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'Heartless Stone' Tracks Rough Diamond Trade

SIMON SCOTT, host:

"Blood Diamond," the new film staring Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou, is a fictional account of the violent underworld of the diamond trade. The movie, which opens this weekend, has prompted the diamond industry to fight back by waging an aggressive public relations campaign.

But a non-fiction book also reveals some of the brutal facets of the international diamond industry. It's called "Heartless Stone." Author Tom Zoellner traveled across six continents and 14 countries, tracing diamonds from the mines and rivers of Africa to the counters at Wal-Mart. Americans make up half of the market for the $61 billion global diamond industry.

Tom Zoellner joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. TOM ZOELLNER (Author): My pleasure.

SCOTT: Maybe we ought to begin at, literally, the base. Remind us how a diamond gets made.

Mr. ZOELLNER: Well, a diamond is actually nothing more than carbon. And somehow these pieces of carbon found their way into the earth's mantel, were compressed and heated in such a way that it caused those carbon atoms to lock into a very hard chemical bond, and then they were brought to the surface of the earth through volcanoes.

And what you need to do to find a diamond is you either dig down into that frozen tube of magma, that ancient volcanic rock, and you mine for it, you strip the rock away like you're mining for copper.

The other way that you can find a diamond is you dig in the sands of rivers which might have carried that diamond away from its original source. And this is called a river mining and this is the source of much of the chaos and the misery in the diamond trade today.

SCOTT: The fact that diamonds are mined in some of the world's poorest and most desperate countries, is that despite could have caused the vast wealth they bring?

Mr. ZOELLNER: Well, it's interesting, you know, the diamond has been called the cursed stone of Africa. And I think largely for good reason, because when you see the places where a lot of the diamond mining is done, you see that it's brought not wealth or prosperity or peace to these countries, but rather chaos and warfare.

SCOTT: It's certainly brought wealth to a few individual dictators, and for that matter the foreign companies who have been their sponsors and promoters.

Mr. ZOELLNER: Certainly. This is the way that the British Empire expanded in Southern Africa. It was through the genius, the malevolent genius, some would say, of Cecil Rhodes. It was his insight that created the modern diamond trade as we know it today.

What you simply do is you buy up all the mining claims and you create an artificial scarcity around this rock, and coupled with that, you create a mythology around this rock, a certain sort of romance, an image that makes it a desirable thing, even though for practical purposes it's nearly worthless.

SCOTT: Let me get you to talk about the literally hard, tough, brutal and bloody business of mining, and in all of its aspects. And maybe if we concentrate on the Central African Republic.

Mr. ZOELLNER: Yeah. That is the place where all the mining is of an alluvial nature. These guys go out and they dig into the river sands. They dam up flowing rivers and divert the river's course and dig into the wet rock there. It's very dirty, hard and dangerous work.

SCOTT: Could you tell us how it is that so many children, millions of children, wind up - I almost said working - I think it's technically correct to say being exploited in the diamond trade, in various jobs they do.

Mr. ZOELLNER: That's really one of the most unfortunate things about the way the diamonds play into civil conflicts, and most particular in Africa, where the diamond has been a tool of war, a recognized tool of war in many of these countries. And children are recruited, sometimes kidnapped, into the armies, and forced to - among other things - mine for diamonds in the riverbeds.

SCOTT: When you take a look at the history of the diamond trade in Angola, you see kind of an intersection between powerful foreign interests and guerilla groups and even terrorist groups, and for that matter a couple of American administrations.

Mr. ZOELLNER: Yeah, the war in Angola really is one of the globe's worst examples of a civil conflict that was fueled by diamonds. Mostly, on the part of the Yunita(ph) rebel army than its top general, Jonas Savimbi. He was a favorite of Ronald Reagan's. He was one of the very few insurgent leaders who was granted an audience at the White House, and he helped perpetuate his conflict with diamond mining and sales of diamonds to the European trading houses.

SCOTT: It is now possible to make a diamond in a laboratory. Is that going to bring down the price of diamonds?

Mr. ZOELLNER: Well, this is one of the giant question marks facing the diamond industry, and it's going to come down to whether those people who are now engaged in the business of using these high pressure, high temperature machines to create a diamond essentially in a machine above ground.

This is a technology which was perfected at the Russian Academy of Sciences under the cover of communism. And this technology was loosed upon the world in the 1990s. It was bartered and sold off and there's now a company in Florida that's producing these synthetic or cultured gems, 500 karats a month.

SCOTT: Gemesis is the name of the company?

Mr. ZOELLNER: Gemesis is the name of the company. And Gemesis and other enterprises like it are obviously a tremendous threat to the industry, because this is a business built on artificial scarcity.

SCOTT: You put him under a jeweler's eyepiece, you can't tell the difference. If anything, I guess, the machine made one, it might be a little more perfect.

Mr. ZOELLNER: Yeah, these are chemically perfect diamonds. Atom for atom, they are diamonds, and they are very difficult to distinguish from the real McCoy. And faced with something that will create essentially endless supply, that's a big scare. And so the battle really comes down to one of narrative for the businesses using these machines, that they have to create some sort of convincing image, some kind of line of poetry that will surround that machine-created diamond with the same kind of mythology that's been built up over the diamond over the last hundred years.

SIMON: Tom Zoellner, speaking from New York. His book is "The Heartless Stone: A Journey Through the World of Diamond's, Deceit and Desire." Mr. Zoellner, very good talking to you. Thanks very much.

Mr. ZOELLNER: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.