A few years ago, I wangled a visit to De Beers' diamond mining operations on Namibia's Skeleton Coast. It was a curiously depressing place. There were great tracts where every last grain of sand had been sucked away, leaving just exposed rock.
Security was second to none. A small museum depicted various failed attempts to smuggle diamonds past the perimeter fence. One genius tried shooting them out using a bow and arrow. Another used a carrier pigeon, but over-burdened it, and the bird flopped down in front of a passing patrol.
De Beers’ mines in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Tanzania at one point supplied up to 80% of the world’s rough, or uncut, diamonds. Not any more. Rival mining companies have begun excavating diamonds from remote tracts of northern Canada. Russia has a huge supply of gems, and there is a steady trickle from Angola and Sierra Leone. De Beers’ world share has slipped to 60%.
With competitors eating into its patch, De Beers has had to rebrand itself.
It used to stockpile diamonds in times of recession to artificially keep prices high. It has shifted instead to using the De Beers name as a kitemark for quality.
The stakes are high for Nicky Oppenheimer, the De Beers chairman, who is pitted against Leigh Clifford at Rio Tinto and Chip Goodyear at BHP Billiton.
For 50 years, De Beers has been banned from openly selling its stones in the US, the world’s biggest diamond jewellery market. It was accused of operating a cartel. Now, there is hope that the ban will be lifted.
If it is, Oppenheimer will be able to visit the US without risking arrest.
Whether he would want to is another matter altogether.