Sophia Loren is looking at me. And she is entrancing. An extremely realistic portrait of her by Brazilian artist Vik Muniz – created by the arrangement of around 3000 thousand glittering loose diamonds photographed on a page – hangs in De Beers Headquarters on London’s Charterhouse Street.
Part of Muniz’s “Diamond Divas” series of glamorous Hollywood legends – the artwork sums up only a facet of what diamonds have come to represent.
The building’s very corporate facade had given no hint of its business, that it houses the world’s leading diamond supplier. Although I am not sure what I was expecting. A giant shiny rock to light my way through the rain-soaked streets? This is on my mind because exiting the tube station that morning I stopped a man in a suit to ask if he knew where “De Beers” was and he directed me to a pub.
“De Beers” and the family associated with it, the Oppenheimers (now exited from the company), are names I have grown up with, as much a part of South Africa’s DNA as “braaivleis and sunny skies”.
The same week, Damien Hirst’s diamond skull was on limited public view at London’s Tate Modern. His 50-million-pound artwork titled “For the Love of God” was drawing immense crowds.
As a footnote – its name was inspired by Hirst’s mother who exclaimed “For the love of God!” on hearing another of her son’s crazy ideas. But listening to Hirst being interviewed I began to comprehend the enduring appeal of what author Matthew Hart called a “commodity as fanciful as light”. For Hirst, whose work has been driven by an obsession with mortality, diamonds are “the maximum you can put up against death”. Beautiful and utterly indestructible.
Formed through volcanic activity the world’s oldest diamonds are thought to be more than 4.2 billion years old, says Liz Mearing, head of De Beers Forevermark retail training. Its youngest is around 900 million years old. By contrast modern diamond mining is relatively new to the world – it began around 1870 on home ground after a Griqua shepherd found a stone near the Orange River that he traded for 500 sheep, ten oxen and a horse. The stone was an 83-carat diamond, later cut into a 47-carat pear-shape and called “The Star of South Africa”.
In a master class led by Mearing and diamond expert Gareth Jones, there are diamonds everywhere. They lie in small lustrous heaps on the table in front of me. These are the parcels of “rough” received for sorting a few floors below us at the Diamond Trading Company, De Beers’ rough diamond distributors and the world’s largest supplier of rough diamonds, by value.
On the table is also a 296-carat rough fancy yellow diamond. It’s extraordinary. I enclose it in my palm and it feels cold to the touch, gradually warming to the body’s heat. It was discovered at the Dutoitspan Mine, in Kimberley.
When cut a diamond loses up to 60% of it’s size at best, and at worst explodes under pressure. We are told that diamonds can be valued at 11000 price points. The four C’s of colour, clarity, cut and carat weight determine value. It’s a complex business. But the outcome of many good sorting and cutting decisions are all around us in an array of red carpet pieces of Forevermark jewellery.
I pick up a pair of earrings recently worn by Mad Men actress Christina Hendricks to the British Film Awards (BAFTAS) – after which one blogger called her the winner of an award “For the most likely person to distract paparazzi from actual winners”. They are delicately made, and thoroughly beautiful 4.72-carat chandelier earrings. I can’t hold back and have to try on the ring she wore, 3 solid stones encased by swirls of smaller diamonds.
There are earrings worn by singer Alicia Keyes, model and actress Elizabeth Hurley and a sautoir (long necklace) that has graced the neck of Oscar-winner Nicole Kidman. Forevermark was the star of this year’s Academy Awards when nominee Michelle Williams walked the red carpet wearing one of their diamond necklaces.
The source of all of these stones is molten rock called Kimberlite that occurs in vertical structures in the Earth’s crust. Its name is taken from the town of Kimberley in the Northern Cape, from where diamonds were first mined in 1871.
Today Botswana’s Jwaneng Mine is the world’s richest source with three diamond “pipes” discovered there in 1972.
For years any mention of diamonds was associated with conflict or “blood diamonds” as war raged across the African continent funded by the diamond trade. Leonard Di Caprio vividly forged the connection in popular consciousness in the eponymous film. But in 2003 the Kimberley Process brought together industry, governments and civil society to deal with the exploitation and cruelty that diamond mining had inflicted on the world. Out of this came determination to clean up the industry, stop funding corrupt regimes and to reverse a trend of colonial appropriation of raw materials that had long taken wealth to the developed world, leaving poverty and deprivation in its wake. Today Kimberley Process members are said to account for almost 99.8% of the world’s production of rough diamonds.
Botswana’s association with De Beers has been recognised as a world-leader of public-private partnerships – one that has seen the country flourish, contributing to infrastructure and social development. It has been reported that funds from Jwaneng’s diamond mine have also been used to support HIV/AIDS programmes in that country, and to provide free antiretroviral treatments to stem the disease.
De Beers’ Forevermark brand CEO Stephen Lussier says there is a growing awareness and consciousness about the impact of luxury goods. “Across the industry there are questions about where something was made, how it was made. Was it produced in the right way?” The Forevermark brand is built on this: “We go way beyond. Not only that it hasn’t done any harm, but it has done good on its journey.” Forevermark’s diamonds are marketed as being responsibly and ethically sourced. Each stone even carries a unique number – making its journey traceable. It’s a technology patented by the company.
There is no doubt that ethics has become big business but as long as everyone in the food chain benefits I see no reason to be cynical about it.
By the end of next year the company will make good on its promise of beneficiation by relocating the Diamond Trading Company’s sorting facility from its London Headquarters to Gaborone, making Botswana the centre of the world’s rough diamond sales.
This year, as the brand pushes its way into new markets, it sponsored the re-presentation of the Crown Jewels, the world’s most exceptional diamond collection, to mark Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee – 60 years of her rule.
The focus of the new displays is on the Coronation ceremony, a staple of British royal life since 1066. According to the Historic Royal Palaces, custodians of the jewels, the Crown Jewels signify “royal authority to lead, and protect, the nation”. That role has not come without its challenges or colourful historical moments – including when, in the 1300s, Edward III used the jewels as collateral to pay his troops, or when the wife of Charles I pawned them at the start of the Civil War. In the 1600s Oliver Cromwell ordered that the collection be broken up, symbolic of the monarchy’s destruction. It was the “thrifty, sober Queen Victoria who took a sensuous pleasure in jewels and spent an enormous sum of money on them to form the basis of the present collection,” writes Suzy Menkes in “The Royal Jewels”.
Travelling with Forevermark has its perks – one of them being a private visit to see the collection on Tower Hill. On the evening we visited we were greeted at the gate by a burly Yeoman Warder (all ex-military) who gave a quick rundown of the history of the place. The site of numerous public executions, and home to many ghosts (most of whom I imagine to be angry, and headless) Tower Hill was also once home to England’s most prominent collection of exotic animals.
The Tower Menagerie as it was once known was established in the 1200s and included, at different times, an elephant and a white bear. Then it was customary for royals to give animals as gifts. For the couple who has everything how about three leopards, like the ones Henry III received as a wedding present from a Roman Emperor.
Inside the jewel house England’s “working treasures” – during state ceremonies the pieces go out to be worn by the royals – continue to attract up to 15 000 visitors a day.
Usually, the most famous pieces are only viewable as you glide past on a travelator. On the night we visited, there was no such machinery in operation and so we had the opportunity to stand before a startling array of jewels – each drawing loud gasps. The most spectacular diamonds are South Africa’s contribution – cuts from the Cullinan diamond, the world’s largest (the original diamond was 3106 carats). Discovered in Cullinan, outside Pretoria, it was bought by the then Transvaal government and presented to King Edward VII on his birthday. The story goes that in 1905 transport from South Africa to England posed a security risk so a diversionary tactic was created to fool would-be thieves into thinking that the stone was travelling by steamboat. Instead it was posted to England via registered mail. Hart, in his book “Diamonds: Journey to Heart of an Obsession” writes that when the “greatest cleaver of the day”, Joseph Asscher, prepared to cut the diamond he had a nurse on doctor on standby. His knife broke at the first try and when he succeeded in breaking the diamond in two, “he fainted dead away”.
Menkes writes that the royal family refers to its cleavings (it was cut into nine diamonds) as “Granny’s chips”. From the Imperial State Crown with its 2868 diamonds, 273 pearls, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds and five rubies (it also holds the Cullinan II, which at 317.4 carats is the fourth largest polished diamond in world) to the Royal Sceptre bearing Cullinan I (the largest of the 9 Cullinan diamonds at 530 carats. Their worth is estimated to be around $400-million) each item was more sparkling and impressive than the next. It also brought home the idea that a monarch’s power is all about keeping their head and having a crown atop it (and mostly they are too heavy to be worn for great lengths of time).
It’s difficult not to be envious of England’s treasures – when the closest we have to “Crown Jewels” is Brett Murray’s version of the presidential collection.
And easy to dismiss women’s love of diamonds as a cleverly executed marketing ploy that has long linked the shiny gems with ideas of love and commitment (a very clever one). But strip away the sentimentality and you still have something that is unique, innately brilliant and indestructible.
Who wouldn’t want a lifetime relationship with that?
* Laurice Taitz travelled to London as a guest of De Beers Forevermark