Diamonds Hard Won

The customer hesitates, even after you present all your sure-fire arguments to explain why diamonds cost what they do. You covered how difficult they are to sort, trade and cut. Now try explaining the complex and fascinating process by which diamonds are mined in the late 20th century.

Recently, De Beers invited Senior Editor Russell Shor and me to South Africa on a press tour at its expense to show us a series of high-tech marvels, otherwise known as modern diamond mines. This is a difficult story to tell, because while diamond mining is an unavoidably costly endeavor, miners today, hyper-aware of declining diamond profits, do all they can to keep costs at a minimum.

But while balancing costs, De Beers must also target treasures, such as the rich deposit of diamonds buried off the coast of Namibia, where it shares ownership of mines. It must resift old “tailings,” mountains of dirt and soft kimberlite that were picked through using less sophisticated methods of the past to extract the many diamonds left there. Once all aboveground mining is exhausted, it must tunnel under the ground to get at the rich kimberlite pipes buried too deep in the earth to recover any other way. All in all, it’s a challenging proposition, but also an amazing one to explain to the diamond buyer who wants to regard his or her treasure as hard won and worth its value.

In the series of pictures that follow, join JCK on its tour under the earth, above the ground, out at sea and in the desert. No location is too fierce for De Beers’ exploration and we flew by plane and helicopter, bounced about in a Land Rover and spun our wheels in sand to see it all. Diamonds are indeed a rare treasure.

VENETIA MINE, NORTHERN SOUTH AFRICA

A series of small planes takes us to De Beers’ newest mine, Venetia. It’s located just near the border South Africa shares with Botswana and Zimbabwe, pictured here. The latest state-of-the-art mining techniques are being employed here, as well as the highest level of environmental preservation. Ancient baobab trees have been carefully uprooted and replanted and a vast game reserve surrounds the mine. Water conservation is also a major concern in this dry area. Technology is amazing at Venetia: the entire operations are organized from two control rooms and the crushing processes used to extract diamonds from the ore are as gentle as possible – more a matter of squeezing the diamonds out rather than coarsely crushing them.

JWANENG MINE, BOTSWANA

As baboons scampered across the leavings of mined earth, we rode in a Jeep down a spiral road deep into the open hole mine that is known as Jwaneng. The location of these kimberlite pipes was discovered by geologists who noticed termite mounds aboveground held indicator minerals pointing to the possibility that a kimberlite lay below the desert. The industrious termites had carried the minerals efficiently to the surface, pointing the way for De Beers. Enormously expensive vehicles, such as the truck pictured here, carry ore efficiently to processing plants or to crushers which extract the diamonds.

Mines like Jwaneng must cope with outsiders attempting to buy diamonds illicitly from employees and one of its costs of doing business is encouraging honesty. Any worker who finds a diamond in the pit receives 30% of its value in gratitude for his or her honesty. Jwaneng tries to show its loyalty to workers in other ways. It provides on-site education and incentives for employees who come up with ways to save the company money. Still, one of the necessary, yet high-cost, challenges for mines like Jwaneng is caring for the environment.

A game park with 1,200 animals and trees planted by employees has helped dampen the effect Jwaneng has had on the local ecology.

NAMDEB MINING OPERATIONS, NAMIBIA

Namibia’s diamond resources are legendary – the greatest number of high-quality diamonds in the De Beers empire are mined here, due to the flow of the Orange River from South Africa, which deposited diamonds here eons ago. Here, technology is helping Namdeb, a jointly owned operation between De Beers and the government of Namibia, to continue to mine diamonds onshore. The crawler-mounted vacuum units shown here are replacing the traditional spade and hand brush methods for recovering diamonds. These units are only brought in after Namdeb has stripped mineral-rich gravel of exotic minerals and moved earth using a variety of scrapers, bulldozers, dumptrucks and hydraulic excavators. Once again, a concern for the local ecology is critical, as rare plants and animals inhabit the exotic locale just off the southern coast of Namibia.