The man who keeps talking about Russian diamonds

Rob Bates

Continuing my resolution to speak to more people I don’t entirely agree with, I was happy to chat at JCK Las Vegas with Tom Neys, head of media relations for the Antwerp World Diamond Centre (AWDC).

Since joining the Belgian industry group in November, Neys has had the unenviable task of trying to convince the world that, post-Ukraine invasion, Belgium should keep importing Russian diamonds. (Russian gems have been excluded from European Union, though not U.S., sanctions.)

I doubt our spirited conversation changed either of our minds, but his thoughts on a rating system for diamonds—reminiscent of the once-unpopular KP Plus—was intriguing.

Edited highlights of our talk follow.

Can you discuss why you think it’s important and why you feel people like me—and now the Kimberley Process Civil Society Coalition—are wrong when we say people shouldn’t buy Russian diamonds?

I’m not defending Russian diamonds. I’m defending the right of companies to choose what they do with their business.

First, there’s the legal aspect. In Europe, it’s perfectly allowed and legal to trade these diamonds.

Secondly, ethically, this is a complicated situation. It cuts both ways. If you stop selling Russian diamonds in Antwerp, that has an impact on thousands of people’s lives and livelihoods.

If we stop trading Russian diamonds in total, you’re going to disrupt the market. And that’s never a good thing. I don’t think it’s up to trade hubs to decide how you’re going to disrupt a market.

The third thing is, if we stop doing this, we know that a lot of more diamonds will go to other trade hubs or will be traded directly. If you stopped trading in Russian diamonds [altogether], you are going to create a new black market, and we will go 20 years back in time—back to a situation where we have no control over what’s happening. And that’s what we absolutely want to avoid. It’s better to have control and see how we can fix the situation than to throw everything away.

You mentioned that it’s legal to import Russian diamonds in Europe. But that’s something that, from my understanding, the Belgian industry purposely lobbied the EU to do. Correct?

We don’t lobby. Even before the conflict started, I gave several interviews where we stated very clearly our opinion [on sanctions].

The European Union has a philosophy on how they implement sanctions. When Ukraine was invaded, it was decided to only implement sanctions when the effects will be bigger for the adversary than for yourself. If you don’t impact [the adversary], that’s not even a sanction, then you’re doing actually nothing. And then you’re just lying to people and saying, “Hey, we trying to do something.” But you’re actually not doing anything.

You have said that if these diamonds don’t go to Antwerp, they will to go to Dubai, which is “opening its doors to Russian oligarchs.” Yet, even if they do go to Dubai, which I think most are now anyway, you might not be stopping the trade, but you at least are making it more difficult. There has to be a reason companies considered Antwerp their first choice.

Of course, because this is a relationship business. Companies want to be in Antwerp. Why? Because it’s a good market, you get the best value for your product. It’s very simple.

I’ve often heard that Antwerp can’t necessarily compete with all the things that Dubai is doing. Why doesn’t Antwerp set itself apart as the more ethical center, starting with this?

I think that is exactly what we’re doing. Putting Russian diamonds on a sanctions list will create the opposite effect. We are thinking long-term, not short-term. We want to make sure that our industry keeps being transparent for the next 20 years. And the problem is, if you’re make these changes you will create a situation where you will have no control over what will be happening in 20 years. And that is very dangerous.

But let’s talk about the short-term, because obviously, people are currently being killed in the Ukraine. The Russian government owns one-third of the dominant miner there, so Russian diamonds contribute directly to the war. When you see the atrocities in Ukraine, doesn’t that give you pause?

It gives us all pause. It doesn’t make a difference, in a sense of what’s our responsibility. And I’m a total believer in the power of the consumer. I’m not pushing Russian diamonds here. I’m saying, let the consumer decide this. And that’s something that companies have an opportunity now to take sides on.

But what I’m [also] saying is, give these companies the opportunity to adapt. If you implement sanctions tomorrow, [they will need to be implemented] in 24 hours. Companies will be stuck.

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Source JCK Online