JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Since diamonds were discovered in South Africa over 140 years ago, the precious stone has been inextricable from the country’s history, contributing to its wealth and shaping its economy from an agricultural backwater in the 19th century to industrial powerhouse.
The one name most closely associated with diamonds in South Africa is De Beers. Though little has changed since its founding in 1888 by Sir Cecil Rhodes in the way De Beers markets its diamonds, it continues to take a pioneering approach to diamond production, seeking ways to modernize mining operations and increase productivity.
De Beers Consolidated Mines, a private company now controlled by the Oppenheimer family and based in Johannesburg and 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.
Through its marketing arm, the Diamond Trading Co., with 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. The sales, called sights, are held at five-weekly intervals 10 times a year, and are open only by invitation to what are 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.
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