Roaming the halls of diamond conferences and industry meetings, Feriel Zerouki stands out from the crowd. Aside from being one of only a few women in the room, the new president of the World Diamond Council (WDC) has made a habit of pushing the industry’s boundaries.
“When I first met the different trade associations, I may have ruffled a few feathers,” she remarks in an interview with Rapaport Magazine. “I walked in without any expectations, full of questions and with a very strong opinion.”
At the time, she explains, they were discussing the same old topics, predictably relating to De Beers supply and the banking sector. “I’d point out to say, surely we’ve moved on,” recalls Zerouki. Drawing on her work at De Beers — where she is now senior vice president of corporate affairs — she saw other major issues the trade needed to address, namely responsible sourcing, sustainability and human rights.
Today, Feriel Zerouki acknowledges, the industry has moved on, even if it faces many new challenges.
When I first met the different trade associations, I may have ruffled a few feathers. I walked in without any expectations, full of questions and with a very strong opinion.
Taking steps toward inclusion
As the first woman to head an international diamond trade body, Zerouki “feels welcome, accepted and respected” in her role. Having begun her two-year term in May, she expects her experience will help evolve the diversity dynamic within trade associations.
“Others won’t face the same challenges I did, because we’ve tackled them already,” she asserts. “I’m looking forward to getting more diversity into these trade organizations — more women and other cultures — and I’m thinking about how to do that.”
Historically, industry members needed a seat on a WDC board in order to make themselves heard, but the council is considering other ways that newcomers can offer their opinions. Under previous president Edward Asscher, the body changed its bylaws to allow more people to participate in its committees.
By making itself accessible to a broader audience, Zerouki believes, the council can better educate people about challenges facing the industry, the role of the Kimberley Process (KP), and that of the WDC itself.
WDC president Feriel Zerouki during a meeting at the Kimberley Process Intersessional in Zimbabwe. (World Diamond Council)
The WDC serves two main functions, she explains: It represents the industry at the KP, and it manages the System of Warranties (SoW), through which businesses can provide assurances about their diamond sources.
It recently updated the SoW to include business practices relating to human and labor rights, anti-money laundering, and anti-corruption. The WDC also introduced a self-assessment mechanism to ensure that participants were meeting the stated standards.
However, it is within the corridors of the KP that the WDC exerts its biggest influence. That’s no simple feat, given that unlike governments, it has no voting power there — only observer status. Zerouki dismisses assertions that the KP has lost its relevance, stressing that no one else can fulfill its important task of controlling rough diamonds’ movement across borders.
However, she acknowledges that it falls short when it comes to broader social concerns in the supply chain. “Is [the KP] sufficient to address all issues? It never was,” she says. The WDC has been working to incorporate those issues into the definition of “conflict diamond,” which is currently limited to diamonds that fund civil wars. The council’s updates to the SoW have provided an example of what a responsible-sourcing declaration can look like for rough diamonds, she adds.
Meanwhile, the WDC has gradually gained trust at the KP, which has given the council greater influence in discussions, she reports. The KP, which Zimbabwe currently chairs, has asked the WDC to take the lead in meetings pertaining to the definition change.
No one left behind
But while the conflict-diamond definition and other “big issues” create headlines, there are many smaller wins at the KP, according to Zerouki. The organization has multiple working groups making technical decisions that affect the industry daily — and then “there is the really important work being done at the
KP on artisanal mining, that no one wants to write about.”
On top of all that, the war in Ukraine has prompted greater scrutiny of the industry’s sourcing practices. The Group of Seven (G7) nations — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US — have been working on requiring diamond companies to declare their goods’ origins at customs to ensure they are not contributing to Russia’s war effort. Here, Zerouki strikes a cautious tone.
“I’m really worried about the informal sector,” she says, referring to both artisanal miners and the independent artisans and traders — primarily in India — that the trade calls “the cottage industry.”
The G7 requirements won’t discriminate between the formal and informal sectors, as all diamonds will need to comply, she explains. This poses a challenge, because much of the industry does business by aggregating or mixing goods from various sources. This is especially true of the cottage industry, which has never sorted its diamonds by provenance, she argues. “They can do it, but it will require training and developing systems that bring them along.”
Zerouki is aware that the scope of these industry issues is daunting and that the work the KP and WDC are doing is often misunderstood. In her role as WDC president, she aims to change that, and to ensure no one is left behind.
“The industry isn’t aware of all these things, which is partly because we never communicated it strongly,” she admits. “I want to use my presidency to bring that outside world in and make them understand how critically important these issues are for the future of our industry.”
Not your standard mathematician
Feriel Zerouki’s emergence as a leader in diamond-industry policy was unplanned, but
it was also unsurprising.
Born in the United Arab Emirates and of Algerian heritage, Zerouki is a trained mathematician. She joined De Beers as a supply chain analyst, developing models to measure whether the company could deliver on its supply commitments.
She moved from forecasting to pricing, but soon got “an itch” to understand the rest of the diamond pipeline and interact with the broader industry, she recalls. “I had my education, but I also have my personality.”
A position opened up within De Beers to work on the company’s Best Practice Principles (BPPs), which were in their early development stages. Compliance issues were new to the diamond trade at the time, pushing Zerouki to learn the supply chain and develop standards “based on common sense” and what other industries were doing.
The BPPs continued to evolve. Meanwhile, there was a need for guidelines that the broader industry could adopt. De Beers cofounded the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC), with Zerouki participating in the standards committee.
Today, at 41, she has built a reputation as an expert on industry compliance. In addition to her role at the WDC, she sits on the boards of both the RJC and the Jewelers Vigilance Committee (JVC), which provides legal and compliance guidance to the jewelry trade.
All of this is a far cry from her days as a supply chain analyst — and Zerouki revels in the direction her career has taken.
“I love mathematics because it’s black or white, but the issues we deal with are very complex,” she reflects. “I’m good at the technical stuff, and that gives me an advantage.”
Her expertise makes it easier to convey these issues to others in the trade who might otherwise be resistant, “because people block things they don’t understand or that they fear.”
Fostering that understanding “gets you a long way,” she says, and “I do love the engagement
Image: Feriel Zerouki. (De Beers Group)