Is Your Christmas Diamond 'Dirty'? Brian Leber, owner of a Chicago jewelry store that specializes in conflict-free diamonds and recycled gold, talks about his mission to educate consumers on the ethical sensitivities, or conflicts, associated with some of the world's finest jewelry. Leber is joined by Carroll Bogert, associate director of Human Rights Watch, who explains efforts by her group to persuade governments and corporations to buy their precious metals and stones from areas that support human rights.
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Is Your Christmas Diamond 'Dirty'?

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Is Your Christmas Diamond 'Dirty'?

Is Your Christmas Diamond 'Dirty'?

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This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden filling in for Michel Martin.

Coming up, a furniture restorer talks about the fascinating story behind the antique mirror that became her obsession, the author of "Aesop's Mirror" in a moment.

But first, someone looking for the perfect holiday gift in Brian Leber's Chicago Jewelry Store won't just get advice on the cost of the pendent or the quality of the gold. Most likely, Leber will also go into detail on why he uses conflict free diamonds from Canada instead of South Africa, or why the gold used in a ring has been recycled so that fewer precious metals will have to be stripped from the earth.

Since Leber took over his grandfather's jewelry business in the 1990s, he started traveling to Washington monthly to lobby and advice Congress on these larger issues. He joins us now from the studios of Chicago Public Radio to tell us how we can be conscientious consumers during the holiday season. Welcome, Brian Leber.

Mr. BRIAN LEBER (Owner, Leber Jeweler Inc.): Thank you for having me.

LYDEN: And also joining us today is the associate director of Human Rights Watch, Carroll Bogert, who's been monitoring how revenues from precious metals end up in the pockets of militias and dictators in the developing world. She joins us from her office in New York City. Carroll, thanks for joining us as well.

Ms. CARROLL BOGERT (Associate Director, Human Rights Watch): Thanks for having me, Jacki.

LYDEN: So, Carol, give us an idea of who's profiting from conflict materials such as diamonds and gold. You've looked at a lot of diamonds I know. How do we know that a necklace we're buying is conflict free?

Ms. BOGERT: Well, there is a monitoring system called the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, which was set up in the wake of wars in West Africa and Sierra Leone, you know, where rebel groups were chopping off the hands of people in a very brutal civil war that was funded by their control and their sale of diamonds from the diamond fields of Sierra Leone.

And in the wake of those wars, it really was felt that the consumer should not be involved and that consumers did not want to be involved in helping to fund brutal conflicts of that nature. And the Kimberley Process involves 75 countries, also industry representatives, and non-governmental organizations that monitor the diamond mining and trading process in an attempt to weed out those diamonds that are going to support serious human rights abuse.

Now, the issue today is an attempt to expand the Kimberley Process beyond just rebel groups. We feel that the diamonds being mined in Eastern Zimbabwe, and we've documented this in the - from the so-called Marange Fields, are benefiting the regime, the government of Zimbabwe, which is also perpetuating serious human rights abuse. And we've documented this extensively in reports by Human Rights Watch. And we don't think those diamonds should be in a store like Mr. Leber's, and I don't think he does either.

LYDEN: Well, that seems to be one of the chief points in your store, Brian Leber. Tell us more about this store. Why did you start using conflict-free materials in your jewelry?

Mr. LEBER: It started really in the 1990s when the conflict diamond issue first appeared on the radar screen. We felt the need to be able to assure our clients that we could say where a diamond came from. Concurrently, this was about the time diamonds were being discovered in Canada. And we were the first jeweler in the United States to offer Canadian Diamonds. At that time, the Canadians were really doing it more as a home grown product. It wasn't the case that they were talking conflict free.

In fact, when we would use that phrase, they would kind of cringe and say, they don't want to bring politics into this. But while the World Diamond Council was going on how it's impossible to ever trace a diamond back to its source, we were able to say this diamond was mined in the northwest territories. It was cut in yellow knife. We had a chain of custodies established.

We were able to assure our clients that, look, we know this diamond didn't fund the RUF in Sierra Leone. We know this diamond didn't fund UNITA in Angola. And it just was a conscious way of doing business.

LYDEN: Carroll, do you see a lot of retailers doing what Brian is doing?

Ms. BOGERT: We'd like to see more. I think there are jewelers who are responsible, and I think that it's something that the consumer, the American consumer, and many consumers around the world want. They want to know that they can buy jewels, and not feel guilty about them. But in order to make sure that happens, they need to just ask the question, and make their preferences known, make it known to the people selling the diamonds that consumers care.

LYDEN: I understand that it is easier, although difficult, to track the source of gems than it is to track the source of gold, and that that's one thing you've been looking at, Brian.

Mr. LEBER: That's correct. With diamonds, I mean, ideally, the Kimberley Process should be providing a chain of custody. It really isn't. I mean, there is a lot of gaping holes. Zimbabwe being one. There's problems in Guinea. There's problems in a country like Lebanon. Lebanon exported over 272,000 more carats than they imported. They don't mine diamonds. So, those diamonds somehow mysteriously appeared in their marketplace.

But there at least is a way of tracking these with colored stores. We worked extensively on the ban on Burmese origin rubies, and with those, it was scientifically possible to be able to show that a ruby did originate in Burma. And when you have about 90 percent of the world's ruby supply coming from Burma offering direct funding to what is probably one of the most despotic regimes on the planet, it was something worth addressing. And we were able to do that, working with Congress on the Tom Lantos Block Burmese Jade Act, which is now law.

With gold, it's more difficult. There are efforts underway. We're trying to find the best solution possible. Our answer is, our company, we use 100 percent recycled gold. This way we process it in the United States. There aren't the issues you find with refineries in places like India that don't have an EPA, that there are no environmental protections. There is no protection for the worker. We have a closed chain of custody for those that are buying gold on the open market. You have no way of knowing where it came from. You have no way of knowing who it funded.

There have been issues of smuggling operations. There have been questions of whether terrorist groups are involved in using gold to transport money, and there's been evidence supporting that. So, to us, until there is a viable system in place of chain of custody, that's the reason we try to focus on recycled gold.

Ms. BOGERT: And if I could say, Jacki, I think that's right. We've done extensive research on gold mining in Congo, and demonstrated how international companies, by buying gold from - not directly, but indirectly from rebel groups who are using again the proceeds to fund a very brutal civil war, we felt that these international companies really were complicit, in the sense, in this human rights abuse.

But we worked more - tried to work directly with those companies to engage them and get them to stop buying the gold or to ensure that the people they are buying it from in Congo are not using it for illegitimate purposes. It's more difficult at the consumer end to be aware and to put pressure on jewelers who in turn put pressure on the chain of supply. Instead, we've worked - tried to work with companies to turn that around.

LYDEN: It's the last week before Christmas, but in keeping with the spirit of the season and the seriousness, what we're talking about, supposing someone wants to buy a gem between now and the holidays, supposing my husband who might be listening wants to buy me one. Any recommendations at Leber Jewelers?

Mr. LEBER: I would say a necklace like our Petunia necklace which is a very classic, very graceful, simple teardrop pendant, not overstated by any stretch of the imagination, but we offer it set with Canadian conflict-free diamonds. We offer it set with a number of colored stones, something as simple as amethyst, something as simple as a blue sapphire.

And, for example, with the blue sapphire, the stone will come from Malawi, Southern Malawi in fact, where we know the mine operators, where we know that the mine itself has offered revenues to the local community that's allowed schools to be built, that's allowed solar power to be offered to the communities. So they can have electricity, so that housing can be built, so that they can have teachers for the children, that we can make sure children are able to be in school and not working in the mines, as is so often the problem.

It's a symbol of hope. It's saying that, look, these resources of gemstone can offer a bright future for the people of this country and not be something that they have to suffer from this, or something that represents hope, which to me is the most important thing jewelry can offer.

LYDEN: Brian Leber runs Leber Jewelers, Inc., out of Chicago, Illinois. He also advocates for the use among jewelers to use conflict-free stones, gems and metals.

And Carroll Bogert is the associate director of Human Rights Watch. And I want to wish you both a great holiday week, and thank you so much for being with us.

Ms.´┐ŻBOGERT: Thanks for having me.

Mr.´┐ŻLEBER: Thank you.

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