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Commentary: The Business

Vicki Cunningham: Africa Witness

A personal visit shows the Kimberley process is working, says Vicki Cunningham.

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This article was written by Vicki Cunningham of Cunningham Fine Jewelry in Tulsa, OK and appeared in the July 2008 edition of INSTORE.

THANKS TO THE “dirty gold” and Blood Diamond controversies there is an unprecedented focus on social responsibility in our industry today. Nonprofit organizations such as the Council For Responsible Jewellery Practices (CRJP) are keeping the issue at the forefront, and everyone from miners to retailers has become more aware of how their decisions and practices affect so many people worldwide. 

Fortunately, the majority of U.S. retailers do adhere to the strong code of ethics that the CRJP is working hard to enforce.

An impressive 99.8 percent of all rough diamonds worldwide are manufactured by Kimberley Process participants. This is important for us to know, especially since it is our responsibility to educate the general public.  

Educating and training our employees is really the first step in the process. Once a customer understands how we, as responsible jewelers, make ethical choices in the inventory that we carry, they can purchase with the assurance that they have made a conscientious choice.  

On Sept. 9, I began the most exciting experience of my career. I was invited by De Beers through their sightholder SA Gems to take a tour of the Cullinan diamond mine, near Pretoria, South Africa.  

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This mine is famous for its large diamonds, having produced 25 percent of all known diamonds larger than 400 carats. It was such an incredible experience that I would tell any jeweler, “You have to go!” if you ever have the opportunity. Seeing the journey that a diamond makes from the mine to our retail counters is amazing.  

In my case, the tour started 3,000 feet underground as we, dressed like miners, proceeded to the working levels of the mine.

he transformation of the stones is mind-boggling. What a difference between a newly mined, rough cut stone and the beautiful gems we see in our stores every day!

While on the trip, I documented a diamond’s journey and plan to make a photographic book to give to future customers who purchase a South African diamond from our store. 

One thing that I noticed right away is the effort that is going into enforcing social and environmental responsibility at every level in the industry. At the mining level, stringent conditions are enforced for the workers’ protection and well-being. To be a De Beers’ “Supplier of Choice,” the Sightholder must prove it is giving back to its local community.  

After the mine visit, we went to the De Beers Sorting House in Kimberley, where rough diamonds are divided into 12,000 categories.

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Seeing the security and skills involved in consistently sorting approximately 1 million carats a month with .001-carat tolerance for error was impressive ? as was the Kimberley Process itself and the degree of care De Beers takes to protect the environment and its workers from injury and harm.  

I learned how the South African government is working hard to improve the lives of its people by training them in skills such as diamond cutting and jewelry manufacturing. We spoke about the possibility of actually sending people to a jewelry manufacturing school in the United States to learn this art.

The South African government is trying to keep as much of the manufacturing as possible in the country, as well as a percentage of goods, to help stimulate employment. As it stands now, only a small percentage of the diamonds mined are sorted and cut within the country due to the lack of manufacturing capabilities. 

The most heartwarming part of my trip was our visit to the Refilwe Project, which is being funded by Global Giving, a nonprofit organization that supports high-impact, community based projects in South Africa.  

Cunningham Fine Jewelry has been participating with Global Giving through SA Gems, and we, along with other jewelers, are now providing funds to build a new home for 12 orphaned children. On our visit, I saw firsthand how our efforts are helping to break the cycle of poverty that is so prevalent in Africa.

I encourage all retailers to become involved with initiatives such as Global Giving. It is truly amazing how a small donation of your profits can impact the lives of so many less fortunate. Customers really like the fact they are helping to support these initiatives and it establishes you as a conscientious retailer.

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This past March I sat on a panel of professionals at the World Jewellery Confederation Congress in Cape Town, South Africa. While there, I spoke on the topic of corporate social responsibility.  

I was able to hear what others are doing and what South Africa wants for its country and people — to educate, empower and give them the resources necessary to take a diamond, gold or gemstone all the way from the mine to the retail counter.

Seeing the process in action, and understanding the passion that goes into maintaining social and ethical responsibility to their country and to our industry was unparalleled.

We ended the trip with an incredible three-day safari that brought us right up to within almost touching distance of lions, elephants, rhinos, impalas, buffalo, giraffes and zebras. It was the perfect end to a journey that had had shown us the beauty of Africa.

And brought us a deeper understanding of how the jewelry industry can help, not hurt the continent and its people. 

Over the years, INSTORE has won 80 international journalism awards for its publication and website. Contact INSTORE's editors at [email protected].

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