As college students, many of us are reaching that age when we will be witness to friends, families or maybe even ourselves taking part in a tradition that started with wealthy aristocrats in the 1400s.
Beginning with Archduke Maximillian of Austria, who gave a ring to Mary of Burgandy upon their betrothal, the spending of two months' salary on this "symbol of affection" is still a steady practice today. Indeed, the diamond industry creates about $50 billion dollars worth of jewelry a year.
While many of us see this tradition either taking place or mentioned often, we rarely stop to question what lies behind the shiny stones that sparkle on our loved one's or our own fingers.
A brief look at the consequences of diamonds may make these gems look not so pretty.
Diamonds are perhaps at their most ugly when it is seen how they play a role in conflicts and violence all over the world. "Conflict Diamonds" represent a billion-dollar industry in which diamond mines or the diamond trade in a particular area is controlled by violent groups that use the profits from these stones to purchase arms, brutalize populations and coordinate terrorist activities. "Conflict diamonds, also known as 'blood diamonds,' have been linked to armed struggles in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic," notes a recent BBC article.
In places such as Sierra Leone, for example, the brutality of regimes funded by diamond profits is particularly harsh and appalling. "Tens of thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. It is a war waged against the government and the people of Sierra Leone by a brutal group of rebels called the Revolutionary United Front, or RUF," reported Bob Simon of CBS in a 2001 examination of the civil war taking place in Sierra Leone.
Capturing the mines' vast diamond wealth in 1991, the RUF recruited child soldiers into the bloody war, as well as attacked and brutalized the civilian populations. During the long conflict, the RUF reportedly "mutilated some 20,000 people, hacking off their arms, legs, lips and ears with machetes and axes," asserts Greg Campbell, author of the book 'Blood Diamonds' and writer for Amnesty Now.
While attempts have been made to stop this trade in conflict diamonds, most notably with the adoption of the Kimberly Process by the international community, this is far from the end of the problems. The Kimberly Process, a practice in which jewelers and others trace a diamond's origins and provide a certificate that indicates that it is a "clean" diamond, has been in the last year reported to have many, many holes.
In October 2004, Amnesty International reported that "major U.S. and international diamond jewelry retailers were falling short in implementing their self-regulation." Similarly, Jim Lobe of One World Net reports at that 97 percent of diamond consumers surveyed do not know about the process.
Besides problems with conflict diamonds, the diamond trade is also damaging in other perhaps less bloody and visible ways. In many places around the world, accusations that indigenous people are being displaced by mining operations have been made against large diamond companies.
"Diamond mines in Australia, Canada, India and many countries in Africa are situated on lands traditionally associated with indigenous peoples. Many of these communities have been displaced, while others remain, often at great cost to their health, livelihoods and traditional cultures," says Liz Stanton in The Ultimate Field Guide to the U.S. Economy.
In one particular case in Botswana, for example, the NGO Survival International has accused the diamond giant DeBeers of attempting to force 2,000 local people off their traditional lands, sometimes reportedly using brutality to do so. While this claim is disputed by DeBeers, the investigation continues and could prove to be yet another major problem with the diamond trade.
For a stone that is supposed to represent the beauty of love, these numerous problems associated with diamonds certainly make the stones look not so lovely.
When heading to the jewelry store, it may be good to remember the words of Dennis Bright as reported by CBS: "The fellow who gives a diamond ring to a lover should know that probably because of that diamond a girl of 10 has been raped, a boy of two has lost a limb … I have seen horrors that have been caused because of this battle over stones."
While advertisements may assert that a diamond is forever, the horrors such stones create may be as equally long lasting.
Meg Burd is a graduate student studying anthropology. Her columns run on Friday.