Monday, July 9, 2007

Tom Zoellner's "The Heartless Stone"

Tom Zoellner has worked as a contributing editor for Men's Health magazine and as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. He is the co-author of An Ordinary Man, the autobiography of Paul Rusesabagina, whose actions during the 1994 Rwandan genocide were portrayed in the movie Hotel Rwanda, and The Heartless Stone: A Journey Through the World of Diamonds, Deceit, and Desire.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to The Heartless Stone and reported the following:
Page 99 of the paperback version of The Heartless Stone contains a description of the fabled "sight rooms" of the De Beers selling office at 17 Charterhouse Street in London. The book is an investigation into the global diamond trade, ala Fast Food Nation. One of the titans of the business, of course, is De Beers and the book spends two chapters dissecting its history and operations. The Ford rule does seem to provide a distillation of two key themes -- 1) the banality of the diamond myth and 2) the false image of geological rarity that keeps a hefty price tag attached to that myth. I might have picked a different page to highlight, given a choice, but 99 works just fine as a sip from the bottle. Here it is:

“Keeping the balance was everything,” said this official, who asked that I keep him anonymous. “We would check the price of rough in Bombay, Antwerp, Tel Aviv and New York. We knew whatever we did would have a huge effect on the marketplace.”

Outsiders usually aren’t permitted on the sight floor, which represents a kind of inner-temple of the diamond world. But I was in London in the dead week after Christmas and managed to speak with an executive in a generous mood. His name is Andy Bone and he wore a tidy button-down shirt under a sweater. We shared a lunch of coq au vin and lobster bisque in the cafeteria and then he took me up to the suite where the gems are distributed to the elite every fifth Monday.

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting to see, but the sight rooms looked like an ordinary set of 1980s-style conference rooms. The only thing that would have set them apart from the architecture of a middlebrow law firm was the presence of square lamps and electronic scales next to the windows, and an eye-in-the-sky security camera bubble mounted on the ceiling. It looked disappointingly ordinary. I sat in one of the padded chairs and said as much.

“Kind of mundane, I agree,” said Bone. “But I suppose it is an important thing, in its own subdued way.”

He wasn’t kidding. Five floors beneath us were a series of vaults that contain the world’s largest stockpile of unpolished diamonds. The exact value of this reserve is a source of some speculation, but the best estimates put it at half a billion dollars. These gems are doled out in the sights at a controlled rate, but to De Beers, they remain much more valuable right where they are. The continuing stability of the diamond industry depends on an artificial scarcity which De Beers has worked hard to create, all the while spending billions in advertising to maintain the image of a diamond as the ultimate token of love. The De Beers organization is now in the midst of trying to reinvent itself as a vendor of specially branded diamonds rather than being the custodian of the trade, but it remains a cartel in the classic sense – an interlocking web of corporate interests designed to eliminate competition. De Beers has managed the remarkable feat of operating a
Visit Tom Zoellner's website and read an excerpt from The Heartless Stone.

--Marshal Zeringue