The company’s soon-to-be former home has spawned many tales and legends—most of which are true
De Beers has confirmed that, later this year, it will move from its longtime home on Charterhouse Street in London (pictured, right) to the less-iconic crosstown headquarters of parent company Anglo American.
De Beers has been stationed on Charterhouse Street—close to the Hatton Garden diamond district—since the 1930s, occupying a variety of buildings often connected by bridges, although it briefly moved outside London during World War II, says spokesperson David Johnson.
De Beers’ imposing and mysterious Charterhouse Street headquarters has spawned many tales and legends—most of which are true:
1. It houses a world-class art collection.
Its art collection was so impressive it inspired an exhibit: Contemporary Art for 17 Charterhouse Street.
“There is a significant private collection in the building that does include some by some famous names,” says Johnson. “None of it has been sold to my knowledge.”
One noted artist whose work adorns the walls: David Hockney.
2. Some of that art was reportedly “donated” by sightholders.
When De Beers officially opened the 17 Charterhouse St. locale in 1979, sightholders say they were “encouraged” to contribute art. Some clients are still upset by this. Especially since…
3. Sightholders were not always treated like royalty.
“Clients [were at one time prohibited] from using the front door to enter or leave [17 Charterhouse],” wrote Chaim Even-Zohar on IDEX. “Sightholders could only come in through the (Saffron Hill) service entrance, behind the iron gates where cars drove in.”
Obviously, that has long since been changed.
4. The vault at 2 Charterhouse St. was four stories deep.
So says Edward Jay Epstein in his book The Rise and Fall of Diamonds. If that’s plausible, that may be because…
5. When the company’s power was at its height, the building’s vaults held an estimated 80–90 percent of the world’s diamonds.
Everyone in the diamond business took this fact for granted back then, but when you think about it, it really is staggering.
6. Today, it holds very few.
Sorting and sales moved to Botswana in 2013. So the same building that once held billions in dollars in diamonds now just contains a smattering of pieces used for promotional purposes, Johnson says.
7. It always had strong security. Really strong.
According to 2001 article in Fortune: “It is said that hidden among the bricks are cameras that cover every inch of space, powerful enough to capture the color of a person’s eyes.”
In this era of Google Street View, that is not as impressive as it was 15 years ago. Still, when that story talks about every inch of the building, does that include the bathrooms?
8. You needed an appointment.
“[17 Charterhouse] is not a place to which you turn up unannounced,” wrote The Independent in 2013 before sales moved. “At least, not if you wish to avoid alerting the police at nearby Snow Hill, who Geoff, my minder for the morning, assures me ‘will arrive within 60 seconds’ if necessary.”
9. It has a helipad on the roof.
This was often used by Nicky Oppenheimer for his private helicopter. And, as it turns out…
10. Nicky Oppenheimer still has rights to it.
“Although he’s no longer chairman of De Beers, Oppenheimer was sure to keep his landing rights to the [helipad on the] roof of the diamond firm’s London HQ in Charterhouse Street,” wrote The Evening Standard. “It means the tycoon can commute in from his country home by helicopter. There’s not much traffic—he is the only person granted permission to land a helicopter within the square mile.”
11. It inspired a book and movie.
Certainly, Hollywood couldn’t ignore a building with such mystique.
11 Harrowhouse—based on the 1972 book—was released in 1974 and starred Charles Grodin, Candice Bergen, James Mason, Trevor Howard, and John Gielgud. You can see the trailer here and—if you have a spare 90 minutes—the whole film here. (It’s also on Amazon Video.) JCK makes no guarantee as to the quality of the film.
(Photo courtesy of De Beers)