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Diamonds in the Rough

They Are Forever and a Girl's Best Friend; Here Is How to Tell the Gems from the Junk
Ettagale Blauer
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96

It was the end of the workday at the diamond sorting house in Kimberley, South Africa. The sorters, weary from a day of peering at piles of rough diamonds, made their way out through the tight security of Harry Oppenheimer House into the brilliant late-day sun. One sorter walked briskly to her car, making sure she didn't get caught up in a friendly chat that might have ended in a handshake. She would have had a hard time shaking hands--hers were closed around handfuls of rough diamonds, taken from the millions of carats that pass through the sorting house each year. She didn't come back to work the next day; and she was never caught.

It was one of the simplest and most successful diamond heists ever pulled off, and the man telling me the story knew his stuff. He was Brigadier Henrick Erasmus, retired head of the diamond squad of the South African police department. He spent his entire career chasing down diamond thieves.

Diamonds are the stuff that dreams, songs and thrillers are made of. They are elusive and expensive bits of glittering brilliance, a girl's best friend, precious and rare. They lurk under vast deserts, or lie buried within ocean beds or locked within rock so hard they must be blasted loose in mines a mile beneath the earth's surface.

Yet diamonds are more numerous than most people think. They do lurk beneath tons of sand and they are dynamited out of rock, but they are not rare. The diamonds that glitter in jewelry showcases and on a woman's fingers and earlobes, at her neck and occasionally in her nose, are mined by the millions of carats, and there are more millions taken from the earth every year. If they were truly rare, they would not form the center stone of three-quarters of the engagement rings sold in the United States.

So if they're not rare, why are they so expensive? Did someone repeal the law of supply and demand?

The primary explanation is De Beers, a name synonymous with diamonds. All the mystique, all the myth and a good deal of the reality of diamonds today evolve around De Beers. While this 107-year-old South African company's grip on the marketing of diamonds has slipped a bit during the past decade, it still has the power to beckon the world's diamond merchants to its London office to buy its diamonds in person--at De Beers' schedule, at De Beers' prices. No quibbling. No bargaining.

Every five weeks, approximately 150 wholesale diamond buyers arrive at De Beers' offices, where they are taken to individual rooms and presented with a plain cardboard box, about the size of a shoe box. Inside, neatly folded in the white tissue papers used throughout the diamond world, the dealers find rough diamonds in an assortment of sizes and qualities, chosen for them by De Beers. They are told the price, and that's the deal. Since De Beers maintains control over the marketing of an estimated 80 percent of the world's newly mined diamonds, the buyer pays up. Only "specials," diamonds above 10 carats, allow for negotiation in price.

De Beers' control of the market has been attacked on a number of fronts over the years, but the most serious threat to its monopoly came with the demise of the Soviet Union. Russia is not only a major diamond mining region, but it is also sitting on a huge stockpile of diamonds. It's no secret that the country is strapped for cash; the quick sale of a lot of diamonds would be a way of helping Russia out of that dilemma. The problem is that flooding the market with diamonds would immediately cause prices to drop; the Russians would diminish the value of their own stockpile. So, although diamonds continue to dribble out of Russia, De Beers and its chairman, Harry Oppenheimer, have been able to maintain pretty tight control.

Diamond is the hardest mineral on earth, so much harder than the next closest mineral (corundum) that it cannot be depicted to scale on a hardness chart. Yet diamond is simply crystalline carbon that has been subjected to tremendous heat and pressure, forming in volcanic pipes and found in igneous formations called kimberlites. After surviving this violent birth, the diamond waits beneath the earth's surface for millions of years.

Geologists follow telltale signs to locate diamond pipes; it may take 20 years of dogged, nose-to-the-ground searching to find one, but it's worth the effort. New finds such as Jwaneng in Botswana and Venetia in South Africa are worked as open-cast strip mines: Ore is blasted loose from sections of the mine; huge terraces, wide enough for big dumpsters to drive around and pick up the ore, are worked in increasingly smaller, concentric circles. When the working surface gets too deep for this method to continue, it becomes necessary to sink a mine shaft and begin underground work.


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