulgari, DeBeers, Tiffany. They sparkle. They’re pretty. Recently, a Royal Assher ring from the “Stars of Africa” collection made me swoon yet when I recall my time in the mine, consider the working conditions, and think of the cost mining communities pay, I see red, literally.

You’re thinking, but a diamond is forever, precisely the message you want to send to your love. You want her (and her friends and family) to never doubt for a second the value of your love. You have always dreamt of popping the question to the girl of your dreams with a traditional diamond solitaire. Well, you go buy your diamond—just make sure it’s from an ethical network of diamond purveyors like Canada’s Brilliant Earth (check the World Diamond Council’s website, click on “About Us” for a list of members) who have undergone a simple process known as the Kimberley Process. According to the World Diamond Council, the Kimberley Process stipulates rough diamonds are sealed in tamper-resistant containers and have a forgery resistant conflict free certificate with unique serial numbers each time they cross an international border. This process ring-fences conflict diamonds in order to prevent them from entering the diamond supply so that they do not fund any rebel groups. Governments of the exporting and importing countries are responsible for checking all Kimberley Process certificates. Bear in mind that mine working conditions remain dangerous and wages grossly insufficient.

There are alternatives to diamonds. You might consider a different precious gem (inquiring about Kimberley process equivalency) or look to semi-precious stones—lapis, jasper, malachite, amber, etc. Listen to Nina Simone’s “Plain Gold Ring”—fall in love with the voice and the idea. Forego rings all together. Hit the local tattoo parlor; nothing says forever like a little ink.

As we approach the season of resolutions, think before you buy bling. If you’re like me and sometimes feel uncomfortable with some of your material desires, challenge their worthiness by doing a little research. In general, if you want to put an end to craving some truly out-of-budget items or want to stave them off for good, do a little research. (As it turns out, ignorance is bliss and costly.) Maybe by bringing your consumer habits in alignment with that giant-sized conscience, and care for humanity, I know you already possess 2014 will be your best year yet.