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In 2000, Tom Zoellner purchased a diamond engagement ring and proposed. His girlfriend said, "yes" and then, suddenly, walked out of his life making Tom the owner of a used engagement ring. Instead of hitting the self-help shelves of his local bookstore, he hit the road travelling to diamond mines in Africa, Canada, India, Brazil and Russia to discover the true worth of this shining gem. He travelled to Japan to understand how diamonds were linked with engagements and delved into the history of our own American romance with the diamond ring. He gained entry to DeBeers, the London diamond merchants. He visited shopping mall jewellers with starry-eyed couples. Through all of his travels, he searched for an answer to the question "How has one stone created empires, ruined lives, inspired lust and emptied wallets throughout history?" A diamond version of Susan Orleans's The Orchid Thief, Tom Zoellner's The Heartless Stone is a journey to the cold heart of the world's most unyielding gem.
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TOM ZOELLNER is an award-winning magazine and newspaper journalist. He is a contributing editor for Men's Health magazine and has worked as a Metro reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, The Salt Lake Tribune and The Arizona Republic. He was the 2002 recipient of the Knight Fellowship in Specialized Reporting. He lives in New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Central African Republic
They had come across the river that morning, he said, as he took the stones from his pocket.
He set them in a line on the patio table. They looked melted and yellowish, as if someone had put them to a blowtorch. The smuggler and his three friends studied me as I held one up to the sunlight and tried to peer into it.
We're going to have to make this quick, said the man who owned the house. The police could come in, and then we'd all be in jail. He smiled vaguely at this thought. Across the alley, birds roosted in the broken-out window frames of a government building.
The smuggler watched me handle the rock. He said something in French to his friends. One of them tapped out a quick rhythm in his hand with the butt of his cell phone. Another glanced at the door to the alley and fingered the edge of the jacket he wore, even though it was a warm day.
You brought these from the Congo? I asked.
Today, he said. In a wooden canoe rowed over to Bangui. The mine itself was several hundred kilometers away, down a road into the jungle. I looked again at the dull yellow octahedron, wondering about its history, pretending I knew what I was looking at.
He is wondering who you really are, said the man who owned the house.
The smuggler placed the stones in the middle of a bank note, carefully folded it into a square, and made it disappear into his pants pocket. All four of them stared at me with flat eyes.
There are more where these came from? I asked.
Oh yes, I was told. Hundreds more. Thousands more.
Now: did I want to buy?
No. I have bought only one in my life. It was three years ago in California, over an ammonia-washed glass countertop. I was planning to ask my girlfriend, Anne, to marry me and was full of ever-deepening love. Jacqueline, the Asian woman behind the counter, showed me a series of stones, which she poured out of individual manila envelopes and set in a line. I peered at them all under a jeweler's loupe, as if I knew what I was looking at, and listened as Jacqueline explained the relative merits of each. She showed me the tiny angular hearts that clustered around the bases, like the petals of a flower.
There was one stone a bit clearer than the rest, slightly over a carat, and we haggled over the price a bit before I decided to buy it. Jacqueline fitted it into a Tiffany setting and I picked it up a week later. The stone was held aloft over the band in gold supports, like a preacher in his pulpit. I admired its sparkle. Jacqueline called it "the firing." I was then two weeks away from giving the ring to Anne on a precipice of land that overlooked the Golden Gate Bridge through a tunnel of cypress. This was to be a moment I had dreamed of since I was old enough to understand there was something special about girls.
Where did it come from? I asked her, just to say something. I was privately marveling at writing the biggest check of my life.
I don't know, she said.
Is there any way to tell? I asked.
Not really, she said. Probably Africa. That's where they all come from.
The place to go if you really want to see how some make their way to America is a nation called the Central African Republic. It is a landlocked crescent of ochre-colored earth about the size of Texas at the geographic heart of Africa. To fly over it at night is to fly over a carpet of complete darkness except for the occasional small cooking fire flickering up through the trees. There are no traffic signals, not a single mile of railroad track, and almost no electric lights outside of the capital city of Bangui. The nation is so poor that the government cannot pay its own employees any wages, and uniformed soldiers routinely beg money from passersby. Butterflies alight on the dirt roads and broad jungle leaves, and some locals try to make money by ripping the colorful wings off the butterflies and gluing them to paper to make artwork.
Children drunk on glue wander the filthy core of Bangui in broken flip-flops, begging for francs. Their T-shirts from Western aid agencies are often dotted with gummy clots; this is where they have smeared the glue to huff through the cloth. Shoe polish is another favorite intoxicant--it is spread on bread like jelly and eaten for a high. Still others take a stolen audiotape and soak it in a jar of water for a week. The resulting home brew brings strange hallucinations. Some of the street children will grab their crotches when they approach new faces for coins. Trading sex for money is common here, despite a national rate of AIDS infection estimated at one in every seven persons. "It's not always for money," a French schoolteacher told me. "Children need affection, to be touched is instinctual, and this is the only way a lot of them can get it."
The borders have been sealed to foreigners ever since the latest in a long series of coups toppled the government in March 2003, so there is really only one legitimate way in or out. That's the once-weekly Air France flight from Paris, which is inevitably crowded with a slice of the nation's tiny ruling class--the only ones who can afford the fare. The Sunday morning arrival of Air France is a free-for-all in the northern part of the city of Bangui. Hundreds of taxi hustlers and freelance luggage porters cram close to the perimeter fence as they watch the passengers step from one world into another, out of the air-conditioned cabin with its fois gras and Bordeaux and copies of Paris Match and into the fecund obscurity.
In a waiting room nearby, with thick wire mesh and tattered curtains covering the windows, are the departing passengers. They are protected like dignitaries from the masses outside. I learned later that some of them were almost certainly carrying a highly portable fortune in the folds of their business suits and warm-up jackets. They were able to carry wealth that equaled the annual wages of more than two thousand people. And without showing a bulge.
This is because the Central African Republic--corrupt, destitute, and nearly forgotten by the rest of the world--has been one of the best places on the continent to erase the history of a dirty diamond and smuggle it into the legitimate market.
I came because I wanted to see how it was done.
History has never been happy here. There have been people living in primitive agricultural settlements in this part of Africa at least five centuries before Christ, but today, the region is one of the most depopulated on the continent, a consequence of heavy slave-raiding activity in the seventeenth century. Arab bands from the north captured entire tribes and sold them to slave traders on the coast, and later on elevated blocks in Cairo. If any coherent records existed, it is likely that many American blacks could trace their ancestral lines to villages that disappeared centuries ago.
The French seized the region from an Egyptian sultan in the 1880s, named it Oubangui-Chari, and made it a department of a vast bloc of colonial real estate called French Equatorial Africa. They also built a plantation-style economy and set up the ramshackle capital of Bangui on a river port, positioned to move ivory and cotton out to the Atlantic. Export companies became the effective rulers of the colony. When André Gide visited the region in 1925, he called it "a country in ruins for the profit of a few." The adults were forced to harvest wild rubber while their children were taught to speak French and encouraged to forget their native language of Sango. The French also introduced their cooking, and in some of the farthest villages, it is possible to spend a few francs for a baguette, still gritty with black ash from the open fire it has been baked over.
When the independence movement swept Africa in the late 1950s, the region was among the first to break away from its colonial masters. The first president, Barthélémy Boganda, consolidated power in 1958 and tried to build a democracy out of the green web of clans and villages that shared little but language and hunger. The name, Central African Republic, was as empty as the results. The first of a long series of military coups took place eight years after independence, when General Jean-Bédel Bokassa and a band of soliders took control of the Presidential Palace.* Bokassa began an aggressive program of building up the nation's infrastructure, and his own wealth, in the process. About half of the 375 kilometers of asphalt road in the country--mostly potholed streets in Bangui--can be credited to Bokassa's initiative at teasing development money in exchange for uranium that helped France build its nuclear program.
Bokassa's ego was titanic, even by the supersized standards of twentieth-century African strongmen. He built a new television station to broadcast his speeches, even though there were an estimated forty sets in the entire country at the time. He married seventeen wives, converted back and forth from Islam to Christianity, and had an extra-long military jacket tailored to accommodate all the various medals he awarded himself. But it was not enough. To the astonishment of even his most dedicated sycophants, he decided to declare himself "Emperor Bokassa I," and changed the name of his landlocked nation to the Central African Empire to suit his new title.
He had himself crowned emperor on December 4, 1977, in a spectacle that cost about a third of the nation's gross national product. Hundreds of mango trees that had lined Bangui's wide avenues were cut down to better accommodate the imperial procession, and a good portion of the capital's population was compelled to march behind a train of white horses imported from Belgium, pulling an antique coach decorated with golden eagles. Inside was the new Emperor Bokassa, almost lost within a 32-pound coronation robe with 2 million tiny pearls and crystal beads sewn into the fabric. Atop his head was a crown that cost $2 million, with a doorknob-sized 138-carat diamond as centerpiece.
It was an appropriate symbol, for diamonds had helped keep him in power. Bokassa had given several of his country's big-carat discoveries to his close ally and game-hunting partner, French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. The disclosure of the gifts embarrassed the French president, but not nearly as much as what happened in the winter of 1979. Bokassa decreed that all the nation's schoolchildren should wear uniforms--and the only uniform producer in Bangui happened to be one of his wives. Poor children (there is almost no other variety of child in Bangui) couldn't begin to afford the expense and a group of them threw rocks at the emperor's limousine one day in protest. An enraged Bokassa rounded up approximately one hundred children, innocent and guilty alike, and had them murdered. Bokassa killed many himself, and kept their remains in a refrigerator in his palace.
In the same larder he kept the corpses of some of the political enemies he had liquidated, and Bokassa was said to have snacked on their brains and hearts. The French were mortified enough to engineer a coup that relieved the emperor of power, especially after Bokassa claimed that he had surreptitiously fed human flesh to an unwitting President Giscard d'Estaing during several of their banquets together. The testimony of the palace chef at a 1986 trial was damning. Bokassa was sentenced to lifetime house arrest in a small house in Bangui, where he was treated something like an aged lion in a zoo. He died in 1996.
The latest coup--the ninth since independence--toppled the government of President Félix Patasse in March 2003. He had made the mistake of leaving the Presidential Palace for a brief trip to Cameroon. But he had also forgotten the other key rule of staying in power in Africa: Always keep your people paid. Soldiers tired of working for free refused to put up much of a fight against the rebels, so the revolution was relatively bloodless. The portraits on the walls of the Presidential Palace changed, but little else did. When I was there, civil servants were going into their fourth month without wages and the finance minister announced that no disbursements would be coming anytime soon. The treasury was bankrupt. The French ominously announced the deployment of a peacekeeping detachment. Soldiers with machine guns and rocket launchers cruised around Bangui in jeeps. At New Year's Eve 2004, the Central African Republic was again teetering on the edge of chaos.
"Listen. Here is something you must understand. Diamonds are an illusion, diamonds are a dream," said Joseph N'gozo, leaning back in his chair. He used to be an economic official with the U.S. Embassy, back when there was a U.S. Embassy. Now he was trying to make money in diamonds and not having a lot of luck.
We were having dinner at Le Relais des Chasses, a restaurant near the center of Bangui popular with French expatriates. Its name means "The Hunting Club." N'gozo wore a colorful African shirt and pinstriped banker's pants.
"They have no role in the tradition of our society," he said in accented English. "We mine for them only because it could make us some money. We want to work hard, the American dream. And diamonds are the price of admission to what we think we want."
Joseph owned a small mine in a sandy patch of river bottom, about eighty kilometers north of Bangui. He paid his ten crewmen the equivalent of $3 a day--top wages by rural African standards--to shovel the dirt out of the pit into sifts. The slurry is then washed in river water as the crewmen keep their eyes out for the glint of magic rock.
"They are not geologists," said Joseph, "but they know where to go. They can read a riverbank."
His miners hunt for what are called alluvial diamonds--those stones washed out of dead volcano cores by the rainstorms that pound Central Africa every summer. These are the easiest possible diamonds to discover and sell. They lie five meters below the surface at the most, and some can be found simply by brushing a few inches of sand away from the topsoil. There is no telling how many lie deeper--undiscovered and probably destined to remain that way--because heavy equipment, geological expertise, and working capital are all almost nonexistent here.
Even so, the nation's eighty thousand miners still managed to find the retail equivalent of $2.5 billion in gemstones in the sand every year. With shovels and sifts and sweat, they made the Central African Republic the tenth biggest diamond-producing country in the world. And for all of it, their pay was miserly, their days long and hot, and their country so poor that two-thirds of the population lived on an income of less than a dollar a day. According to the government, about 90 percent of the nation's diamonds were found by "artisans"--a euphemism for hired labor crews from rural villages. The work is dirty and miserable. The mines usually go no deeper than five meters underground, but the soil is unstable and walls often ...
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