Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is another defining moment for the diamond industry.
On March 11, the US government banned imports of Russian diamonds. The sanctions extend to rough from Russia and stones cut and polished in the country. They do not include goods that were mined in Russia and polished elsewhere, which accounts for most of Russian supply.
The more extreme scenario would have been a ban on all Russian-origin diamonds, regardless of where they are manufactured. Such a move may still happen, the Jewelers Vigilance Committee (JVC) warned, which would cut off an estimated 28% of global resources. That polished from Russian rough can still legally be imported to the US presents the industry with a lifeline — or loophole — preventing that consequence.
Many have understandably been calling for a blanket boycott of all Russian diamonds, or to label them as conflict or blood diamonds. After all, Alrosa — the world’s largest rough producer by volume, which accounts for most of Russian production — is 33% owned by the Russian government, which initiated the war.
However, according to the classic definition, these goods cannot be labeled as conflict diamonds as they are not funding a rebel movement engaged in civil war. They’re also not stained by torture or human-rights violations carried out at a mine site.
For now, the diamonds are simply sanctioned in the US. But the crisis certainly constitutes an ethical dilemma for the industry.
It therefore highlights the industry’s traceability efforts over the past few years, and the importance of being able to track a diamond through all stages of its journey from mine to market. The programs try to begin with the mine or country where the rough is recovered, whereas the sanctions account for “substantial transformation,” meaning that the source becomes the location at which the diamond changes its form from rough to polished.
While blockchain technology has enabled an easier tracking of transactions between various stages of the pipeline, no system is foolproof.
De Beers, the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), and Sarine Technologies are among the major players that have developed programs — as is Alrosa. Last year, the Russian miner introduced its provenance program to trace its production using nanotechnology. To its credit, Alrosa has arguably been most open to the idea of advanced diamond-tracking, providing rough for both the GIA and Sarine programs, and joining De Beers’ Tracr platform in its initial stages.
The fragmented nature of the industry effort is arguably necessary as it allows for better branding opportunities, at least in De Beers’ case. A centralized traceability platform, which was Tracr’s original goal, would also create logistical and trust issues regarding who has access to data, among other obstacles.
But the existing programs are in their beginning stages and have their own shortcomings.
The most famous challenge comes from De Beers since the company aggregates, or mixes, production from its various mines in Botswana, Canada, Namibia and South Africa. So, when sightholders want to disclose the provenance of their De Beers diamond, they must reference DTC, the miner’s program that assures those diamonds were responsibly sourced in one of its four host countries. Notably, one cannot market that production as De Beers diamonds due to complications related to the company’s retail brand. De Beers also has its Code of Origin program, launched last year, in which it inscribes diamonds of participating sightholders with a code that identifies it as ethically mined by De Beers.
Aggregation therefore presents a stumbling block for a retailer that wants to give specifics about the mine or country in which the diamond was recovered.
The GIA faces a similar challenge with its Diamond Origin Reports. Its program receives data from the lab’s own analysis of rough before it is polished. The owner of the rough — be it a participating miner, manufacturer, dealer or tender house — sends the stones to the institute, which relies on the supplier’s disclosure of origin. The GIA’s analysis then allows the resulting polished to be matched with its source when it is graded.
That’s fine if a miner directly sends the goods to the GIA. But what happens when the diamonds have multiple sources? For example, a sightholder or tender house might buy De Beers goods and mix them with supply from other miners, and then send the parcel for analysis. In that case, the stones have multiple sources. As a result, the GIA report has been known to list up to seven possible origins of a polished stone in its report.
Sarine claims to have solved the problem by working only with miners willing to scan the diamond into its system at the mine site, thus enabling it to trace its journey from the start.
Sarine also asserts that it is approaching the challenge from a demand angle rather than a supply one, arguably in contrast to the other programs. It is working with retailers to build their sustainability programs from the bottom up. So, if a jeweler such as Boucheron, which announced its partnership with Sarine in January, requires a certain amount of traceable inventory for a collection, Sarine can point to its channels that extend back to the mine.