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It's Not The Basquiat— It's the Blood Diamond

The Tiffany Diamond is one of the largest ever “discovered.” Its beauty belies the history of colonization and exploitation of the African continent.

By Arielle Gray

The Carters are the new faces of Tiffany & Co.’s latest campaign.

The campaign is a “first” in many ways. A never-before-seen painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat is propped up against a wall behind Beyonce and Jay-Z. The painting, named “Equals Pi,” was completed in 1982 and landed in the hands of a private collector, before being acquired by Tiffany & Co. Alexandre Arnault, Tiffany’s executive vice president of products and communications, suggested that the color of the painting is no mistake saying that “My guess is that the [blue painting] is not by chance. The color is so specific that it has to be some kind of homage.” 

Hanging from Beyonce’s neck is the one-of-a-kind yellow Tiffany Diamond. She is the fourth woman and the first Black woman to wear the jewel. According to the jewelry magnate, this campaign featuring these “firsts” is a testament to the brand’s dedication to reaching a broader audience. Pledging a renewed commitment to diversity and inclusion in a press release, Tiffany & Co. announced that they are donating $2 million to HBCUs. 

Photograph: Mason Poole/Tiffany & Co

There’s debate online over what Basquiat would’ve actually wanted for his artwork but it’s hard to determine what the artist would have done if he were still alive. While much of his work did criticize racism and capitalism, Basquiat himself was a complicated man with complicated motivations. Basquiat’s estate has already authorized the use of Basquiat’s work for a myriad of products and has collaborated with many brands, including Reebok and Saint Laurent. While the criticism levied at the use of the Basquiat in the campaign have their own validity, there’s a bigger, shinier problem.

The Tiffany Diamond hanging around Beyonce’s neck isn’t just any diamond. It’s one of the largest yellow diamonds ever “discovered.” But its beauty belies the history of colonization and exploitation of the African continent. You cannot have diamonds without extractive colonialism. And while Tiffany & Co. now claims a commitment to “conflict-free” diamonds, its wealth and dominance in the diamond industry is predicated on the racist systems that contributed to the diamond industry in the first place.

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The Khoe- speaking Griqua of South Africa, inadvertently set off the diamond rush in 1869. Conflict over the interior lands, pregnant with diamonds, emerged and in 1871, British Lieutenant Governor R.W. Keate awarded “ownership” of the diamond fields to the Griqua. That same year, Britain extended “British territory by annexing Griqualand.” After stripping the Griqua people of their land, the British established an extractive economy. They set up a “one man, one claim” system, meaning one person could purchase only one claim (or area) of the mines. While the majority of the Kimberley mine diggers were Black, white diggers were able to buy and secure more claims. Soon, the British made it illegal for Black people to own claims, forcing Black diggers to work for white diggers for meager wages. 

By the time the Tiffany Diamond was found in 1877, the British had lifted the “one claim” rule, allowing rich Europeans to purchase all of the claims. As the “Big Hole” got deeper, expensive machinery was required to reach diamonds and only the wealthy had the capital to invest in this machinery. Soon, only a handful of diamond companies owned the mines and by 1885, the British capitalist (and virulent racist) Cecil John Rhodes controlled most of the mines in the area. That changed when he consolidated his company with Kimberley Mining Co. to form De Beers Consolidated, making him the effective owner of all of the mines in the area. 

The Kimberley mine isn’t a special or unique colonial project. This same process was repeated over and over again wherever diamonds were found, whether in the Congo or in Canada. And to this day, while companies like De Beers and Tiffany claim a commitment to “conflict-free” diamonds, diamond mines are still ongoing sources of displacement, human rights violations, and exploitation. Just last year, the presence of child laborers in diamond mines in the DRC rose by almost 50%. In 2021, De Beers pleaded guilty to “failing to report mercury pollution” at their Canadian mines. And just a few weeks ago, waste material from Catoca mines polluted Angolan and Congolese waterways. Those affected were given meager baskets of “basic provisions”

To be clear, I don’t believe in projecting our ideals onto celebrities because celebrities will almost always fail to live up to our radical expectations. They are too invested in the systems that maintain their wealth and power. Malcolm X and Kwame Ture both warned us that Black celebrities and capitalists can’t be tasked with “leading social transformation.” Beyonce and Jay-Z are both celebrities and capitalists. It is a fact. I’m not expecting the Carters to divest from anything that will impact their bottom line. I’m not expecting them to turn down a campaign offer from Tiffany & Co., even though they have the access and resources to do their own research on the problematic history of the diamond industry. Tina Knowles’ recent comments, supporting her daughter and demeaning Black folks unable to purchase diamonds, just reinforces the stark divide between the Black people who have wealth and those who don’t. Wealth will almost always be weaponized as an indicator of morality and work ethic. 

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I’m not interested in critiquing Black capitalists for doing what we already know they will do. 

Instead, the focus should be on the predatory inclusion practices that companies like Tiffany & Co. utilize to sell “representation” back to Black and brown people through consumable products. These companies and organizations will always support “representation” but only because they’ve determined that doing so will benefit profit. The free market has capitalized off of the freedom struggle and continues to do so. Tiffany & Co. made a calculated move with this campaign. The $2 million to HBCUs, a meager portion of the $4.97 billion the company is currently valued at, is just a byline used to bolster Tiffany’s “mission.”

Beyonce and Jay-Z can have their diamonds. They can have their wealth. I am not expecting them to lead or fund the revolution. The sooner fans and critics of the Carters stop expecting that, the sooner we can stop having these circular conversations about the place of Black capitalists within our liberatory struggles. 

We can ask our Black celebrities to try to do better. To try to inform themselves so they don’t participate in harmful marketing campaigns, like this one. To try to show some sense of being in solidarity with working class peoples. But at the end of the day, colonial institutions like Tiffany & Co. are pulling the strings. The Carters, and others too dedicated to wealth to divest from capitalism, are merely their puppets.

Arielle Gray is a Black queer Boston-based writer and artist. She is the Arts Engagement Producer for WBUR’s arts and culture team. Her freelance writing has appeared in VICE, Glamour, Bustle and Huffington Post. Most recently, she co-curated “Combahee’s Radical Call,” a yearlong exhibition celebrating the work of the Combahee River Collective in Boston. Her artwork has been featured in The Boston Globe, BBC Arabic, ATTN and Boston Art Review. She is the co-founder of Print Ain’t Dead, a publishing and literary platform centering the work of LGBTQIA BIPOC. 

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