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It’s early December at New York City’s Lowell hotel. The Pembroke restaurant is closed, leaving the chintz-soaked room to Chopard copresident Caroline Scheufele. With one black suede thigh-high boot hooked around the other, Scheufele untangles a long, delicate diamond necklace in her hand and purses her lips, coated in a shade of red Tom Ford named Willful. She tells me why she’s summoned me to her hotel, around the corner from Chopard’s Madison Avenue flagship store. “It’s about a diamond, of course,” she says with an accent slightly hinting at her German upbringing. “I’m not talking about the biggest diamond ever,” whispers the 55-year-old, even though we’re alone. “Non. But the best diamond.”
The way Scheufele tells it, about a year and a half ago she got a call from the Karowe Mine in Botswana. “‘You need to get on a plane,’ they told me.” Having been copresident of Chopard since 2001 (her father, Karl Scheufele, bought the legendary watch company in 1963, and together they introduced fine jewelry in 1985), she’s gotten a lot of these calls. “Every week,” she says with a shake of her head.
But this time, taking the call in her Geneva home at 9 a.m., she felt she had to go. She had an idea that had been nagging at her, a plan to create a suite of jewels, maybe 20 stones, all from one mother stone, all for one buyer. She just needed the right diamond—“the right mother to give birth,” as she puts it.
“This is the mother,” she was told. Scheufele got on a plane. It was her first visit to Botswana, nestled between Namibia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. After three days of travel, she held the diamond in her hand. It was heavy, about the weight of a small bottle of water—68 grams. Over a billion years old. Three hundred forty-two carats. It would become 23 diamonds, cut into nearly every imaginable shape. She named it the Queen of Kalahari, after the desert where it was found.
And then Scheufele had a thought: Why not share the entire process? She had nothing to hide. “We must change the way we sell diamonds,” she says. She commissioned a documentary about the experience, lensed by her partner, filmmaker and journalist Alexis Veller, which was shown during couture week in Paris in January. “We see this whole project as an example of our commitment to ethics.”
In today’s self-congratulatory world, where the notion of do-good luxury feels as helpful and hollow as an Instagram hashtag, it would be easy to roll your eyes. Scheufele knows that. But she also knows her clients. “Look, nobody needs a necklace; nobody needs diamonds. It’s nice to have. To know where the stones came from, that’s added value. If you have an engagement ring—think about it—you want it to be clean. If you are able to know precisely where everything came from, then a clear conscience is the ultimate luxury.”
Diamond mining. The very words have some, well, conflict. The precious stones, first discovered in India in the fourth century B.C., are born 90 to 125 miles deep in the earth’s mantle, packed in kimberlite and lamproite, and cooked for a billion or so years under tremendous heat and pressure. Kimberlite magma funnels them up toward the surface, and then they’re blown from rock with artfully placed dynamite. Then the drama really starts.
Although diamonds were first mined in India, it was the diamonds discovered in Kimberley, South Africa, in 1866 that established the modern diamond era. And when Cecil Rhodes founded De Beers Consolidated Mines Limited in 1888, he also established the modern diamond market. In fact, by 1900, De Beers was responsible for approximately 90 percent of the rough diamonds cut in the world.
Toward the end of the 20th century, De Beers fielded competition from Rio Tinto Diamonds and Alrosa and diamonds were discovered in the former Soviet Union and in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. But in 1975, Angola, with many newly active mines, gained independence from Portugal, and diamonds went from being “a girl’s best friend” to a $4 billion down payment on a civil war. Indeed, an estimated 15 percent of diamonds purchased in the 1990s were conflict diamonds, stones originally sold for illegal and unethical gain. Today, thanks in large part to the United Nations Kimberley Process, a certification system initiated in 2000 and now adopted by 81 countries, that number has shrunk to less than 1 percent.
“Believe me, I want people to fall in love with a great stone first, then feel good about where it came from,” Scheufele says. “I first started thinking about this with gold when we introduced fair-mined gold in 2013. I believe this is where we are going as an industry. We will be like the car industry, the food industry—where this transparency will be imposed by governments. We at Chopard want to be early.” She twiddles her diamond necklace. The stones are from Botswana, by the way. “This is the new normal.”