The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Rihanna and Lupita shine bright like diamonds — but at what cost?

7 min

If there’s one thing I love reading, writing and tweeting about, it’s gems and the jewelry industry. Because as much as I’ll admit I love sparkly things, I also enjoy interrogating the historically dark side of the gem trade.

I’ve lately been interested in how major jewelry brands have been interacting with Black female celebrities. In 2021, for instance, I took a decent amount of Beyhive heat for critiquing Tiffany & Co.’s collaboration with Beyoncé.

This week, Rihanna said, Hold my De Beers.

On Sunday at the Academy Awards, the billionaire and mother-to-be performed her Oscar-nominated single, “Lift Me Up,” from the “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” soundtrack. She wore an impressive assemblage of De Beers diamonds: 142 carats, worth $2.6 million.

Of course, celebrities are often lent jewelry to wear on the red carpet. And Rihanna wasn’t the only Black female celebrity to wear De Beers on Sunday night; Ariana DeBose and Halle Bailey were also bedecked in diamonds from the house.

A friend pointed out, however, that it was noteworthy that De Beers would be so closely associating itself with Rihanna, who was singing a song from a film about a fictional African country that has managed to hide its precious natural resource from the world. This made me think of another “Black Panther” star: Lupita Nyong’o.

Follow Karen Attiah's opinionsFollow

Last year, De Beers announced that it had named the Kenyan-Mexican actress its first “global ambassador” and that she would star in a film depicting the journey of a rough stone to a finished jewelry piece. In the statement announcing the partnership, Nyong’o said she was “honored,” adding: “This campaign brings to life the transformative power that I feel when I wear De Beers’ diamond creations, and the pride in knowing where they come from and the good they do.”

Mkay. I’ll admit, Nyong’o looks amazing in the ad.

But when the campaign launched late last year, it was not without criticism and controversy.

I, too, was disappointed. How could Nyong’o star in a movie about an African country that controls its own resources and conceals them from the world, while also starring in a campaign for a company associated with the brutal diamond trade in Southern Africa?

It made even less sense considering Nyong’o’s attempts to paint herself as socially conscious about human exploitation. After all, she pulled out of the film “The Woman King,” about the all-female warriors of the Dahomey kingdom, after making a short documentary about the actual Dahomey Amazons and their part in the trafficking of enslaved people.

The actress caught some flak (though somehow not nearly as much as Beyoncé did for her association with Tiffany). In declining her “Woman King” part, Nyong’o said at the time, “It wasn’t the role for me to play.” But playing the role of chief shill for De Beers is? Talk about moral inconsistency.

There’s not enough room here to go into the full history of De Beers; its racist founder, Cecil Rhodes; or the diamond industry, which you might call a cartel that has managed to fool the world into thinking diamonds are rare and valuable. So in short: De Beers managed to gain control of the diamond mines in South Africa and exploited the Black South Africans who worked in them. De Beers also came under scrutiny during the era of concern over “blood” diamonds that were helping to fuel conflict in countries including Sierra Leone and Liberia.

It would appear that De Beers and Tiffany are strategically using Black celebrity “firsts” and Black culture to rebrand themselves. Tiffany made much of the fact that Beyoncé was the first Black woman (allowed) to wear the famous Tiffany diamond, discovered in 1877.

But there is something extra screwy about a diamond company so assertively associating itself with the “Black Panther” franchise. Wakanda not only controls its own precious metal, vibranium, but its leaders also have the power to tell other countries that want vibranium to go kick rocks.

Ultimately, this is yet another reminder of two things: the perils that companies face in using Black “firsts” to polish their image; and the reality that the social justice stances of so many celebrities are, essentially, PR. Stars, including Nyong’o, seem to be all about securing the bag, even if that bag is tainted with the historical blood of Africans.

Global Radar: De Beers faces trouble in Botswana

While De Beers has been draping the women of “Black Panther” in diamonds, it has also been facing serious challenges in Botswana, from which it sources many of its diamonds (the gems make up 90 percent of Botswana’s exports).

Since 2018, Botswana’s government has been negotiating with De Beers, seeking a larger share of profits from the sale of rough diamonds produced in a joint venture with the company. Last month, Botswana’s president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, said the government would exit negotiations if they could not reach a satisfactory deal. “These are our diamonds, and we want a larger share for us,” Masisi said. “If it gets difficult and talks fail, we will have to say, ‘Let’s go our separate ways.’”

Last week, Masisi stood firm. “Besides the fact that the diamonds are ours, it doesn’t make sense for us to continue to relegate ourselves to participating in the rough space only,” he said. “So, it’s only logical that we want more and we are going to get more. But through negotiation.”

De Beers CEO Al Cook merely said, “We as De Beers want to play our role in a strong, strategic partnership,” and expressed confidence that both parties would move forward “in a very good way.”

This is why I can’t be impressed with De Beers’s Wakanda associations or its ad campaigns featuring glamorous Black women — when a real African country is fighting for access to the value of material found in its own soil. That African countries are still enmeshed in these exploitative partnerships is one reason the national independence of Wakanda in “Black Panther” resonated so deeply. If De Beers wants to turn a new page, it will give Botswana the fairer deal it deserves.

For the Culture: Get in, losers, we’re stealing diamonds

All this jewelry talk reminds me of Doris Payne. For nearly 70 years, Payne, who is Black and grew up poor in West Virginia, managed to become one of the world’s most notorious (and successful) jewel thieves, stealing millions of dollars’ worth of jewelry in the United States and abroad.

This “Granny Gem Thief,” now 92, never really retired; she was crimin’ as recently as 2017, shoplifting from a Walmart in Georgia.

I highly recommend her memoir, “Diamond Doris: The True Story of the World’s Most Notorious Jewel Thief,” and the documentary film “The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne.” Halle Berry was supposed to star in a movie about Payne’s life, but the film never got made. Such a shame. Forget “Blood Diamond” — that’s a movie about Black people and diamond theft I would have watched!

Do you have questions, comments, tips, recipes, poems, praise or critiques for me? Submit them here. I do read every submission and may include yours in a future version of the newsletter.