My Fair Diamond: African Development Jewelry, Made in Antwerp

13/10/2017 14:46

In 2015, CAP Conseil, a sustainable development consultancy based in Belgium, presented the Antwerp World Diamond Centre (AWDC) an idea for a fully ethical and traceable diamond jewelry project from small-scale origin. Two years later, the first MY FAIR DIAMOND collection has become a reality.

Its diamonds meet stringent ethical, transparency and external verification standards. They also promote the development and safeguarding of local traditional expertise. This approach goes much further than the ‘conflict-free’ certification upheld by the Kimberley Process: the ambition is to create economic, social and environmental added-value all along the chain. This pushes the ‘ethical’ status of diamonds one step higher, to a level of actively creating a positive impact. Each piece in the MY FAIR DIAMOND collection is the result of a close collaboration between miners, craftsmen, jewelers and designers. The Diamond Loupe sat down with one of its founders, Marie d’Huart, on the sidelines of the “Diamonds and Innovation” conference during the Antwerp Summer University.

The Diamond Loupe: Let’s just jump into it. What is your objective for this project?

Marie d’Huart, MFD: Increasing the level of socio-economic development for artisanal diamond miners in Africa through a new approach to sustainable luxury. That’s the bottom line. The diamonds we source are development diamonds and the jewelry we produce and sell is sustainable jewelry. This is not to say we are a philanthropy company, but we are also not greedy. And we are not in a hurry, which is also really crucial at this early stage. It takes time to set up a structure where you can provide full disclosure of the entire supply chain for a piece of jewelry, building relationships of trust step by step along the way. It is an ethical goal, and transparency is the means, as well as the proof, of realizing this goal.

TDL: You were one of the founders of CAP conseil (CAP) 15 years ago in Belgium. Tell us how your jewelry project got off the ground in Antwerp.

MFD: It actually started off as a friendly bet. CAP was enlisted to advise AWDC on their sustainability report and the actual promotion of sustainability in the Antwerp diamond industry. Our talks with AWDC drifted to the feasibility of creating a truly ethical mine-to-finger initiative without any compromises, one that genuinely benefitted artisanal miners in a sustainable way.

We thought it could be done, and we went ahead, backed by the support from AWDC right from the beginning. Antwerp wishes to position itself differently as a diamond hub, to create a space for small, sustainable initiatives in an intensely competitive environment. Still, AWDC appreciates they represent businesses that are used to a certain degree of discretion, while serving a consumer landscape that demands transparency. They want to move the process along in the direction of transparency and traceability, but it’s a difficult balance.

“You don’t want to wear problems. That’s why you value transparency.”

TDL: What are some of the difficulties of striking this balance?

MFD: There are many, but the key issue is the simple fact that, currently, there is an expectation gap between what the trade can offer, and what people want, which is ethics and transparency all along the supply chain. We see it this way: We’re in the luxury business. If you, as a consumer, want to be proud of what you wear, you want to know what you are wearing. Most artisanal mines are probably okay, but it is difficult to get this information; people just don’t know, so all of the diamonds seem suspicious, whether that is legitimate concern or not. You don’t want to wear problems. Our goal is to provide true reassurance.

Of course, I’m not talking about the big companies that source their diamonds from industrial mines. Maybe they can’t say exactly which mine your diamond is from, but it should be a modern and legitimate one. I’m talking about sourcing from small producers. The typical way things are done in most diamond trading places is that parcels of diamonds are gathered from a wide range of mines, industrial and small scale, containing traceable and untraceable goods. Why? Because retailers typically want 2,500 of the same exact stones for their latest collection. It is impossible to source this from one mine, but this also makes it difficult to trace the origin of each stone.

So we asked: how do we make artisanal goods ethical, positive and traceable? With My Fair Diamond, we go buy directly at the mine. If you want the GPS coordinates of the mine your diamond comes from, you got it. All our actors are known and named. Here is the mine, here are the miners, the cutter, the designer, the goldsmith. We show their faces. But this is only possible if you control the whole process, and build trust among all actors. Our business model is niche, and each piece of jewelry is pretty unique. 

“If it works for bananas, it can work for diamonds.”

TDL: Our readers will think: “This is great, but is the model scalable?”

MFD: It starts by formalizing. Getting the miners out of the informal economy, as that is where they are vulnerable and the basis for encouraging official trade. And we don’t mean just selecting low-risk zones where small mines operate in peace, but going into higher-risk zones and transforming them to give them direct access to a demanding international market. This would be the real goal. But sticking with your question, it really comes down to being competitive and growing in scale. If it works for bananas, it can work for diamonds.

There is no reason why all ethically produced diamonds would not be bought at a higher value on the market by responsible traders or brands. The people we work with rely on feeding their families by mining and selling diamonds. We are just a small initiative - this is our first jewelry collection - so we are limited in the number of diamonds we buy from them. This means that when we leave with our parcel of goods, the first guy who arrives on a motorcycle with a fist full of cash will get the next parcel of goods, without caring whether they have been produced in better conditions than the mine next door. This doesn’t make those diamonds ‘bloody’, but forget about transparency and added-value at that point.

This is why the whole thing has to grow - not just My Fair Diamond, but our model. We are confident, based on our research, that people expect and are willing to pay a little bit more for an ethical jewel. We believe we have a powerful message, and we see that people feel proud to contribute to our objective. Our target, ideally, is to sell at market price.

TDL: Isn’t that another major issue all on its own? Market price?

MFD: It is one of the most difficult issues. Paying a fair price to all. Finding the truth between miners, sellers, dealers, and so on, and reconstructing the real cost of an ethical diamond jewel. Who “deserves” how much in sustainable luxury? The hardest worker at the mine? The license holder? Branding and marketing? So, pricing is a real issue.

We pay miners and cutters what we believe is a fair price. Our diamonds are more expensive than your average diamond. And even then, they are affordable because our supply chain is so short. Because of our ethical guarantee, some people will pay a higher price. But you know, maybe the higher price of our rough is actually the correct price. Maybe it’s the price lists that are unrealistic. In any event, one thing is for sure: the key to finding a fair deal is building capacity for diggers to enable them to know what their goods are worth. Lacking that knowledge, unscrupulous dealers can come along and really take advantage of this obscure situation. In our own small way we are trying to fix that, and we hope - perhaps with the help of the Diamond Development Initiative - that others will follow.

See the people and places behind My Fair Diamond.
The first diamonds come from artisanal mines in the Koidu region, in the east of Sierra Leone (Farandu, Boroma,…), which are among the first certified “ethical” according to the Maendeleo Standards of the NGO DDI, Diamond Development Initiative. This guarantees respect for human rights, decent work, health, safety and environmental protection. Sales of the diamonds directly benefit the miners, their families and their community. With the ‘conflict-free’ Kimberley certificate, the diamonds are shipped from Sierra Leone in sealed packaging.

The Maendeleo diamonds arrive in Antwerp after being carefully selected by Nicole Despiegelaere, an internationally recognised expert in her field who has spent her entire career assessing rough diamonds for one of the world’s biggest mining companies.

The rough diamonds are handed over to Pieter Bombeke, a master diamond cutter in Antwerp with more than 40 years’ experience. Pieter is also known as ‘the diamond artist’ who designs pure carbon into outstanding works of art. He personally cuts all the Maendeleo diamonds. He even travelled to Sierra Leone to meet with the miners. Once cut, each diamond over 0.10 carat is identified by the HRD Antwerp diamond lab and laser engraved with a unique number according to the MFD traceability system. Added proof of its traceability!

Next comes the creative part. Antwerp designer and goldsmith, Nedda El-Asmar, created several unique ring designs using the diamonds provided, with her business partner, Erik Indekeu, who conceived the drawings. They work for big names and teach at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp. Their motto, ‘A world of seemingly simple shapes’, perfectly describes their designs.

The pieces are produced entirely in Antwerp by reputed goldsmiths and setters who transform the drawings into 3D models cast in Fairmined-certified gold from Peru: Rayjo (3D casting), Tesouro (goldsmith), and Luc Ceulemans (creator of iconic works such as the diamond racket). To respect the spirit of the project and avoid an environmentally damaging practice, the gold has not been rhodium plated. This gives the jewels a distinctive colour. The finished pieces are stamped with the MY FAIR DIAMOND hallmark.