GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.– They’re probably the most recognizable symbol of love, significant for 60th anniversaries and the birthstone of April babies. But there is part of the diamond’s history that’s not so bright.
For centuries, diamonds were thought to be magical and mysterious.
“It slows light from 186,000 miles per second, down to 77,000 miles per second,” said Dennis Engels, owner of Richard Engels Jewelers in Grandville.
The qualities are what attracted Engels at a young age.
“The detail and intricacies, I always admired that,” Engels explained. “Even though I was in high school, I knew I wanted to be in the diamond and jewelry business.”
Now, he runs the family business.
A symbol of purity, there was a time diamonds weren’t considered so clean. In fact, they were referred to as “conflicted” or “bloody.”
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, rebels fought against governments in many West African countries for control over their diamond mines.
Rebels used those stolen diamonds to buy guns, and would go to any lengths to keep villagers under their control, which included cutting off hands, ears and lips to keep people from voting.
Rebels forced young children, even the elderly, to mine diamonds and to fight.
Peter Vander Meulen saw this first hand.
“We evacuated missionaries two or three times during that 10 year period,” explained Vander Meulen.
With the Office of Social Justice in Grand Rapids, Vander Meulen worked with missionaries in West Africa during some of the bloodiest times in Sierra Leone.
“I can remember being stopped at checkpoints and remember helping to pick up bodies on the road,” he remembered. “All of the violence was funded by smuggled diamonds.”
By the late 1990s, peace slowly returned to West Africa with the help of the United Nations and an international agreement called the Kimberly Process.
“The only conflict diamond we buy is some from a divorce settlement,” said Engels.
Engels said his biggest diamond mine is West Michigan, where he gets many diamonds from customers trading in their jewelry or re-purposing it. His imported diamonds come from Israel.
“They are very stringent, very vigilant on where their diamonds come from,” Engels explained. “No one is more vigilant than the Israelis on the terrorist situation. If you dry up terrorist sources of money, you dry up terrorism.”
For Vander Meulen, the last 15 years since the Kimberly Process has carried a deeper meaning.
“I look at diamonds as a success, as a justice success,” he said.
Vander Meulen said the work missionaries and the justice system has done was a good example of paying attention to human misery.
“We can improve how this world works and we can improve it for everybody, not just ourselves. But it took a 10 year war for some of us to see that.”
Engels said maybe two or three people a year will ask about conflict-free diamonds. Some have even decided to go with other jewels, like sapphires, for engagement rings.