These days, diamonds seem to be everywhere. There are few jewellery displays, if any, that don’t feature at least one substantially sized diamond. Indeed, recent news reports suggest that ever larger diamonds are being unearthed, with three large stones recently coming up for auction*. And these days, most people understand that diamond smuggling is a lucrative, if dangerous trade.
Before Ian Fleming wrote Diamonds are Forever in 1956, this aspect of the diamond trade was much less well known. Diamonds were mined in Africa and appeared in jewellery from Los Angeles to Geneva. What happened in between barely registered with many people. In fact, it wasn’t really until the passing of the Kimberley Accords – dramatized in the film “Blood Diamonds” – that the murkier side of the diamond trade was fully exposed.
The main problem with Diamonds Are Forever is that Fleming glamorises the world of the diamond smuggler – he has to, even Bond has certain standards – although he does link the diamond smuggling with wider criminal activity. The Spang Brothers are instrumental in illegal gambling, fixed horse races, violence and intimidation. It’s just that Fleming pays no attention to the African side, where the stakes are considerably higher. I do wonder if this is a slightly colonialist perspective; the African end of the pipeline is only of importance because of what it produces, whereas the Western end of the pipeline contains the ingredients for a cracking thriller.
Fleming only focuses on Africa in the first and last chapters of the novel, each featuring a thoroughly vile Afrikaaner waiting for the helicopter that will ferry the contraband diamonds out of Sierra Leonean jurisdiction. You would be very hard pushed to find a black African referred to in anything other than the most pejorative of terminology. Is this a reflection of the period? Perhaps, but I can’t help feeling it’s also a reflection of Fleming the man.
It would be wrong to suggest that diamond smuggling is a thing of the past. As “Blood Diamonds” demonstrated, it still goes on even if the motivations and participants are slightly different. Wherever high prices can be commanded for a commodity, an illicit trade in it will soon spring up alongside the legal one. Equally, it would be wrong to suggest that Fleming’s portrayal of the diamond trade is entirely accurate. Diamond smuggling is neither glamorous nor easy to walk into (as Bond seems to think it is). The only thing that would damage the trade is the collapse in the price rather than the best efforts of MI6.
* Although at least one of these didn’t meet the reserve price.