Kimberley, South Africa — It's a bit after 7:30 a.m. and silver-haired Bill Harris has just finished morning tea. He sits quietly in the kitchen, staring out the front window at the spotlessly clean street beyond.
Suddenly, there is a larring explosion. The window rattles, the walls shake, but Bill Harris doesn't even blink. After all, it's all in a day's work.
Mr. Harris is a diamond miner, and the kitchen in which he sits is half a mile underground in the Wesselton Mine of De Beers Consolidated Diamond Mining Company. On this day, he will carry on a tradition that goes back more than a century here in South Africa.
It started in 1866, when young Erasmus Jacobs found a shiny white pebble on the banks of the Orange River not far from here. That pebble was, of course, a diamond -- the first verified find in this country.
Today, 115 years later, diamond mining continues to contribute millions of dollars annually to South Africa's gold-plated economy. This country is the world's third-largest producer of diamonds.
And Kimberley, here in the north-central part of South Africa, remains the symbolic, if not literal, wellspring from which much of the wealth flows.
For there are few places in the world so richly endowed with the shiny bits of pressurized carbon that play such a vital role in so many human endeavors -- from probing for oil (diamonds tip the drill bits) to proposing a marriage (the practice of giving a diamond engagement ring is said to go back to 1477, when Maximilian of Austria slipped a ring on the hand of Mary of Burgundy).
In some areas of the world, diamonds are found in riverbeds. Here in Kimberley, they are locked in underground columns of solidified volcanic rock, called pipes, thrust upward from earth's depths millions of years ago. In and around this city there are 14 such pipes -- 10 of which contain enough diamonds to make mining profitable.
Here, too, is the famous "Big Hole," site of the fabulously rich Kimberley Mine. At one time, the hole was cobwebbed with cables leading from the surface down to the 30-square-foot claims of hundreds of competing diggers.
From those chaotic, rough-and-tumble beginnings, diamond mining has evolved into a highly sophisticated, capital-intensive business dominated by De Beers and a few markedly smaller companies. It is carried out in settings like the Wesselton Mine, where underground kitchens, streets, even automobiles, are nothing out of the ordinary.
The half-mile descent to Wesselton's working levels takes just over a minute by elevator. The car eases to a halt and light comes flooding in the slow-opening doors.
Light? Aren't mines supposed to be dark, cramped, dirty places?
This one isn't. Silver-painted rock walls toss back the illumination from regularly spaced electric light fixtures along the high, wide tunnels. And litter and loose ore are as out of place here as in a jeweler's window: the company stresses tidiness as part of its accident-prevention program.
The labyrinth of tunnels is regularly broken by small offices, shops, and other rooms, including kitchens. It was in one of these that Bill Harris sat waiting for the morning's activities to get under way. And the teeth-rattling blast the left him unruffled was a routine one -- to clear away rubble blocking a shaft.
It's just normal," he explains with a shrug."You just get used to it."
In fact, there is not all that much blasting nowadays to get used to. The Wesselton Mine, like all of Kimberley's other mines, has converted to a type of mining called "block caving," which relies on gravity to do most of the ore-moving.
In this process, 300-foot-high sections of the diamond-bearing rock (called kimberlite, or "blue ground") are undermined with tunnels, which are reinforced with yard-thick concrete walls. Then a number of funnel-shaped holes, called "cones," are drilled and blasted above these tunnels. Finally, explosives are used to rip out the rock above the funnels. It tumbles down the cones and is scraped out of the tunnels by mechanical shovels and loaded on rail cars for the trip to the surface.
The force of gravity caused more rock to tumble down into the cavity to replace the mined-out section. Eventually, the entire 300-foot column collapses down the cones and is carried toward the surface. That creates a gigantic crater on the earth's surface until, after some six to eight years of mining, daylight appears at the top of the cones. Then, the mining operation simply moves down another 300 feet and the process starts all over again.
Mining can continue at deeper and deeper levels until the operation becomes uneconomical. But when that will happen is largely a matter of conjecture. Some theorists believe that the "pipes" here at Kimberley may go downward as far as 60 miles. The company, according to a spokesman, has plans still to be mining here in the next century.And, he adds, there could be as many as 4,000 other pipes in South Africa --most of them containing diamonds.
But how many diamonds?
The answer, it appears, is "not that many."
Here at the Wesselton Mine, for example, the "yield" of diamonds is 28 carats -- or about one-fifth of an ounce -- for every 100 tons of mined ore. Each day, the four mines around Kimberley process some 17,500 tons of rock -- and come up with less than two pounds of diamonds for the effort.
Half of these are suitable only for industrial uses. And the weight of the remaining "gem quality" stones is reduced some 60 percent in the cutting process. Consequently, a relatively small percentage of a mine's output ends up as jewelry.
Winnowing out these precious crystalline bits is a formidable task. But, like mining, separating diamonds from rock is now much more complicated -- and efficient -- than in the days when early prospectors bashed at the blue ground with hammers, even rolled over it with tractors, in hopes of breaking the diamonds loose.
The process is now largely mechanized, with a series of conveyour belts moving the ore between giant crushers and washing machines. Through purely mechanical processes, more than 98 percent of the ore is discarded.
The final separation process, however, relies on one of the unique properties of diamonds; they are "unwettable" -- water simply runs off them. Taking advantage of that, engineers run a slurry of water and the diamond-bearing ore across a slowly moving belt covered with thick yellow grease. The water and wet rock run off, but the diamonds adhere to the grease. When the belt is scraped and the grease heated in a vat, a rich residue of gleaming stones falls to the bottom.
Next, the ore is passed through an X-ray chamber. Diamonds glow when the X-rays hit them, and automatic sensors direct jets of air to whisk the fluorescent particles off the conveyor belt and into receptacles.
All of this takes place in rather undistinguished corrugated metal buildings above ground at the Wesselton Mine. Workers roam among the conveyor belts and machinery with seeming indifference. One engineer summoned only mild enthusiasm as he pointed out a hefty diamond chunk among the rock debris moving slowly toward a washing pan.
A locked metal grate separated him from the precious stone. Indeed, padlocks dangled from many of the machines in the plant. And even the final sorting of diamonds from other bits of minerals -- which must be done by hand -- takes place in "glove boxes," which prevent workers from actually touching the diamonds.
That is only one of the more obvious security precautions. There are plenty of others, but De Beers personnel won't be drawn into talking about them.
In fact, security consciousness seems to permeate the organization. One bearded young worker, after chatting about diamond sorting for half an hour, suddenly turned serious when merely asked his title in the organization. "I don't have a title," he said, "and, for purposes of your article, I don't have a name, either."
A few details of the company's security precautions are known. For instance, De Beers pays "honesty bonuses" to miners who turn in diamonds they find underground. The payment for each stone at least equals the current black-market price for diamonds, says a company official, and therefore the miner has no incentive to try smuggling a stone out. During a recent month, the four mines at Kimberley paid "honesty bonuses" totalling more than $20,000.
In addition there is the possibility of unexpected searches of anyone leaving the mine. Visitors are not allowed on the premises until they sign a statement agreeing to that policy.
De Beers is as concerned with keeping intruders out as it is with keeping diamonds in. The mines are ringed with two separate security fences, and the corridor in between is patrolled by rather ferocious Alsatian dogs trained at a company-owned kennel here in Kimberley.
Dogs from the kennel are occasionally put on display and entertain audiences with feats such as walking blindfolded on tightropes.
But a company official confides that these dogs are "just the ones we show." The real guard dogs, he says, are so fierce they aren't allowed near the public.
The De Beers staff includes squadrons of security guards -- distinguished only by their dark business suits and square-jawed countenances.
Several of them are posted in the lobby of Harry Oppenheimer House, the multistoried building in downtown Kimberley where the final sorting of the uncut stones takes place.
The building is a diamond sorter's dream -- and a second-story-man's nightmare. Most of the windows face south, to allow natural light to hit the diamonds. But to avoid the direct rays that might cause snow-blindness among handlers of the bits of "ice," windows in the sorting rooms are all angled downward.Of course, that also makes scaling the outside of the glass-fronted building practically impossible. Furthermore, not a single window in the structure opens to the outside.
Machines do the rough sorting of the stones, but the final ordering is left to skilled human beings. There are 195 of them, working on seven floors. unlike the mines -- where blacks outnumber whites by 3 to 1 -- no blacks work at the sorting tables. Company officials avoid direct answers when asked why.
The tables are made of solid concrete, to avoid vibration or upset. Each is inset with translucent lighted panels to illuminate the stones from underneath.
Working quietly, some with earphones (connected to 1 of 4 radio programs) in place, the sorters group the diamonds into more than 2,300 categories, according to size, weight, shape, clarity, and other factors.
The women wear idential green-and-white floral print dresses, provided by De beers. A company spokesman says these are provided merely as a courtesy to employees and don't have anything to do with security procedures. All the same, the dresses have no pockets or cuffs.
But De Beer's control of the diamonds doesn't stop with the sorting. In fact , De Beers, through an interlocking group of companies known as the Central Selling Organization (CSO), maintains a virtual hammerlock on world diamond supply and price.
De Beers itself accounts for some 48 percent of world production. By buying up the production of smaller companies, it controls some 68 percent of the world's supply.
Reliable sources indicate that De Beers, through a subsidiary, even coordinates diamond sales by the Soviet Union. The clandestine arrangement continues, despite the Soviets' frequent condemnation of capitalism in general and trade links with South Africa in particular. However, both De Beers and Soviet spokesmen deny any collusion.
De Beers board chairman Harry Oppenheimer says, "I would not know" if De Beers has an effective monopoly on the world diamond market.
But if Mr. Oppenheimer is in the dark on the question, a number of diamond dealers are not. They have no doubts that the CSO, of which De beers is the moving force, unquestionably operates in monopolistic fashion.
Diamond cutters place orders with the CSO, specifying the type of diamonds they want. The organization then makes up parcels that approximate the customers' requirements.
These parcels are offered for sale at two-day-long gatherings called sights, held simultaneously in London and Kimberley approximately every five weeks. The parcels are offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Haggling over prices is not allowed. The buyers must also accept any lesser-quality stones that may be included in a parcel, since picking and choosing are not allowed.
De Beers officials argue that the arrangement is justified. The company has no control over the kinds of diamonds coming out of the earth, they explain, so it must exercise greater control in the marketplace.
That it does. The CSO withholds diamonds from the market in times of slack demand and continues to buy up inventories from the mines even when it already has sizable inventories.
Mr. Oppenheimer, among others, argues that this ensures stability in the marketplace, smooths out booms or busts in the industry, prevents cyclical unemployment in the mines, and ensures the value of diamonds already in the hands of consumers.
That could be, but the system undeniably works to the advantage of De Beers, too. The company has never been known to drop the price of diamonds, even during periods of worldwide economic recession, when demand for luxury items traditionally shrinks. Today, the price of the very finest, top-quality diamonds stands as high as $42,000 a carat. In 1979, De Beers reported a profit a 742 million South African rand, or about $965 million (US).
De Beers also discourages the resale of diamonds, since that could create a market over which the company has control. Accordingly, it officially plays down diamonds as investments and encourages individuals to hold on to their diamonds. That message is implicit in De Beers's well-known slogan, "A diamond is forever."
One small flaw in the marketing operation appeared this week with reports from London indicating that Zaire, which accounts for about 30 percent of the world's industrial diamonds, intends to break away from the CSO and sell through four European dealers.
For all its wealth, De Beers eschews ostentation and seeks a lowkey image. Its head office in downtown Kimberley is still housed in a plain, corrugated-tin-roofed box of a building ornamented only by wrought-iron grillwork.
This fondness for its own past seems to permeate the company. De Beers quietly underwrites the posh Kimberley Club, a century-old bastion of British colonialism where the company founder, Cecil Rhodes, used to seal business deals.
Sadly, however, some of the romance seems to have gone out of diamond mining these days.
"I think the days of making fortunes in the diamond industry are long gone," said Jim Crombie, a trainee engineer for De Beers.
"Thye ceased from 50 to 100 years ago. I think Cecil J. Rhodes and his colleagues were the last" to amass great fortunes, he says.
Bill Harris, the man unshaken by the early morning underground blast, tends to agree. Most of his fellow miners "just figure it's a job, just like any other," he says.
And how does a diamond company reward long years on the job?
It gives out ties bearing the corporate logotype and even bestows a gold watch after 25 yearhs service. But, surprisingly, it never gives out diamonds -- not even tiny ones in lapel pins or tie clasps, even at retirement.
That's just as well for some employees, who say they really can't understand so much fuss over diamonds anyway.
When Mr. Harris's wife's diamond engagement rihg was stolen, for example, the couple replacedit -- not with the real thing, but with a glass imitation.
"After all," Mr. Harris says, "I never could see why diamonds are so valuable in the first place."
And, he concludes at the end of another day spend bringing those high-priced crystals up from deep in the earth, "I still wonder why."