Correspondent Dominic Cunningham-Reid speaks with diamond miners in the West African nation of Sierra Leone, a country emerging from a ten-year civil war. A serendipitous product of the enormous heat and pressure exerted upon graphite deep beneath the earth, diamonds are the world's most sought-after stone. Despite their role as an international symbol of love and affection, diamonds have financed the brutal civil war in Sierra Leone and other African countries.
“Diamonds are not really a commodity like gold or silver,” a leading New York dealer explained one day. “You won’t buy a stone from a jeweler and then sell it back to him for the same price—he’s not going to give up his profit. But they are definitely the easiest way to move value around. I know a guy who had to leave Iran at a moment’s notice during the revolution there. No time to sell his house or get to the bank, but he had time to pick up 30 million dollars’ worth of diamonds and walk away.”
“They are a form of currency,” remarked Mark van Bockstael of the Diamond High Council in Antwerp. “They back international loans, pay debts, pay bribes, buy arms. In many cases they are better than money.” Monrovia, capital of Liberia, for example, is known as a mecca for money launderers seeking to turn questionable cash assets into diamonds that can then be easily moved and sold elsewhere. There have been unconfirmed reports that Osama bin Laden’s terrorist organization, al Qaeda, made use of this operation.
As van Bockstael expounded on his favorite subject, we were strolling to lunch from his office in the city’s diamond district, the heart of the world’s diamond bazaar. Eighty percent of the world’s rough gem-quality diamonds are traded every year along three short streets next to the Antwerp railroad station. The Antwerp district has extensions in many cities: West 47th Street in New York, London’s Hatton Garden, the high-rise offices of Ramat Gan in Tel Aviv, not to mention the Opera House district in Mumbai (Bombay) and the other “diamond cities” of India, where, in a union of modern technology and cheap labor, 800,000 workers craft stones weighing a fraction of a carat into polished gems. Each of these business centers revolves around personal contact and connections, thrives on rumor and gossip, and cherishes secrecy. Multimillion-dollar deals are clinched with a handshake and the word mazal, Hebrew for “good luck.” “So many secrets,” sighed van Bockstael as we skipped to avoid a cyclist in a long black coat and a broad, flat, fur-trimmed hat. “Nothing is what it seems in the diamond business, and half the time you don’t even know if that’s true.”