Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Kimberley Process, aka Swiss Cheese

A little dust up lately about the Kimberley Process.  A noted market observer called it BS, and others responded by saying it has value.  We have been hearing this give and take since the KP was instituted a couple of decades ago, so it comes as no surprise.

Does it have a future, and does it serve a purpose?  Yes and no on both points.  Perhaps it is time to look at it again.

The KP was developed with significant De Beers encouragement and participation when the "conflict/blood diamond" scare first came up.  There was good reason to be concerned, as the association of diamonds with the financing of brutal human abuses and chaotic warfare in Africa.  Conceptually, there was no argument about its objectives - stop or intercept conflict diamonds from reaching the markets.  The carefully built image of diamonds could be destroyed if the public took on this association.

No intent here to be cynical, but the industry was looking to protect itself.  Gem quality diamonds (or, at least, those diamonds that end up being used in jewelry) are a discretionary purchase, enough so to be called a whimsical purchase.  Industrial applications, which have real life uses, can be satisfied with lab grown diamonds that have been around for 60-70 years.  This is quite different from essential natural assets, such as oil, that have produced far worse abuses than diamonds, but the world shades its eyes in order to avoid that problem.  But diamonds are an easy target, with some of its associations - cartel, luxury, ostentation, wealth, capitalism - working against it.

Right from the outset, it was clear that it is way too easy to get around the KP standards.  Anyone having even passing knowledge in the acquisition and distribution of diamonds could see that the KP was more like Swiss cheese - full of holes.  Some countries refused to sign on to KP, a condition that still exists today.  Even among signors, there are cases of human abuse.  Diamonds are passed across borders, and mixed into legitimate extractions.  Illegal goods are transported to countries that issue KP certificates, and then export to other countries. Counterfeit certificates can be purchased in some places.  A couple of years ago, I received a call from someone who would fly me into Sierra Leone on a private plane, arrange a purchase, then fly me back home.  Some NGOs, badly frustrated, have bailed out of any involvement in the process.

Should we be surprised by all this?  Of course not.  Any time there is an opportunity to make big money by circumventing controls, there are people happy to do it.  Just think of arms sales and African ivory as two of many examples. And in the diamond business, in addition to the KP issues, we have been dealing with lab grown diamonds being mixed into natural productions, something that has been going on since long before the conflict diamond issue came up.

Enough said.  But how about the future?  Due diligence is the newest thing, asking for proof of custody all the way from the mine to the store counter.  OK, that can work, but my contention is that all that serves to make honest people even more "pure."  We should not delude ourselves, however, into thinking this will solve the problem.

It is, after all, an issue that, in the end of the chain, primarily confronts retailers and consumers.  How diligent are they going to be, or able to be, in unequivocally verifying that a KP certificate or chain of custody is correct.  Add that to getting total assurance that the grading certificate is accurate, or that no man-made diamonds are not mixed in.  Frankly, I'm glad I do not have to face that issue.

Still, KP should not be abandoned.  The industry must continue to do whatever it can to offer and provide a clean path, in spite of the fact that there are crooks out there.  The least we can do is to make it as difficult as possible for them.  Yes, in time, maybe not more than a decade or so, the issue will fade anyway as diamonds mining fades away.  In the meantime, trudge on.




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