Widely admired then set aside due to having little practical value, blockchain has now found the perfect partner in gem giant De Beers
The diamond industry has forever wrestled with its supply chain, due to valuable gems being at high risk of theft or counterfeiting. But in recent years it has also suffered from its association with forced labour, which has sparked an appetite among consumers for lab-grown stones that are more likely to be conflict-free.
Now, miner De Beers is not only seeking to up the security of its gem supply chain but also authenticity and provenance – and blockchain will help it tell those stories, from miner to customer.
Verify the journey of goods
Under the firm’s tech pilot, when a stone is discovered it is taken to a scanner which maps millions of points to form a complete 3D silhouette, or virtual replica, of the physical stone. This image and other characteristics such as the size and weight are logged on the system, completing the digital twin.
Additional information, including the owner and mine site, are also recorded and verified on the ledger. All this is encompassed in De Beers’ new traceability platform, Tracr, which it built together with members of the diamond industry.
In the reverse of manufacturing, where components are assembled to make a single product, gems change dramatically in number, size and shape along their journey. So how do you know if 20 small gems came from the same rough diamond?
“What Tracr does really effectively is marry the children stones to the parent stone and it keeps that parent-child relationship,” senior vice-president digital transformation at De Beers, Wesley Tucker, tells SM.
“We’ve developed algorithms which can take multiple scans along the value chain and verify them back to the original stone. Then we take the scan of the diamond through the cutting and planning process and we send those to the cloud and match it the whole way through the process.
“At every step of the way, you’ve got another verification, besides the declarative statement, that this is the same diamond that’s working its way through the supply chain.”
Track and trust
Tracr isn’t only reliant on blockchain, the system combines 3D mapping, AI, machine-learning and the Internet of Things, which ‘layer’ on top of the blockchain.
Tucker says each element supports the effectiveness of the others, and collectively they bring much-needed trust to the industry. And while blockchain may be unnecessary for internal systems, it comes into its own when dealing with external parties in the supply chain.
“Blockchain is valuable as soon as you have a multi-party system that is outside of your organisation, where you need to work on the trust,” says Tucker.
“So here, blockchain is working because every participant has their own instance (version of their data), and they get to keep and control all of their data until they move the product on.
"Then they have to pass the data on with the product. That level of privacy and visibility with collaboration is something only blockchain can do.”
The tech also comes in handy due to its ability to scale. De Beers developed Tracr in collaboration with partners across the value chain, from stone labs to retailers. Its main goal is to offer open use of the platform to everyone, so the entire industry runs on one consistent system.
Uniting the diamond industry means addressing challenges specific to artisanal and small-scale miners (ASMs) – a group which often struggles to prove their gem origins. So Tracr works with De Beers’ GemFair initiative to help ASMs legitimately access markets.
Boosting small and artisanal businesses
“De Beers is working with ASMs in Sierra Leone and a lot of those diamonds are going on to the Tracr platform,” says Tucker.
“What becomes interesting is the ability to tell the story of the artisanal miner at the retailer – it’s really, really, really powerful for the artisanal miner.
“We believe Tracr can provide a foundational highway for that with GemFair. They go to market through the De Beers auction platform, so artisanal miners are able to sell their diamonds at a much more competitive rate.”
The pilot has been a success, with close to half a million stones logged so far and an official launch due later this year, which the firm hopes will return the shine to the public perception of the industry.
As Tucker says, diamonds sometimes get a bad reputation, so “the real goal is to make sure consumers know the value we’re creating and there’s hopefully a virtuous circle that gets created”.