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I lunched the other day at the offices of De Beers, the diamond people. They know how to entertain. The building includes a splendid diamond showroom, with real gems scattered like confetti.

I picked up one monster rock – it looked like a lump of quartz to me – and was told that it was worth $500,000. You don’t get to handle something like that every day.

De Beers has been through some bewildering changes in the last few years as it responds to increased competition from Canada and elsewhere. Gone are the days when it controlled more than 70% of the world’s supply of rough diamonds, and regulated the flow of gems to keep prices artificially high.

De Beers has sold down its diamond stockpile and ploughed the cash into advertising. It hopes to stand out as a ‘preferred’ supplier, rather than relying on controlling the industry. Its sales arm, the Central Selling Organisation, which dripped gems onto the market, has been given the less provocative title: Diamond Trading Company.

Dropping the ‘cartel’ status has helped it in its efforts in the US, where it has long been banned from doing business directly. The US is De Beers’ biggest market, but its stones are sold anonymously through jewellers. Anti-trust officials meet on 13 July to decide whether the diamond supplier should be given a clean bill of health.

This would allow it to open an office on US soil for the first time. Its executives could visit the US without risking arrest.

On the management side, Harry Oppenheimer’s grandson, Jonathan, still in his 30s, has just become managing director of De Beers’ South African operations.

With all this fresh thinking coming in, those extravagant De Beers luncheons could soon be consigned to history.

  • Jon Ashworth, business features editor at The Times.

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