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Diamonds: The Real Story
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Diamonds: The Real Story

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By Andrew Cockburn Photographs by Cary Wolinsky

Funneled through secretive networks, these precious gems can carry a huge cost in human suffering.

Read this compelling excerpt, or print the whole story.

“Diamonds are not really a commodity like gold or silver,” a leading New York dealer explained to me 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.”


Associating diamonds with love and emotion has long been the key marketing strategy for De Beers. Fundamental to the campaign is the famous slogan “A Diamond Is Forever”—embracing the twin notions of eternal devotion and eternal value. Sometimes De Beers advertisements are more explicit about the role of its product in the mating game: “Of course there’s a return on your investment,” ran one full-page offering just before Christmas 2000. “We just can’t print it here.”

De Beers may be single-handedly responsible for prompting, in less than a century, American, European, Japanese, and, increasingly, Chinese women to expect the “traditional” gift of a diamond engagement ring as a matter of right. But myths that associate diamonds with love and devotion go back long before De Beers’s marketing campaign.

In Indian mythology gems are considered to have a cosmic power in and of themselves. Astrologers advise clients on which gems to wear in order to alter their destinies, and diamonds, according to one practitioner I consulted in Hyderabad, exhibit powerful effects on love, procreation, and, by extension, immortality.

Given their supernatural powers, it is not surprising that jewels have deep religious significance in India. Thus it was that in a gold-plated Hindu shrine high in the hills above Tirupati northwest of Chennai (Madras), I found a god adorned in diamonds.

The ancient idol, nine feet tall (three meters) and carved of black stone, stood at the end of a narrow passageway. This was Balaji, fast becoming the most popular deity in all India. In the line behind me, stretching back miles, tens of thousands of excited worshipers chanted his name, the sound competing with the roar of nearby machines sorting the donations—destined to be used for the temple’s charitable enterprises—that poured into collection sacks at the entrance.

Balaji wears a colossal shimmering crown of diamonds. It weighs almost 60 pounds (27 kilograms) and contains no less than 28,000 stones. His hands are covered with more diamonds; his ears sport massive diamond earrings. Close by are a diamond-encrusted conch shell and discus, his traditional accessories.

As Nanditha Krishna, an elegant Chennai matron and ardent Balaji devotee, explained somewhat superfluously, “He likes diamonds.” Among other examples, she cited the experience of a friend who had promised Balaji a valuable diamond ring and then thought better of it, only to have the ring violently sucked off his finger and into the collection sack by an unseen force as he entered the shrine.

Deposited in the brimming treasure vaults of the temple, the ring would have joined priceless relics of an era when India was the world’s sole source of diamonds. Southern Indian kingdoms and empires grew powerful on the wealth pouring out of the alluvial mines of the eastern Deccan Plateau, much of which was deposited at Tirupati and other temples as offerings from devout rulers. Their religious obligations fulfilled, kings and princes indulged themselves with exotic jewelry in forms and settings similar to those bequeathed to the gods. Travelers from far-off Europe marveled at the profligate display of wealth at the royal courts. According to one awestruck 16th-century visitor, even the king of Vijayanagar’s horse wore a “city’s worth” of jewels.

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Sights and Sounds
A multimedia slideshow of the world of diamonds, where precious gems adorn the rich, rate fanatical security, and fund bloody wars.

Teun Voeten
VIDEO Watch an interview with photographer Teun Voeten and find out about the “conflict diamond” trade and the hardships of mining. Click here.

AUDIO (recommended for low-speed connections)
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Andrew Cockburn
VIDEO Author Andrew Cockburn discusses possible ties between Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network and “conflict” diamonds. Click here.

AUDIO (recommended for low-speed connections)
RealPlayer   WinMedia

Watch miners, scouring for loose stones, vacuum diamond fields in Namibia.
RealPlayer   WinMedia

Symbols of romance, power, and wealth, diamonds ignite passion and incite war. Why are they so valuable and desirable? Voice your opinion.

Nature reveals its remarkable artistry in this month’s desktop wallpaper.

Buyer Beware
Learn the how-tos of diamond buying and why it's impossible to identify a “blood” diamond.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

According to the Diamond High Council in Antwerp, Belgium, approximately “250 metric tons of rock, sand, and gravel must be processed to yield one carat of diamond.” To put this in perspective, one carat weighs one-fifth of a gram, while 250 metric tons weighs 250,000,000 grams.

—Robin A. Palmer and Jennifer L. Fox

De Beers
On the site of the most powerful company in the diamond industry, find out where De Beers mines are located, learn more about the company’s history, and read the latest press releases about De Beers.

Ekati Diamonds
One way to be sure you’re not buying a “conflict” diamond is to buy one that was mined by Ekati, a Canadian company whose gems are available in jewelry stores across Canada. The site includes a list of these stores.

“A Diamond Is Forever”
The world-famous slogan coined by De Beers provides a title for this site, run by the Diamond Trading Company (part of De Beers). Read about “the four C’s” (what to look for when buying a diamond), and design your own diamond engagement ring.

Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams
Learn about the Hindu shrine to the deity Balaji (Sri Venkateswara), whose statue is decorated with tens of thousands of diamonds. You’ll find detailed information about visiting the temple complex at Tirumala.

Gemological Institute of America
Find guidelines on how to buy a diamond, read articles from the current issue of the GIA’s journal Gems & Gemology, and shop for microscopes, loupes, gem-related books, and more. You can also find out how to become a GIA-certified gemologist or jeweler.

Partnership Africa Canada
This coalition of Canadian and African non-governmental organizations has launched a program to study the diamond trade in African countries. PAC is working to ensure that diamonds are mined legally and openly in these countries so that the diamond industry can benefit, rather than harm, the local population.

William Goldberg Diamond Corporation
Buyer and cutter of the gigantic 265.82 carat diamond featured in the National Geographic story, the William Goldberg Diamond Corporation has an attractive website that includes the tales of other large and valuable diamonds and chronicles each one’s journey from rough stone to polished gem.

Lucent Diamonds
Learn more about the process of making synthetic, colored diamonds as photographed on page 35 in the National Geographic story.


Harlow, George E., ed. The Nature of Diamonds. Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Hart, Matthew. Diamond: A Journey to the Heart of an Obsession. Walker and Company, 2001.

Khalidi, Omar. Romance of the Golconda Diamonds. Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., 1999.

Matlins, Antoinette L., and Antonio C. Bonanno. Jewelry & Gems: The Buying Guide, 4th ed. Gemstone Press, 1998.

Prior, Katherine, and John Adamson. Maharajas’ Jewels. Mapin Publishing, 2001.

Smillie, Ian, Lansana Gberie, and Ralph Hazleton. “The Heart of the Matter: Sierra Leone, Diamonds, and Human Security.” Report published by Partnership Africa Canada, 2000. Available online at


Nathan, Amy. “Gem of the Month,” World (August 1999), 27-31.

Hodgson, Bryan. “Namibia: Nearly a Nation?” National Geographic (June 1982), 754-797.

Ward, Fred. “The Incredible Crystal: Diamonds,” National Geographic (January 1979), 84-113.

Switzer, George S. “The Many-sided Diamond,” National Geographic (April 1958), 568-586.


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