As the temperature drops, jingle bells aren’t the only things ringing this season. Many Americans are hearing wedding bells, and jewelry stores are hearing the ka-ching of a happy cash register.
That’s right: it’s engagement season.
Here are the facts: 80% of engagements today have a diamond ring involved, which costs a couple an average of $4,000. That’s a hefty pricetag for a piece of jewelry—and there are ethical concerns you may not know until you’ve already bought the ring.
Do you know where your ring comes from? Even if your ring was certified, there’s still a chance your money was used to fund conflict.
A “conflict diamond” is a diamond mined in a war zone and sold to finance armed confrontation. Purchase of conflict diamonds have prolonged bloody battles in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, Côte d’Ivoire, and Sierra Leone, among other countries.
The effects of diamond-fueled conflicts can be devastating—and have worldwide repercussions. Newsweek reported that conflict diamonds (otherwise known as “blood diamonds”) prolonged a decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone. The war in Sierra Leone destroyed infrastructure that, in turn, worsened the nation’s Ebola crisis.
While world leaders have made efforts to stem the flow of blood diamonds from world markets, these safeguards are far from foolproof.
The Kimberley Process is the keystone of international efforts to curtail the sale of conflict diamonds. The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme was launched in 2003 as an international diamond certification system. Representing most of the countries involved in the diamond trade, 80 countries participate in the Process, which, in its own words, focuses on halting the trade of “rough diamonds used by rebel movements or their allies to finance armed conflicts aimed at undermining legitimate governments.” Advocacy groups and the diamond industry also participate in the Process.
In theory, the Process keeps conflict diamonds out of the certified diamond supply. But in practice, the Process is full of loopholes: critics allege that the Kimberley Process fails to accomplish this goal. In fact, in 2011, Global Witness (a non-profit that was key to the creation of the Process) withdrew from the Kimberley Process, calling it “an accomplice to diamond laundering.”
Furthermore, critics allege that the Process is easily circumvented by smugglers and that it is so limited in scope that “conflict free” status is granted to diamonds mined in conditions that violate basic human rights.
In other words, the “conflict-free” stone on your finger may still be stained with blood.
Unless you have personally overseen the extraction process from start to finish, there is little way to guarantee that your diamond is conflict-free—but that doesn’t have to mean quitting diamonds forever, if your heart’s set on a stone. Here are 5 ways you can place a safer bet on your engagement ring’s ethics:
1. Go Canadian
Canada is one of few countries that goes beyond the Kimberley Process to ensure that its diamonds are conflict-free. Canadian diamonds are tracked through a multi-pronged approach including CanadaMark, the Government of Northwest Territories, and the Canadian Diamond Code of Conduct.
Many Canadian diamonds are laser-inscribed with tracking numbers, making their origin even more traceable. Ask your jeweler to verify—in writing—that your diamond is ethically sourced from Canada.
2. Buy a synthetic diamond
As reported in The New York Times, artificial diamonds have hit the diamond market—and may be the key to long-term diamond sustainability.
Instead of being mined from the ground, artificial diamonds are created in a lab. These diamonds can be bought in a range of colors—including white, pink, yellow, and champagne—and are often sold for 20 percent to 30 percent less than mined diamonds of similar size, color and quality.
3. Hit up local antique stores
Searching for a vintage cut diamond can also help you avoid financing present or future bloody conflicts and human rights abuses around the world. Diamonds that were cut over half a decade ago still have the chance of having been originally mined in inhumane conditions, but are far less likely to finance current conflicts.
4. Embrace your inner tree hugger
The idea that diamonds have always been an eternal symbol of love and marriage is largely a marketing ploy created by DeBeers, an ethically-troubled company that maintains a stranglehold on the diamond industry—DeBeers actually artificially decreases the diamond supply in order to raise prices.
DeBeers created this myth in the 1930s through a media blitz. They also helped to create the notion that the groom should spend two months of his salary on a rock in order to prove his love.
You can eschew this Madison Avenue-created myth altogether by purchasing a wooden ring. Wooden rings are far less expensive than diamond rings, and advocates say they are more environmentally and ethically sound.
5. Get some ink
It’s 2014, and there’s little denying that engagement rings are expensive and sexist.
That’s why some couples are choosing to forego the ring entirely, opting for tattoos instead. A tattoo can allow you to express yourself more uniquely as a couple. Plus, there’s no ring to risk dropping down the drain. (A word of advice: wait until your significant other says yes before getting your engagement tattoo.)
There’s no reason your engagement needs to fall on ethically-questionable ground. Avoiding conflict diamonds can allow you to break free from the DeBeers-constructed necessity of a diamond ring, ensure that your engagement isn’t harming innocent individuals around the world, and even allow you to show your personality more than a sparkling rock. What’s not to love?
Canton Winer is a senior at Fordham University. He has worked as a Collegiate Correspondent for USA TODAY, and is the former Managing Editor and current columnist at The Fordham Ram. Check out his digital portfolio, or follow him on Twitter: @CantonWiner.