The Dark Side of Diamonds

Read an Excerpt

They sparkle, they shine, they're supposed to be a girl's best friend. They also fuel bloodshed and social strife around the world. Author Tom Zoellner writes about the sometimes-violent path that diamonds take from mine to glass case, in a new book called The Heartless Stone.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Michel Martin, in Washington. Neal Conan is on assignment.

Quick, name the cliché: They are a girl's best friend. Diamonds are forever. Bling-bling. If you have one, if you want one, you know diamonds carry heavy emotional freight. They are a symbol of love, of success, of status, of tradition. But as many of you also know, it has become increasingly clear that diamonds also exact a heavy human toll.

The way diamonds have been used to fuel civil conflicts in Africa, as well as the horrible conditions often experienced by mineworkers, has become a part of the public consciousness. Public outrage has been stoked by reporting and by popular songs like this one called Diamonds from Sierra Leone by rappers Kanye West and Jay-Z.

(Soundbite of song "Diamonds from Sierra Leone")

Mr. KANYE WEST (Rapper): (Singing) See, a part of me is saying keep shining. How, when I know of the blood diamonds? Though it's thousands of miles away, Sierra Leone connects to what we go through today. Over here, it's the drug trade. We die from drugs. Over there, they die from what we buy from drugs. The diamonds, the chains, the bracelets, the charms...

MARTIN: Diamonds are also - let's face it - perhaps the biggest hustle on the market. Most people know that diamonds are no longer rare, and prices would fall dramatically if suppliers, mainly the giant De Beers cartel, loosened their control over the market, and yet we continue to pay exorbitant prices for them.

New brides crave them. Men still feel compelled to keep giving them, but we still know little about them, especially about the journey that diamonds take from mine to glass case. In a new book called The Heartless Stone, author Tom Zoellner shares the journey he took when he asked: Where diamonds come from?

This simple question took him from the streets in conflict-ridden Angola to the farmlands of Arkansas to the freezing polar north in Canada to Siberian synthetic diamond factories and more.

Later in the program, Lebanese playwright Lina Khoury wrote a play inspired by The Vagina Monologues, a word she cannot even say in public in her country. It's playing to packed houses. How did she do it?

But first, the journey of a diamond. We're taking your questions about diamonds, where they come from, how they get here, who's involved. Do diamonds mean anything special to you, and why? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our email address is talk@npr.org.

Tom Zoellner is author of The Heartless Stone: A Journey Through the World of Diamonds, Deceit, and Desire. He joins us from the studios of NPR's New York bureau. Welcome, Tom.

Mr. TOM ZOELLNER (Author, The Heartless Stone): Thank you. Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Speaking of deceit and desire, why do diamonds mean so much to us even today?

Mr. ZOELLNER: Well, the really interesting thing about diamonds is the way that this mythology has been constructed around them, this mythology that's been built up by a sustained advertising campaign by the De Beers, the De Beers cartel, and ...

MARTIN: Now, I'm assuming that diamonds were once rare because we see them in royal jewelry around the world. You know, we see them in the jewelry of royal families, you know, in India and in, you know, of course, in Europe. So I'm assuming that they were once rare.

Mr. ZOELLNER: Yes.

MARTIN: At least they were believed to be rare, because they were just hard to get, but they'll, and I am right, I assume, to say they are not, in fact, rare.

Mr. ZOELLNER: They are not, in fact, rare. The market depends on artificial scarcity.

MARTIN: So why do we continue to fall for the hustle?

Mr. ZOELLNER: Well, that's a very good question. It comes down to really the mythology that's been constructed around them, this notion that a diamond is the ultimate symbol of money, power and love, and that we need to have this when we get married. There's 1.7 million American couples that go out to shop for engagement rings every year. It's almost a cultural imperative.

MARTIN: When did it become so?

Mr. ZOELLNER: In the United States, this really only began in 1938 when the De Beers organization of South Africa began a brilliant advertising campaign in major American magazines in which this idea that you must have a diamond to get married was promulgated, and it entered the culture almost by slight of hand.

MARTIN: What was the key to it? I mean, how did they do it?

Mr. ZOELLNER: Well, these ads were so interesting. You know, I went through many of them in the course of researching this book, and they all harped on very strange themes, you know. I recall several that told the viewer that they were going to die soon, and that a diamond was the only way to preserve their immortality.

MARTIN: No way.

Mr. ZOELLNER: Or that their marriage...

MARTIN: No way. They said that you would die.

Mr. ZOELLNER: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: What was it like Coca-Cola, that it was actually medicinal?

Mr. ZOELLNER: Yeah, that the diamond was your way of essentially carving your name upon the surface of the world, that the stone would outlive you. And not only that, but that the stone, the brilliance of the stone would outlive your marriage, which was certain to get dull and without thrills; and so the way that you preserved these feelings was to buy that diamond. And so this idea was - it became a part of American culture very quickly after this advertising campaign.

MARTIN: How quickly?

Mr. ZOELLNER: Well, before 1938, engagement rings really did not feature a diamond as an imperative. You know, they were either plain bands or they featured many stones, among them diamonds, but it was De Beers that really inculcated this idea that it must be a diamond.

MARTIN: A diamond per se, not an emerald, not a sapphire...

Mr. ZOELLNER: No, only a diamond.

MARTIN: ...not a ruby, not that I know anything about it, of course, but… Your decision to write this book was also sparked by a rather painful episode in your own life.

Mr. ZOELLNER: Yes.

MARTIN: Do you mind talking about it?

Mr. ZOELLNER: Oh, not at all, no. I was one of those 1.7 American men who go out to shop for an engagement ring, and this was when I was engaged. And at the time, I knew very little about the diamond industry, only the four C's: the color, cut, clarity, and so forth. And it was only after my engagement fell apart that I really began to wonder about the diamond and why I had such a hard time getting rid of it and why I had sort of inscribed the mythology of that lost relationship upon the diamond.

MARTIN: And when you say getting rid of it, do you mean both emotionally and as an object of value that really didn't have the value that you thought it did? Was it in the sense that you didn't want to give it away or sell it, because it was freighted with the kind of the history of the relationship; or was it that you couldn't sell it because, hello, it wasn't worth very much?

Mr. ZOELLNER: Yeah, yeah. Anyone who buys a diamond in the United States and then attempts to resell it is in for a nasty surprise. That's exactly true. It really wasn't that, though. It was more, you know, the way that I had written all of my feelings for my ex-fiancé upon this rock and, you know, that's really the heart of why the diamond industry is the way that it is today. It's because of that mythology that exists in our culture and that exists in every person. And De Beers has understood brilliantly the way that, you know, that we have this almost unconscious impulse to write meaning on inanimate objects.

MARTIN: Let's go to a caller in Brookfield, Wisconsin, and Dennis(ph). Dennis, what's on your mind?

DENNIS (Caller): Well, I have a couple of things. First of all, getting off a little bit, he had mentioned something about not being able to sell the diamond. I'm in the business, and I always tell people, no matter what they buy from me, that diamonds are for personal adornment, whether it's engagement or anything else. It's not for resale. It's for personal adornment.

But the real question that I wanted - or what I wanted to say for calling is, I have notes with all of vendors that say we will not knowingly buy conflict diamonds from anyone or blood diamonds, or whatever they want to call them.

But I understand in the industry, it's virtually impossible to trace a diamond from its inception, when it was taken out of the ground, and to have it finally end up in, let's say, Brookfield, Wisconsin, or New York, or Washington, or whatever it is. So, I guess my question to him is: how does he know he could track them from beginning to end, and know that it's positive. And I'll take my answers off the air.

MARTIN: Dennis, thank you.

DENNIS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Well, Dennis has had a couple things, that, to tell us. One is, I think he's trying to do the truth in advertising thing, which is to say, you know, your diamond loses its value the minute you drive it off the lot, which I think is probably a very nice thing for him to do. But he's also raised the issue of conflict diamonds. So why don't you just bring us up to speed on what are conflict diamonds? Why do we call them that, and what is the significance of that to the market today?

Mr. ZOELLNER: Conflict diamonds are also called war diamonds or blood diamonds, which is a very visceral title for it. But I found it to be entirely accurate. What happens is, the unique qualities of a diamond that make it so valuable, you know, there's no better way to pack a lot of money into a tiny space, than a diamond.

And so Africa, the continent, is either blessed or cursed, as some say, with an abundance of these diamonds. And so when rebel groups attempt to overthrow governments, they often find that diamonds are an excellent way to finance that revolution. And so these diamonds, which make their way to the United States, eventually, may well have been bartered for machine guns, land mines; they may have been mined by children.

The industry, as Dennis points out, has taken steps to try and ameliorate this. But these changes have been somewhat ineffective. It's a step in the right direction, but the problem still does exist.

MARTIN: Is this one of those social ills that have always gone on, but that our consciousness of it has changed in recent years? Or is the use of sort of diamonds to fuel civil conflict a fairly recent phenomenon?

Mr. ZOELLNER: Well, diamonds have been smuggled and used as sources of illicit income almost as long as the idea of the diamond has been in world culture. And that started in India, actually, in about 600 A.D. The diamond has -malfeasance and perfidy and violence have always trailed diamonds, like a mist.

And this goes on today in not only actual civil wars in Africa, but also low-grade conflicts that go on in nations that are technically at peace, but still are quite violent and restive.

MARTIN: There has been an effort by the industry, I'm assuming due to public pressure, public awareness, to avoid being a part of this, to avoid allowing...

Mr. ZOELLNER: Yes.

MARTIN: ...their trade in diamonds to be used to fuel these conflicts. What is the process by which the industry has tried to address this, and do you think it's actually working?

Mr. ZOELLNER: Well, it's called the Kimberly Process, and it's well intentioned. It's a step in the right direction, certainly. And what it says is that diamonds have to come with a certificate stating that they were not mined in a war zone. But in the course of researching this book, and particularly in Africa, I found glaring holes in this process. I mean, the first has to do with the poorest nature of African borders, that it's very, very easy to move one diamond to - from one nation to another, without proper paperwork or documentation.

The other major flaw, which I think I've already highlighted, is that there are these, you know, sort of mini wars taking place in regions of African countries, which are technically at peace. And so these diamonds can be very, very bloody, even though, under the Kimberly process, they're considered "clean".

MARTIN: We're talking with Tom Zoellner. His new book is called, The Heartless Stone: A Journey Through the World of Diamonds, Deceit, and Desire. And we're taking your calls at 800-989-TALK. You can send us email; the address is talk@npr.org I'm Michel Martin. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of Music)

MARTIN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Michel Martin, in Washington; in for Neal Conan, who's on assignment.

We're talking about diamonds. They're beautiful, eye-catching and marketers tell us they're synonymous with love and commitment. But there is a darker side. Our guest is Tom Zoellner, he wrote The Heartless Stone: A Journey Through the World of Diamonds, Deceit, and Desire.

You're invited to join the discussion, give us a call at 800-989-TALK. Our email address is talk@npr.org.

Now, we started our conversation, Tom, with the desire part of our relationship with diamonds. I'd like to talk about the journey that you took to learn about diamonds. I mean, you went to some fascinating places. You've been to the Central African Republic, to Brazil, to India. I'm fascinated by the fact that 92 percent of the world's diamonds are processed in India. What - how did that happen?

Mr. ZOELLNER: It's really an amazing story. And it's all about - it ties in with globalization. What had happened was a large vein of diamonds opened up in Australia, and De Beers, as it is want to do, jumped on it immediately and co-opted it and signed marketing agreements and had it under its control. And, after a fairly unhappy relationship, the Australians decided we've had enough of this. We're going to market our stones outside the control of the Cartel, which, you know, was fairly unprecedented in history.

And so what happened was they needed a place to process these diamonds and they found India, which was really a brilliant stroke. India is the world's heaven of low cost labor. And they were able to find a place where their fairly dingy color diamonds could be cut and polished for a very low price.

And in India, you see remarkable things. You see diamonds the size of strawberry seeds, a quarter of the size of strawberry seeds, and they're intricately polished. And it's quite amazing. The really unfortunate thing about it is that this is almost an entirely unregulated industry. And despite its attempts to eradicate child labor from this industry, it still goes on.

MARTIN: You met - the people you met in Brazil and the Central African Republic describe searching for diamonds as sort of an addiction, kind of like playing the lottery that it could just - it could change your whole life. How does that work?

Mr. ZOELLNER: Yeah, it's really a casino economy. I mean, these guys often do not get paid for their work. They get paid only if they, you know, see the magic twinkle of the diamond coming up from the gravel that they're washing. And it's just an incredibly hand-to-mouth existence. And it can be very brutal, particularly in places where these sort of mini civil wars are fomenting.

MARTIN: And Japan, apparently, has also been infected with diamond virus. The women there who - for whom diamonds had no place in the culture, have become apparently as committed as Americans to having them. It's become essential to the wedding process there as it is here. How did that happen?

Mr. ZOELLNER: That was an amazing story. And that began in the late 1960s, when De Beers took the same advertising strategy that had worked so well in the United States during the depression. They took it to Japan and inculcated this idea that, hey guys and hey ladies, if you don't have a diamond, your marriage just really isn't real. And this idea caught like wildfire.

And so Japan went from a place where no one would ever think to give a diamond - because it just wasn't a part of their traditional culture - to a place where up to 90 percent of Japanese brides were now sporting diamonds rings. And this happened in the space of 20 years. And it was just this amazing, amazing cultural turnaround.

MARTIN: Is there any evidence that diamonds are falling out of favor in the United States or in Japan, in part because of the publicity about the story behind them and what people go through...

Mr. ZOELLNER: You know...

MARTIN: ...to get them.

Mr. ZOELLNER: That is a very good question. In the United States, there is some awareness of the link between the sparkle, if you will, and the tremendous violence that takes place around the diamonds in Africa, and has historically taken place. This is really nothing new. I saw a survey that 30 percent of people in the United States recognize the term blood diamond. You know, whether they were prepared to make a consumer decision about it or not was yet to be seen.

The industry in Japan has not fared so well, although it has nothing to do with any political reasons. It has everything to do with different priorities among Japanese couples.

MARTIN: Let's go to Florence, Kentucky, and Joseph(ph). Joseph, what's on your mind.

JOSEPH (Caller): Well, back when I got engaged, my wife basically told me, she really didn't care about a ring that much. And when I finally said that you really needed a ring, it was a symbol and all this kind of stuff. She said, that's fine, but if you waste the money on a diamond, I'm going to kill you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So she was a keeper.

JOSEPH: Yeah, yeah, we've been together for 15 years now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You - so you were the guy that had to have the ring. Why? Were you afraid that you couldn't hold your head up in public if she didn't...

JOSEPH: No...

MARTIN: ...have something sparkly on her finger?

JOSEPH: ...I just thought it was kind of a traditional symbol, you know, and I thought it was, you know, just - not saying she was mine per se, but you know, that - you know, to show that we really were engaged, you know?

MARTIN: Did you - was her resistance to the diamond because she knows that it's a scam. That they're really not as valuable as they pretend to be? Or is she just not a very fancy person?

JOSEPH: No, no she just - actually she thinks diamonds are kind of ugly.

MARTIN: Okay, she is special.

JOSEPH: And, she just felt like we could use the money for something else better.

MARTIN: Just be sure to keep her away from my husband, because I am not of that view.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What did you - did you wind up getting her a ring at all?

JOSEPH: Yes, I did...

MARTIN: What's that?

JOSEPH: ...we ended up with a, with a solitary amethyst, which of course costs, you know, like about 10 hundred times less.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And she loves it?

JOSEPH: She loves it.

MARTIN: Okay, great. Thank you, Joseph.

Mr. ZOELLNER: Well, what he said actually goes to, I think, to the heart of the book and also to what sustains the diamond empire. And these messages, these advertising messages really, surprisingly, are aimed at men.

There was a De Beers survey, which stated that three times as many men as women would forsake other financial considerations, like, you know, furniture for the new home, mortgage, payments on the car, for the sake of buying a bigger diamond ring. And so, this is the way that men will create meaning around their engagement, and express the - find sort of a shape for the messy feelings of love that they're so often unable to articulate.

MARTIN: You know, an email correspondent has asked a question, Tom, that speaks to this point. And Kathy(ph) in Madison, Wisconsin, says:

(Reading) “That a long time ago, advertisers said that a man ‘should,' in quotes, spend one month's earnings for the diamond he purchased to show his love. And I remember an ad, a little bit ago, where a man should spend two months earnings for that diamond. What is the going should now?"

And Kathy doesn't specify whether she's in the engagement process. But what's the going should now, is there one?

Mr. ZOELLNER: Yes, I mean the should - it sounds like a quant Victorian custom, you know, almost something out of Charles Dickens, that a man ought to spend two months of his salary for a diamond ring. But really, I mean that's entirely (unintelligible). That idea, you know, was cooked up only - in order to give guys kind of an index as to how much they ought to be spending for their ring...

MARTIN: Just all part of the advertising hype?

Mr. ZOELLNER: All part of the hype. And the interesting thing about it is, you know, Americans are told two months, but De Beers ads in Great Britain advise a man to spend one month. And De Beers ads in Japan advise a guy to spend three months, so...

MARTIN: Whoa.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ZOELLNER: ...sort of a cultural sliding scale, if you will.

MARTIN: Oh my goodness, those flinty British.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: They can't be expected to pony up, is that it?

Mr. ZOELLNER: I have no idea...

MARTIN: Oh, my goodness.

Mr. ZOELLNER: ...why it was calibrated that way.

MARTIN: Let's go to Glouster, Ohio, and Kate(ph). Kate, what's your question?

KATE (Caller): Yeah, hey thanks for focusing on this issue. But, you know, in the 70s, many of us were involved on college campuses with the anti-apartheid movement. And, at that point, I remember reading about how the diamond industry supported apartheid and so I wanted to ask your guest, did the anti-apartheid movement help shed light on the diamond industry? And I also wanted to ask - I remember reading also that the - that Hassidic Jews were in particularly involved with the diamond industry, and is that so?

MARTIN: Okay, thank you for your question.

KATE: Thanks.

Mr. ZOELLNER: Yes, very good questions. You know, the modernization of South Africa really was created by diamonds and gold. And the apartheid laws that caused so much misery for so many people really devolved from ways that the colonial occupiers of South Africa have managed to, you know, keep their work force in order. And so, really, apartheid is descendant from South Africa's wealth in gold and diamonds.

And, yes, it's true. The Hassidim do have a strong role in the diamond industry. And that also devolves from historic circumstances. The great prejudice that they had suffered in Europe led to their embracing the diamond as being a way that they could actually have some wealth, because they were shut out of so many other methods of making a living.

MARTIN: Is it the Hassidim, per se, that are closely associated with the diamond industry because of prejudice against that particular sector, or is it that Jewish people in general? Because, in so many countries, they were not permitted to own land, and that's the only way they could amass wealth.

Mr. ZOELLNER: Yeah. That was my understanding. That this is a way that, you know, if you cannot own land; if you cannot join a trade guild; if you have been closed out of these professions - this is a way that you can, you know, poor a farm, essentially, into a little octahedron - and that is where you have to store your wealth.

MARTIN: Is that still true? Just that so many ethnic groups are associated with particular livelihoods because of prejudice or because of, you know, laws or custom and so forth, is that - everybody has those laws, and as the prejudices breakdown, their offspring are able to move into other professions. So is it -is there more ethnic diversity in the retail end than there used to be, say half a century ago?

Mr. ZOELLNER: Well, you know, the really interesting thing about that is, that a diamond without its mythology, is essentially worthless. You know, you couldn't really do anything with it except grind it into powder and, you know, use it to, you know, as sandpaper or a tool point. I mean, without it, without that story that's woven around it, without this mythology of power, of money, of love, of marriage, you know, the diamond is empty. And when you strip that mythology it's dead.

MARTIN: Let's go to Marin County, California and Teal(ph). Is that right, Teal?

TEAL (Caller): Yeah. Teal.

MARTIN: Teal. What's your question?

TEAL: Hi. Actually, I was lucky enough when I got engaged to have inherited a ring from my great-grandmother. It's from 1921 and it's got lots of diamonds and platinum, and I've always had an issue with it because I didn't want to buy a ring like that, because of the impact on the environment and the political impact.

And I was kind of wondering if there's been more of a trend lately, toward, you know, with people having that mentality and that consciousness? If there's been more of a trend toward people wanting recycled diamonds and wanting recycled platinums and golds and things like that? And I'll take my answer off the air.

MARTIN: Thank you Teal. What about that, Tom?

Mr. ZOELLNER: Well, a good question. I mean is an heirloom diamond considered to be clean? I think that if you trace the history - if you were able somehow with superhuman powers to look into the history of that heirloom diamond, I think you might also find a number of unpretty things that took place in the production of that stone. The diamond industry in many ways has always been surrounded with misdeeds.

MARTIN: And why is that? Is it just the work itself is so difficult in places where labor is so cheap, that there has never been an incentive to improve the conditions, or what? Because the norms of conduct have always been very low? Why is that?

Mr. ZOELLNER: Well, the same thing that gives the diamond its value, its denseness, its hardness, its prettiness, its ability to be - transport fabulous sums of money in a very small package - has always made it a favorite tool of smugglers. And when the first deposits, as a matter of fact, were found in South Africa. It was estimated that around those diggings in the first years and for many years thereafter, about half of the diamonds that came out of those mines were eventually sold illicitly.

MARTIN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Tom, why is it that the normal laws of supply and demand don't apply? I mean, when we hear the word cartel in the United States we think of, you know, trust-busting, you know, Elliott Ness. You know, why don't some authorities somewhere intervene in this process? You know, why is a worldwide cartel allowed to exist?

Mr. ZOELLNER: Well, you know, for many years, executives of the DeBeers cartel were actually not allowed to enter the United States, for fear of being subpoenaed, and any number of anti-trust lawsuits that the U.S. Justice Department had levied against them in absentia. And so, according to the United States, up until very recently, DeBeers was an outlaw enterprise that couldn't do business here.

And the way they got around that, was they simply sold their stones at wholesale to a number of very powerful dealers, known as site holders, who would go to London 10 times out of the year and take some of the world's best diamonds home with them, in these sealed packages, and then put them out onto the marketplace. And for many, many years this was how about 80 percent of the world's diamonds were sold from London.

MARTIN: But they literally kept stuff in the vault and just refused to put it on the market. That's how they do it?

Mr. ZOELLNER: Yes. Yes. Unofficial scarcity. In fact, for DeBeers actually, the great fear was that a giant vein of diamonds would be found outside their control and the price would plummet.

MARTIN: Has that ever happened?

Mr. ZOELLNER: It happened in Australia. When the Argyle mine marketed its stones successfully to India.

MARTIN: But the market is in fact changing. Today, as you're pointing out, DeBeers does have to compete with mines in Australia and there are synthetic ones coming from Siberia. How are these new players fairing? What are they doing to compete with DeBeers, which at least has the corner on marketing?

Mr. ZOELLNER: Yes. It is a changing industry. And DeBeers has taken some fairly radical steps, recently, to try and reinvent itself. And what they've done is they've trimmed down the list of those site holders that I mentioned. And they've also put a great deal more emphasis on advertising and marketing. They currently spend about $200 million a year to get this idea out, to promulgate that idea that keeps the diamond breathing, that keeps the diamond alive, which is that, you know, you need this stone to get married. A diamond is forever. It's brilliant mythology and it's brilliant marketing.

MARTIN: We have an email from Zorgalina(ph), who says that, I understand the DeBeers company, will now be a black-owned company. And she also adds, on a personal note, that, diamonds are and were an eminently portable form of wealth. And thanks to that, my grandparents got out of Germany. I'm sure that's not an uncommon story.

Mr. ZOELLNER: Yes.

MARTIN: But as to her first question, that DeBeers is going to be known as a black company, what does that mean?

Mr. ZOELLNER: I have never heard that before.

MARTIN: Ok.

Mr. ZOELLNER: I don't know that means.

MARTIN: DeBeers is also changing its game from merely being a supplier, to being a retailer, in that they're being - they want to position themselves as sellers of luxury brands.

Mr. ZOELLNER: Yes.

MARTIN: Why, and is that working?

Mr. ZOELLNER: That is at the heart of their new strategy. They settled the antitrust case that was outstanding, and they were allowed, for the very first time, to open up a store in the United States. Which, you know, it's now on Fifth Avenue, in the 50s. And it certainly would've infuriated several of these Justice Department lawyers, who tried unsuccessfully for years, to bring a case against DeBeers. And not only that, but they have reemphasized the idea of branding a diamond, to have this imprimatur of their name upon it. And several of their diamonds are now inscribed with a tiny little laser mark, bearing the DeBeers name.

MARTIN: So Tom, just a couple of seconds left. What did you end up doing with the ring that you had given to your fiancé?

Mr. ZOELLNER: Well, you know, I really agonized over it. And, you know, I didn't want, I don't want to be a prescriptive - certainly in this book or here - and say well, you know, you're a bad person if you own a diamond, or diamonds are completely evil. But after what I saw, I really couldn't hold onto it any longer. And so I finally took it back to a jeweler and sold it back.

MARTIN: And forgive me for asking, but I have to ask…

Mr. ZOELLNER: I can predict your question. Yeah, I took a loss, about 20 percent.

MARTIN: No, that wasn't going to be my question.

Mr. ZOELLNER: That wasn't the question. Oh, ok.

MARTIN: No, no. Will you ever buy one again, if someone turns your head and you feel that that lifelong commitment is coming down the pike, what are you going to offer the object of your affection?

Mr. ZOELLNER: Oh, wow. An excellent question, and I know for a fact that I don't think I could ever buy a diamond again, in good conscience. So she'll just have to live without it.

MARTIN: With - what's she going to live with, my friend?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Sapphire, ruby?

Mr. ZOELLNER: Yeah, yeah. Well, gosh, I don't know. In addition to living with me, I guess, I'm not sure what that'll bring.

MARTIN: I'm going to hold out for a beautiful bracelet for her. Ok.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Tom Zoellner is author of The Heartless Stone: A Journey Through the World of Diamonds, Deceit, and Desire. He joined us from NPR's New York bureau. Thank you Tom.

Mr. ZOELLNER: Thank you.

MARTIN: And we come back from a short break - breaking taboos in the Arab world. We'll talk with the woman behind a new play inspired by The Vagina Monologues. I'm Michel Martin. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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