The itinerary included that desolate strip of Namibian coast north of the Orange River known as the Sperrgebiet or Forbidden Territory. The beach here was once thick with gems and the diamond barons spent decades picking it clean. Today, it resembles a whales’ graveyard, with rocks piled like bones and hardly a grain of sand to be seen.
For years, De Beers acted as a middle-man, regulating the flow of rough stones onto the market to keep prices high. That changed in 2001, when the group teamed up with LVMH, the French luxury goods group, to create a joint venture, De Beers LV, selling diamond jewellery in competition with High Street names like Tiffany.
Four years on, De Beers LV is finally starting to make an impression. Although the flagship London store has been open a couple of years, the real action is in the US. De Beers LV opens its first outlet in New York next month. A second American shop follows in Los Angeles in the autumn.
Guy Leymarie, the former Cartier executive who runs De Beers LV, hopes to open 150 De Beers LV shops in the next 10 years, half of them in the US.
America is the world’s biggest market for diamond jewellery. De Beers was blocked from operating there for years by a long-running antitrust dispute. De Beers chairman Nicky Oppenheimer could not step on US soil for fear of being arrested. With that obstacle removed, the diamond lords are intent on making up for lost time.
De Beers and LVMH have committed $500m to the joint venture. That is money they can ill-afford to lose.
Jon Ashworth is business features editor at The Times
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