In March, the harmattan blows dry and dusty across the dirt-poor, mineral-rich alluvial village of Koryadu, in Sierra Leone. The river sediment ebbs and flows over one of the world's most prized commodities: diamonds.
This year, on March 13, a group of five diamond diggers began their morning as normal: they picked up their spades, shovels, pick axes and pry bars, and left for a hard day’s work sifting through the soil and opening up fractures in boulders, in search of the precious gems that might be strewn within.
They returned that afternoon with a 709-carat rough diamond, the second largest found in Sierra Leone and the 14th largest discovered in the world.
The monolith is rare, but is just one example of the fist-full of diamonds regularly unearthed in an area that, nonetheless, remains one of the poorest on the planet. Modest estimates put Sierra Leone’s legal diamond count at about 400,000 carats per year, while the number that is stolen or smuggled out of the West African country is several times more.
The diggers who found this stone immediately took it to pastor Emmanuel Momoh, the manager and financial supporter of the group – and hence the legal beneficiary of the diamond. The pastor had the opportunity to sell the gem on the grey market by smuggling it out of Sierra Leone to Belgium, in cahoots with a local dealer, but instead he took a rare call. Momoh and district chief Paul Saquee personally delivered the diamond to Dr Ernest Bai Koroma, president of Sierra Leone, in exchange for his commitment that the proceeds would be channelled back into the community to better serve the area’s artisanal – or independent – diamond diggers, who pay taxes and distribute their findings through white channels, yet seek legitimisation and, consequently, humane working conditions and protection from rebel factions.
“I thank the local chief and his people for not smuggling the diamond out of the country. The government remains committed to ensuring a transparent and competitive auction process that will ensure fair market value for Sierra Leone’s diamonds … and bring vital infrastructure and benefit thousands of artisanal diggers,” Koroma said at the time.
The president has kept his word. The stone, since named the Peace Diamond, has made its way to the global auction market, and will go up for sale in New York on December 4. Better still, the government approached the renowned Rapaport Group to handle the marketing and auctioning process, and convinced the fair-trade organisation to do so at zero cost.
An early proponent of the Kimberley Process – a measure to prevent the trade in conflict diamonds – the group’s chairman Martin Rapaport shares a raw bond with Sierra Leone. He has witnessed, first-hand, the effects of the diamond-fuelled civil war that left the country shattered in 2002, and the ongoing rebel activity.
In an essay titled Guilt Trip, Rapaport recounts: "There are no words to describe what I have seen in Sierra Leone. My mind tells me to block out the really bad stuff, to deny the impossible reality. But the images of the amputee camp haunt me and the voices of the victims cry out. 'Tell them what has happened to us,' say the survivors. 'Show them what the diamonds have done to us'."
Rapaport goes on to explain the heartbreaking cause and effect between untold riches and unimaginable atrocities. “On the one hand, the high value that society places on diamonds enables the transfer of wealth from the world’s richest countries to some of its poorest. The fact is, diamonds are keeping these countries alive. But the story does not end there,” he says. “The random distribution of diamond wealth in an impoverished society creates incredible problems and, in the case of Sierra Leone, enabled a horrible civil war, with diamonds being stolen and smuggled to buy guns. For this country, unprotected wealth is a curse.”
Rapaport hopes to play his part in improving the situation by ensuring that the Peace Diamond sells at a high enough price to be of actual use to the community. Already, a US$7.7 million offer (Dh28m) has been turned down, which is not surprising given that experts value the stone at just over $50m – about 383 billion in local leones.
However, the Sierra Leone government and Rapaport Group have not officially revealed the diamond’s worth. It is also likely that many jewellers and buyers may question the decision to not disclose the colour and clarity of the 709-carat roughly cut stone. After all, isn’t a diamond only as good as its 4 Cs (colour, clarity, cut and carat weight)? Rapaport – a leading authority on gemstones – demands to differ and instead urges potential bidders to recognise the power that this diamond holds to improve the life of a nation and its people.
Transporting a stone of such magnitude out of a country with so much corruption, and opening it up to the global market in a completely transparent manner, argues Rapaport, renders it more precious. This is, he says, an opportunity to focus on the “good side” of the diamond trade.
A purported 50 per cent of the sales value of the diamond will directly benefit the people of Sierra Leone, and pastor Momoh is unbridled in his hopeful enthusiasm. “The Peace Diamond will greatly improve the lives of our people, as it will bring clean water, electricity, schools, medical facilities, bridges and roads [not one of which currently exists] to our villages in the Kono district. This diamond represents our hope for a better future.”
While this is an undeniably just and noble cause, the fact remains that for most buyers who are not immediately affected by the situation, terms such as “illegal mining”, “unfair wages”, “civil war” and “blood diamonds” are dismissed just as easily as they are brought up. To which, Rapaport points to the emotional value of gemstones, which he reiterates is so much more powerful and precious even from a personal point of view.
"Jewellery and diamonds are feel-good products and highly sensitive to anything that would spoil their symbolic value. If you were to wear a pair of sneakers that were perhaps made illegally by a child, you could still play a pretty good game of basketball in them – they have complete functional utility. However, if you are wearing a diamond and you flash it at someone who says: 'Ah, blood diamond', it destroys the entire purpose of the gem, which is to make you feel good," he says. "We must understand the role that jewellery plays in society – not just as a source of financial security, but also and more importantly, as an emotional symbol. We don't sell the diamond; we sell the idea behind the diamond. The person who buys this rough stone can choose to polish it into two diamonds of about 100 carats each – and will have the right to name them the Peace diamonds. Now that we know this, should we only concentrate on the diamond's physical characteristics? Perhaps not."