By  on August 7, 2006

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Since diamonds were discovered in South Africa more than 140 years ago, the precious stone has been inextricable from the country's history, contributing to its wealth and shaping its evolution from an agricultural backwater in the 19th century to an industrial powerhouse.

The one name most closely associated with diamonds in South Africa is De Beers, founded in 1888 by Sir Cecil Rhodes. While little has changed in the way De Beers markets its diamonds, its approach to diamond production is evolving as it seeks ways to modernize mining operations and increase productivity.

De Beers Consolidated Mines, a private company now controlled by the Oppenheimer family and based here and in London, controls 60 percent of the global diamond trade, making it the largest and most influential player in the industry. It owns and operates several mines in South Africa, and has entered into joint ventures with partner mines in the rest of Africa, as well as with the governments of Namibia and Botswana. It is also present in Canada, Australia and Russia.

Through its marketing arm, Diamond Trading Co., which has its headquarters on Charterhouse Street in London, De Beers sells the rough diamonds extracted from its mining network, as well as those it purchases from other sources, such as Russia and Canada.

De Beers' diamond stash comprises tens of millions of carats. Diamond sales, called sights, are held at five-week intervals 10 times a year, and are open only by invitation to those called sightholders. De Beers chooses sightholders carefully, based on their diamond and marketing expertise. Those in the diamond trade not fortunate enough to be invited by De Beers may not attend the sights. Instead, they must go to Antwerp, Tel Aviv or Bombay to source their diamonds.

One of De Beers' youngest sites is the Venetia mine in Limpopo, which was established in 1992. Last year, out of 5.9 millions tons of ore treated at Venetia, 8.5 million carats were recovered, over 60 percent of gem quality, an increase of 15 percent from the 2004 yield of 7.1 million carats. This comprised over 52 percent of De Beers' annual production, making Venetia one of the company's most productive and profitable mines.

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