NORTHWEST TERRITORIES, CANADA – GAHCHO KUÉ is too far north for trees. In the few snowless months, its surroundings in Canada’s Northwest Territories resemble a sprawling archipelago, as much lake as land, dark ponds stretching flat to the horizon.
Wolverines roam, as well as bears, foxes, hares and caribou, though the herds have dwindled. There are no roads, no pipes, no electricity cables. So it seems strange when, flying over the tundra, a giant truck appears, then another, then a steel factory, rows of trailers and a big grey pit, deepening by the day.
De Beers, the world’s biggest diamond company, marked the opening of its Gahcho Kué mine in September. Local indigenous leaders prayed for the mine, beating drums. Bruce Cleaver, the firm’s chief executive, and Mark Cutifani, the boss of its parent company, Anglo American, stood by a ceremonial fire, flames tilting in the wind.
Now the hard work is under way. The area is so sodden that staff bring in heavy supplies just once a year, in the depths of winter, when they can build a thick road of ice (pictured above). A caravan bearing fuel and equipment is slowly crossing the tundra. At the mine, their colleagues are working day and night to ramp up to full production, with the aim of extracting more than 12,000 carats (2.4kg) of diamonds each day. Gahcho Kué is an astonishing endeavour, the biggest new mine in the world in over a decade. De Beers has no plans for another.
It is a turning-point for one of the world’s oddest industries. The diamond business gained its sparkle around 1866, when a farmer’s son picked up a glistening pebble on the bank of the Orange river in South Africa. For most of the next 150 years, De Beers would dominate the global market. Success depended on manipulated supply and skilfully cultivated demand.
Square-cut or pear-shaped
Much has changed since then. De Beers can no longer control the market. Though it is the biggest producer by value, it accounts for only a third of global sales, down from 45% in 2007. It faces many uncertainties, from synthetic diamonds to changing relationships with polishers and cutters. Its loosening grip is reflected in increased volatility: its sales fell 34% in 2015, before bouncing back by 30% last year. Meanwhile the source of the demand that drives sales—the link between diamonds and love—looks weaker than it used to.
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