Diamond ‘Happenings’

A number of seemingly unrelated happenings over the past few weeks suggest that some fundamental shifts are taking place in the world diamond market. It’s too soon to say what impact these shifts will have on day-to-day diamond business in the United States. But one thing is sure. Change is coming.

The first happening concerns Botswana, one of the world’s richest sources of fine-quality diamonds. This is a country that, until now, has stayed uninvolved in the war and turmoil plaguing southern Africa. But in September, when South African troops went in to help the government of Lesotho quell a revolt in its own army, Botswana added a small military force of its own.

Does this mean that Botswana is changing its political course? Hopefully not. But now that civil war in the Congo (formerly Zaire, a big diamond producer) involves Angola (another diamond power), Zimbabwe, Rwanda, and Uganda, maybe it’s too much to hope that Botswana somehow will stay aloof from the African maelstrom.

Add to this uncertainty the prospect of Nelson Mandela’s stepping down as president of South Africa next spring. He has able lieutenants, but unfulfilled expectations among the nation’s economically dispossessed already are fueling rampant crime and civil unrest in South Africa – and we see another potential threat to a critical diamond source.

For another happening, let’s look to Russia and its role in the diamond world. Many observers earlier this year said that the country’s financial woes would tighten its diamond industry’s dependence on De Beers, arguing that Russia’s need for guaranteed income would be of paramount importance. But it seems that the Russians are up to their old tricks and “leakage” of stones to the Antwerp market is on again, punching holes in the De Beers contract. When it comes to raising cash, Russia is pragmatic rather than loyal.

Russia’s financial crisis affects the diamond business in another way, too. Big investments, domestic or foreign, basically have been put on hold – and among them is development of the much-ballyhooed Lomonosov mine near Archangel.

These happenings do not create a pretty picture: threatened diamond supplies from southern Africa and Russia, primary world sources. Moreover, Australian supplies are likely to decline soon, even with expansion of the Argyle mine (a development unlikely to prompt tears at De Beers). Today, shortages may not be considered a big deal, with demand outside the United States at a record low for recent times. But eventually economic messes, even global ones, are cleared up, and just as certainly demand will rise again. The big question: Will there be enough supplies to meet that demand?

Probably so. After all, self-interest dictates that African and Russian stones will continue to reach the market, though it may not always be in an orderly fashion. Further, De Beers has a huge stockpile to work off, and Canada finally is emerging as a major player. BHP’s newly opened mine is just a start. De Beers, through its Canadian affiliate, Monopros Ltd., is about to enter a new exploration phase at its Northwest Territories project. In anticipation of goods to come, new diamond-cutting plants are opening in Montreal and Yellowknife. These are clear signs that Canada may become an important market stabilizer in an uncertain diamond world. It’s well to remember, however, that De Beers is not likely to have the same control in Canada that it has elsewhere in the market.

What conclusions can we draw from these various “happenings”? I don’t know, and I doubt if anyone does. But I do know that anyone dealing in diamonds better pay close attention to what’s going on. Eventually – maybe not for a year or more – the picture will clear enough for informed merchants to make wise decisions. The uninformed will rue their lack of knowledge.