Cutting deep 

Tom Zoellner draws meaning from a stone

When a couple breaks off their engagement there are, inevitably, tears, resentment and perhaps a bit of sheepishness when telling family and friends that the big day is off. And while the ex-bride may wonder if she can still return the dress she already had altered, the ex-groom probably ponders the fate of the diamond engagement ring he bought for the lady with whom he’d planned to spend the next 40 or so years. Can he get his money back? Should he return the ring to the store? Should he, in a moment of sporting chivalry, let his former fiancée keep it? Or should he keep it for himself, for no other purpose than to remind himself of the misery he suffered from the most painful breakup of his life?

Apparently, former Indy contributor Tom Zoellner (he wrote the paper’s Nov. 13, 2003’s “Qworst” cover story) is a glutton for punishment. After his fiancée Anne broke up with him (sliding the diamond solitaire off her finger and handing it back to him herself), Zoellner not only kept the ring but felt literally haunted by it, the breakup and, ultimately, the story of the diamond itself. In his new book, The Heartless Stone: a Journey through the World of Diamonds, Deceit, and Desire, Zoellner’s attachment to the engagement ring he bought for his bride not-to-be becomes the catalyst for a profoundly reflective, incredibly researched history of the diamond industry. Zoellner’s story takes us through his travels to 10 countries on six continents, unraveling the answer to a not-so-simple question: Why is this stone—which is not so rare in nature—responsible for so much of the world’s desolation, bloodshed and secrecy?

“When I was in Africa seeing the tremendously bad circumstances these guys worked in,” Zoellner explains in a recent telephone conversation, “and seeing the ease in which diamonds are smuggled, I began to see the misery this rock brings to so many people around the world. It made me think of my own participation in it and my own diamond, which I had left over from this engagement that ended two years prior. I found myself thinking about that diamond, thinking about that broken engagement the entire time I was in Africa, and the sort of personal resonance I had with this little thing, this diamond ring.”

While the The Heartless Stone’s seedling was a personal breakup that left, among other things, one diamond solitaire of slightly over a carat in its wake, Zoellner’s exploration moved beyond heartbreak to uncover unsettling information.

“The trade in blood diamonds continues,” maintains Zoellner, who now lives in New York City. “Despite assurances from the industry, there are diamonds being mined in very bloody circumstances in Angola; in India, where 92 percent of the world’s diamonds are polished, child labor is enforced in the polishing factories. It’s very easy to pass off a diamond as coming from somewhere it hasn’t. They’re very difficult to trace and one can easily erase the history of a dirty diamond and pass it off as clean. Chicanery and greed and even violence has trailed the diamond like a mist, almost from the first time people decided it was a valuable stone.”

Zoellner isn’t the first to reveal that diamond mining, especially in Africa, is responsible for the deaths and abuse of workers, but he uses his journey to probe deeper into the issues surrounding the industry. He not only uncovers new information about the practice of mining today, but—in an eye-opening history of diamond advertising—forces readers to reckon with our own store-bought illusions, which create not just a desire for diamonds, but a literal demand. When Zoellner bought a ring for his fiancée, he did only what the culture expects of any decent, well-intended young man. Doesn’t a real man show the depth of his love by the quality (and size) of his engagement ring?

“There’s a romantic image around the diamond,” Zoellner says, “which has very little to do with what a diamond actually is, which is—unfortunately—a source of great squalor, misery and violence in the places where it’s produced. Every place, particularly the United States, has its own set of mythologies surrounding this otherwise worthless product. A diamond is nothing without its mythology. The mythology is where the money is, otherwise a diamond is just a worthless rock, good only for tools.”

While Zoellner himself may yet marry, he says he’ll never buy another diamond. And his progress through The Heartless Stone leads reader and author alike to an ever-evolving story—as troubling as it is fascinating—of a gem that tells as much about us as it does about a dirty rock.

“And what,” Zoellner writes at the end of his first chapter, “gives diamonds their hard and remorseless beauty, really? Whether they emerge from the death of a star or the life of plankton makes no difference, for these chips from the earth are nothing more than an empty cage for our dreams—blank surfaces upon which the shifting desires of the heart could be written. A diamond is a philosopher’s stone of the existential variety, for it is like the world itself: spoken into existence only through whatever meaning we choose to assign it.”

Tom Zoellner will read from and sign copies of The Heartless Stone at Shakespeare & Co., 103 S. Third W., Thursday, June 15, at 7 PM.

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