Canada aims to rival the world’s biggest diamond suppliers

Canada aims to become one of the world’s largest diamond producers, Canadian Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew said Thursday in Antwerp, Belgium.

Canada, widely known for its export of natural resources like soft wood lumber and oil, does not have a reputation for diamond mining, but recent finds in its northern territories over the past decade are starting to turn heads in the diamond industry.

“We are optimistic … to become one of the greatest players,” Pettigrew told The Associated Press after meeting with Peter Meeus, managing director of Antwerp’s High Diamond Council, which handles 80% of world trade in rough diamonds and half of trade in cut gems.

The city’s diamond cutters, eager to get a cut of the action, will handle over 95% of all Canada’s rough and polished gems in deals signed over the past few years.

Pettigrew, who came to Antwerp with representatives of Canada’s diamond industry, said he was optimistic his country could soon find itself rivaling the world’s top producer, Botswana and Russia.

So far, the numbers point to a rise in Canada’s 5th place rank in production, just behind Angola and South Africa, as a second, larger diamond mine, at Diavik, in the Northwest Territories, starts shipments to Antwerp in March.

“There is a phenomenal potential for Canadian diamonds,” Meeus said. “We live in a new diamond world, there are new producers out there,” he said. If mining continues on schedule, Meeus reportedly said, Canada will double its world market share of rough diamonds to 12% by 2006.

Diamond industry officials reportedly have said that with an additional third mine at Snap Lake, run by diamond giant De Beers, likely to start production in 2005, Canada will become the world’s third largest diamond producer, worth more than US$1 billion a year and 17 percent of the market after 2006.

To date only one mine has started shipping gems to Antwerp from Ekati, a mine about 180 miles northeast of Yellowknife, the territorial capital, run by Anglo-Australian mining giant BHP-Billiton.

It opened in 1998 as Canada’s first diamond mine and has so far shipped diamonds worth some $419 million into Antwerp, which cuts, polishes and resells them to jewelers and wholesalers.

“These deposits produce some of the highest quality diamonds, as Russia does,” said Bob Gannicott, president and CEO of Aber Diamond Corp. of Toronto, which along with Rio Tinto PLC of London jointly run the $1.3 billion Diavik mine. It is located 250 miles (400 kilometers) to the north of Yellowknife, the AP reported. Gannicott said he expects Diavik to produce around 5% of the world’s diamond supply when it starts production in just over a month.

Pettigrew added that he was pleased with ongoing joint cooperation and training programs set up with Antwerp’s High Diamond Council, which is currently training some 70 specialist cutters in Yellowknife.

World diamond seller Tiffany & Co. has also made plans to build a diamond cutting and sorting plant in Yellowknife, to coincide with the opening of the Diavik plant, from which it will buy some US$50 million high-grade gems per year.

Pettigrew said the diamond industry provided vital jobs for the local native population, which has suffered for years under high unemployment. Currently there are more than 30 exploration projects underway looking for more diamonds.

Antwerp is keen to promote diamonds from Canada as it tries to clean up the US$7.8 billion diamond industry’s tarnished image, saying they are winning the battle against smugglers who use gems to fund African wars.