by Conor Friedersdorf
Although it doesn't persuade me to end my long-running campaign against diamonds, I've received a note from a reader in the industry who I can't help but admire. If you must buy a diamond, then by all means get it from this commendable woman:
Until recently I shared Conor's view. I had never been a fan of diamonds, much less diamond engagement rings, and couldn't imagine myself purchasing one. Their tragic history, superficiality, and impracticality were major turn-offs, notwithstanding their geologic magnificence. So as my friends began to get engaged (I'm 28 and part of an über progressive culture in San Francisco) we discussed our options for how to symbolize our engagements in ways that aligned with our ethics. In the process we looked into diamonds.
When I say we looked into diamonds, I mean, we really looked into diamonds. I had spent the last year and a half as a fact-checker at Mother Jones, and I had just finished fc-ing Heather Roger's book Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy Is Undermining Our Environmental Revolution (a good read if you get the chance). Prior to that, I had worked in the certification department at TransFair, the largest US Fair Trade organization. My friends are just as serious as I, so we tore into the industry from every angle, interviewing human rights researchers, diamond retailers, suppliers, traders, manufacturers, cutters, polishers, and the miners themselves. Ultimately we decided that nothing available on the market met our standards for transparency and fairness ("conflict-free" is a joke much akin to "gourmet"). Admittedly our standards were uncommonly high, but there was just nothing we could feel comfortable supporting.
Then we had an idea: What if we did it ourselves?
So we did... for us, by us... so to speak. Having done an immense amount of research, we traveled to South Africa and purchased diamonds from a women's mining cooperative in Lesotho. There we met like-minded folks including a fellow who started a business incubator in Johannesburg that teaches "previously disadvantaged" (which basically means black) people how to start businesses designing and manufacturing jewelry. Soon we began building rings and other jewelry for our circle of friends and family, which they were happy to pay for. Any extra money we took in we committed to investing with a few select (and again extensively researched) nonprofits and microfinance organizations working within mining communities building schools, opening health clinics, rehabilitating old mining land, and more. Through word of mouth, more and more people started to approach us, and we eventually decided to make it real. Last year we registered with California as a social enterprise (a company in business for social good). We call it The Clarity Project.
The Clarity Project has been operating for about a year now with great success. There are three of us who are officially the founders, although many others are involved, and we each still have day jobs (and have still not paid ourselves any salary). Our official mission is to improve the quality of life for artisanal miners. As I've described, we achieve this by selling high-quality (rated "excellent" by NE Gem Lab), fairly sourced (we work with small-scale miners) jewelry, and investing all of our profits back into mining communities. And we've now invested quite a bit, most recently having fully funded the teachers' salaries at a school in the war-torn Kono district of Sierra Leone. But we've gone a step further in order to help navigate the tensions that inevitably arise while running a business: We've decided to make every decision based on what will MOST benefit the miners.
Through this adventure, I now have a much different perspective on diamonds. I see them as holding incredible potential and as a powerful vehicle for funding nonprofits and microfinance programs that are having a tremendous impact by opening new opportunities for miners and their families. For too long, these excessively expensive symbols have only served to line the pockets of European traders and African despots, fueling the destructive cycle of resource extraction that has plagued and marginalized communities in diamond regions for centuries. I now believe diamonds themselves offer a potential solution. There may not be a more emotional purchase in one's life than an engagement ring, and I think we ought to leverage the symbolic power of diamonds to create a more fair world.
Right now The Clarity Project is exceptional as a jewelry retailer and social enterprise. But we'd like to think that perhaps one day, every new engagement ring will build a school. This would be a wonderful new norm, and it's something worth pushing for. As we like to say: Get Engaged!