What do the following have in common? A Jules Verne submarine, sprinting steenbok antelope, a fleet of ship-based mines, tires twice the size of a man, and holes in the earth that could swallow 100 Empire State Buildings.
The answer is diamonds. All these elements are part of the amazing but little-appreciated story of diamond production. If you share even a small part of this astounding saga with your customers, they’ll come away with a greater attraction to the gem – and a better understanding of why it’s expensive.
I learned this first-hand on a recent tour of the De Beers mines in Africa. To say it was an eye-opening experience is like saying Alice was astonished in Wonderland.
Take the Jules Verne sub. To search for hidden deposits on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, De Beers uses a state-of-the-art, German-made probe able to withstand water pressure up to 1,200 ft. and stay submerged for up to six hours. It’s pretty safe to say that its geologists are exploring depths where not even Jacques Cousteau dared to venture.
When the sub finds evidence of diamonds, then really big things start to happen. At a cost of $32 million, mothballed oil tankers larger than football fields are converted to floating mines capable of sucking up tons of gravel a day from depths as extreme as 400 ft. On board, giant machines grumble and shake as they wrest diamonds from the ore and spew the gravel back into the sea. The whole process, from the time the slurry reaches the ship until the diamonds are sealed in small canisters, is computer-monitored and -controlled.
Nearly as impressive is the fact that each of the eight ships is a self-contained village of 40 to 50 people, who live and work in comfortable surroundings four weeks at a stretch before helicoptering back to Namibia. I got a literal taste of the quality of shipboard life when visitors shared lunch with the crew. If only the entrées at the JCK cafeteria were as tempting!
Land-based mines are no less impressive. Take Finsch, in South Africa. It used to be an open-pit operation, but the crater grew so big that De Beers tunneled under it to depths of a quarter of a mile or more. There are 50 miles of tunnels – clean, dry, and spacious. The rock walls are covered with mesh wiring and spray-painted. The place reminded me of an air-brushed version of the New York subway. Even though tons of rock are being blasted, hauled, and crushed by the hour, giant fans and water sprays keep the air so clean and cool you can’t tell you’re in a mine. And to protect miners’ hearing, ore crushers are operated remotely through the use of cameras linked to computers in a distant room.
Open-pit mines, on the other hand, inspire awe for other reasons. One is that everything’s so huge you feel like one of those little people tying down Gulliver. The older pits descend Grand Canyon-like deep into the earth and could easily hold hundreds of skyscrapers. The giant 177-ton loaders carrying up the ore bear down upon you with tires 12 ft. across. Costing $60,000 each, they wear out in a matter of weeks. One mine – Jwaneng in Botswana – spends $10 million a year replacing tires.
All that ore must be crushed. Enter another overlooked character in the story of diamond production: the massive electric-powered cruncher. This is something you never, ever want to fall into. I stood 20 ft. away, looking down upon one behind protective glass, and I have to tell you, it gave me goose bumps. This monster could eat an NFL linebacker in seconds. Loaders dump tons of rock into it every few minutes, yet it never slows, not even when swallowing 4-ft. boulders.
You’re probably wondering by now how antelope fit into this picture. As you can imagine, open-pit mining doesn’t enhance the beauty of a landscape. But wild game do. So, in what is one of the most enlightened corporate policies I’ve ever heard of, De Beers creates wild-game reserves on land surrounding all its mines. Each park is populated with native species, some of them endangered; one is the sleek little steenbok. In fact, De Beers has become the world’s largest supplier of wild game animals! Try that one on your customers.