Romancing the Stone

Tom Zoellner -- journalist, former Phoenician, recently heartbroken guy -- has written a book about the diamond industry. The Heartless Stone digs deep into the cold, hard heart of the diamond business, which Zoellner globetrotted to uncover. From the mines of Africa to the further reaches of the Arctic Circle, Zoellner tramped after the deceit and mythology behind a girl's best friend.

Robrt L. Pela: Your book details some true horrors about the lengths to which people will go to mine diamonds. What is it about that shiny little stone?

Tom Zoellner: Writing the book, I asked myself that question at every step along the way. I decided it comes down to the mythology that we've built around diamonds. We use them to signify and make order of complicated emotions. There seems to be a human need to channel emotion into an object. As a result, they become tremendously difficult to get rid of once you put feelings into them. It took me a whole year to disengage from the tiny little diamond ring that I bought -- especially after I saw what had been done in order to get it.

Pela: You made that ring -- which your fiancée returned to you when she broke your engagement -- into a sort of centerpiece in your book.

Zoellner: I had dealt with the breakup of that engagement in a not very healthy way, as men in their early 30s who don't like to talk about their inner pain are prone to do. I moved back to Phoenix, my hometown, and tried to pretend like the breakup didn't bother me. I spent a lot of time in bars and didn't really do the emotional work that I should have. I hung onto the ring, and when I'd look at it, the pain I hadn't dealt with would come rushing back in. So I decided to write about it.

Pela: What has your ex said about the book?

Zoellner: She asked me to let her move on with her life, which I've respected. I did send her a copy of the book, but I haven't heard from her.

Pela: You uncovered a lot of nasty stuff about the diamond industry.

Zoellner: No one had looked very closely at this industry, one of the most opaque industries on the planet. The people who sell diamonds have been good at keeping secret what happens between the mine and the mall. But I have to mention that dribs and drabs of this information have come out over the years; mine is not the very first exposé to unearth this stuff. What my book does, hopefully, is pull all these stories together.

Pela: You mean like how there are kids in India who get paid pennies to polish diamonds?

Zoellner: For example. And how diamonds are an easy currency to use when you're buying arms or smuggling or laundering money. Chicanery and deception and malfeasance trail the diamond like smoke.

Pela: I feel like I shouldn't ever admire another wedding ring again.

Zoellner: I don't want my book to make people feel like they're bad for liking diamonds. It's not that simple. I understand the appeal of diamonds -- I held onto one for years; I had a lot invested in it in a strange way, and I'm a typical beer-drinking slob; it should have meant nothing to me. So I get it. But the truth is that you have no way of knowing where your stone has been. It could have been killed for or slaved over by a 10-year-old. That little stone on your spouse's finger could have a very upsetting pedigree.

Pela: Now that you've published your book, do you worry that the diamond mafia is going to come after you?

Zoellner: That's a joke among my friends: I'm a marked man. But seriously, there's no reason to think that the [bad guys] of the diamond trade are violent. The ones I confronted while researching the book were unfailingly polite. Diamond mining and selling isn't entirely an evil empire.

Pela: On the last page of the book, you still have the box that held your engagement ring. What did you do with the empty box?

Zoellner: (Laughs.) It still sits in a dresser drawer in my apartment. But I don't feel the same way about it that I did about the diamond. It really is just an empty box now.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela