The Heartless Stone: A Journey Through the World of Diamonds, Deceit, and Desire

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Macmillan, Jun 12, 2007 - Business & Economics - 340 pages
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An adventure story in the tradition of Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, The Heartless Stone is a voyage into the cold heart of the world's most unyielding gem.

When he proposed to his girlfriend, Tom Zoellner gave what is expected of every American man--a diamond engagement ring. But when the relationship broke apart, he was left with a used diamond that began to haunt him. His obsession carried him around the globe; from the "blood diamond" rings of Africa; to the sweltering polishing factories of India; to mines above the Arctic Circle; to illegal diggings in Brazil; to the London headquarters of De Beers, the secretive global colossus that has dominated the industry for more than a century, and permanently carved the phrase "A diamond is forever" on the psyche. The Heartless Stone goes beyond investigative reporting into the regions of the human heart that make the diamond empire possible.
 

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LibraryThing Review

User Review  - reenum - LibraryThing

Diamonds are an illusion. Tom Zoellner proves this in his engaging account about the diamond trade. The book’s chapters are divided by geographical location. This format helps make each chapter stand ... Read full review

THE HEARTLESS STONE: A Journey Through the World of Diamonds, Deceit, and Desire

User Review  - Kirkus

Sparkling debut from adventuresome journalist Zoellner, who traveled the world to tell the dirty, glorious and sometime bloody story of diamonds.When his fiancée returned her engagement ring, the ... Read full review

Selected pages

Contents

Dying Stars Central African Republic
1
Desired Results Japan
35
The Strong Man Brasil
68
The Cartel South Africa
96
The New Era Australia
133
Blood Diamonds Angola
155
The Stone Mills India
184
Midnight Sun Canada
219
Alchemy Russia
258
The Big Nothing United States of America
282
Notes on Sources
315
Acknowledgments
325
Index
331
Copyright

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About the author (2007)

Chapter One
Dying Stars
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 th

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