Friday, March 4, 2011

Diamonds: A Cartel's Best Friend

No, not a drug cartel.  I'm sure, however, that a drug kingpin typically lusts after diamonds himself.  We're out of drug territory this week and into diamond territory, an equally high-stakes trade with its own bloody black market.  I picked up Diamond: The History of A Cold-Blooded Love Affair (out-of-print and available for a penny!) at a great display table in the Union Square Barnes & Noble, with a clever sign surrounded by neat stacks of eclectic nonfiction: "Who Knew?"  Matthew Hart had plenty to teach: about how diamonds came to be, about the origins of the modern diamond trade, and about the figures who shaped the industry, from the intrepid discoverers of mines across the world to evil-empire types who battled it out for large swaths of southern and western Africa in colonial times.

After a brief and engrossing story of one large pink stone discovered on a river in Brazil (a clever hook), Hart begins his comprehensive account by telling us how diamonds ended up on Earth.  I won't spoil it for you, except to say that it's a mind-blowing and accessible lesson on the presence of diamonds across the universe and how they traveled to the inner layers of Earth itself.  We then move on to the early days of diamond mining, De Beer's building of an seemingly intractable monopoly, and lessons on how diamonds are bought, cut, polished and sold in secretive locations in Antwerp, London and Tel Aviv.

Hart also takes us to other points of the globe - Canada, where the 24-year-old lead geologist of an upstart mining company takes part in the 1990s discovery of diamonds in the Barrens, and the subsequent struggle between the cartel and rugged upstarts to control the territory.  In India, a surprising diamond trade comes back in modern times after ancient days of dominance.  Locations in Australia, South America (particularly Brazil) and the United States also make appearances as major players in the diamond mining industry, with the latter also the world's biggest buyer of the finished product.

Hart satisfies virtually every curiosity one could have about the industry and the stone itself; how they are extracted, where they are extracted, how companies gain and lose control - often through heated battles - over mining locations, how theft from the mines is detected and dealt with, and the power struggles in the heart of Africa that led to a backlash against the industry.  I found the subtitle misleading, as if I'd get a lot more demonized characterizations of De Beers and its executives or a fuller explication of the Diamond Wars, but Hart's tone remains even throughout (like any good journalist).  That's not a knock against his writing; it's a quick, fascinating read, and an apt overview of a world and an industry most of us hear or think about every once in a while but haven't fully investigated.


  1. Alexis PreatoriOctober 3, 2011 2:34 AM

    That diamond is astonishing. Sapphires also sparkle like this one but it's rare to see a flawless gem on a sapphire ring.

  2. Walter FenniganFebruary 28, 2012 3:13 AM

    Diamonds are precious stones that can only be sold upon receipt of the government’s seal of approval. This will prevent owning diamonds that have no association with any crimes or violence along the way. It is therefore not safe to buy mined diamonds. mining equipment

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