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Your Perfect Yield

Finding one diamond big enough to rank in the world’s Top Twenty is sweet; finding two in a single lifetime is beyond belief. But something is uncanny when the finds come from the same pit almost back to back: the Lesotho Promise and Letseng Lecacy.

Original publication: Private Edition, 2008.

Lesotho Promise and Letseng Legacy

It had the makings of a big-break scene, or some of them anyway – the moment in the rags-to-riches epics when the gods of fortune smile at last on Joe Everyman, raise him out of his grim habitat, and usher him off by whirlwind and limousine to the Happily Ever-After of the credit roll.

The date was August 2006. The place: Perfect. Until then the largest recent diamond discovery the world had known had been in the early 1990s, a 777-carat monster which had been secured in the Democratic Republic of Congo and, over several years, cut, ground and shaped into the Millennium Star. The late Harry Oppenheimer, titan of De Beers and Anglo American, described it as ‘the most beautiful diamond I have ever seen’.

Now a stone in a similar league had come to light, a competitor for public notice and connoisseurial acclaim. Certain diamond species crystallised in meteorite strikes; some even originated in galactic space, having been forged inside supernovas and borne earthwards in asteroids. This diamond was an Earth sister, and like its thousands upon thousands of mainly pipsqueak brethren that are annually mined around the world, it had been formed millennia ago under colossal subterranean pressure and thrust upwards in volcanic pipes.

The diamond came embedded in a volcanic rock known as kimberlite; the latter was its carrier. More pointedly, kimberlite was the medium: the diamond was the message. And that message was going to be relayed back and forth through the world’s communications systems, spawning in turn everything from press reports and television specials to auctions, marketing catalogues and corporate videos – not to mention unveilings in Moscow’s Luxury Village and 28 Albermarle Street, London, citadel of the fabled King of Diamonds, the British billionaire Laurence Graff.

In the media sensation which followed the stone’s recovery, it was headlined as ‘the biggest diamond of the century’, and, uncut, was sold to Graff to the tune of $12.36-million. The communications network was all a-twitter, and one person in particular was drawn into it from the get-go. When the call came in and lightning struck, the guy on the cell phone was positioned to a tee for his personal big-break scene.

Where was he? In a way, between work, fresh out of one job and charting his moves in the next. More particularly, when he learned that he’d just landed the Lesotho Promise, the fifteenth-largest rough diamond in recorded history, he was sitting at a bus stop.

It echoes that hoariest of myths: Hill-billy prospector, with beard down to his groin, reaches into rocks, stares with Roman-Candle eyes at the orb he finds, and yodels, ‘Eureka!’ Here the myth looks simply to have been updated, with Joe Everyman hustling on the phone and waiting for his bus to come in until – stone the crows – one day by fluke it actually does.

But, granted, it was a bus stop at the Monte Carlo yacht basin. And granted, the man in question happened to be nearby because he and his team were outside taking a breather during top-flight corporate negotiations. Nor had he sat down there to while away the time. His caller, the CEO of a mine in which he is majority shareholder, had suggested to him that the news at hand was stuff best taken seated.

In sum, this wasn’t Joe. It was Clifford Elphick.

Then aged 45, he’d recently finished as MD of the holding company responsible for the Oppenheimer family interests and had taken up as CEO of his newfound company, Gem Diamonds Ltd. The business commands an armada of prospects and mines, from central and southern Africa to Australia and Indonesia, but its flagship – owned jointly with the Lesotho government – is located in that kingdom’s austere Maluti mountains: Letseng le Terai Mine, ‘The Turn by the Swamp’, the world’s highest diamond mine.

It is here, 3,100 metres above sea level, that the Lesotho Promise was recovered, and when Elphick visits, he sometimes does it by private helicopter.

So the man doesn’t need to catch buses, and this isn’t exactly a rags-to-riches story. It’s riches-to-riches. Literally. Fast-forward, but not much, from August 2006 to September 2007. Swap Mediterranean bus stop for swish Johannesburg restaurant. Keep the same cast. It’s lunchtime, it’s Elphick, it’s the identical team from Monte Carlo; completing the sense of déjà vu, it’s the same caller, the Letseng CEO Keith Whitelock.

‘My telephone beeped and it was Keith,’ Elphick recalled. ‘And when Keith phones, I phone back immediately.’ Whitelock’s communiqués appear to be the company’s version of the midnight call, where you wonder as it rings whether someone’s died or if you’ve aced a timeshare holiday. It’s either/or. The news could be very bad – rockslides, fatalities – or very good. Like today’s.

Not long after the Champagne had been summoned, Elphick hoped that no investors chancing by would think ‘their management team was out on the town in the middle of the week’. If they had happened to pass his table, he would have delighted them with the news: another corker, another message retrieved from the depths and discharged like a bolt out of the blue from Letseng’s Olympian heights.

At 494.4 carats, the stone was slightly smaller than the Promise’s 603. Still, it was the world’s eighteenth-largest rough diamond. Named the Letseng Legacy, it was put on closed-bid auction two months later at the Antwerp World Diamond Centre. In the customary way, the company invites a retinue of appropriate diamantaires to view the goods ahead of time. They submit sealed bids, and the bids are opened in a procedure invigilated by the Diamond High Council, the offers flashing up one by one on an open-display computer screen. A nail-biter, followed by the fanfare of the assembled executives and dignitaries of state. Yes, once again it was Graff who scooped the trophy, via his manufacturing partner SAFDICO.

The upshot of Whitelock’s lunchtime call? Ten-point-four million dollars.

Riches to riches. Let’s try to put matters into perspective. Finding one diamond in the world’s Top Twenty during your lifetime is sweet; finding two, beyond belief. But something uncanny seems afoot when the finds, both from the same pit, happen virtually back to back. There’s more. Elphick established Gem Diamonds in July 2005. It was little more than a year later that the streak of fortune began; as far as his acquisition of Letseng was concerned, the ink on the contract was hardly dry when it took off.

Was he, like, chuffed?

‘It’s made a massive difference,’ he said. ‘When you start a business and have the success we’ve had, you can’t put a number to its headline value. There’s always a credibility question when you start anything new. The jury’s always out. So it’s tremendously fortunate for us that those diamonds came along when they did.’

Certainly, the total payload of $22.76 million is par for journalism, but in the mining world such revenue, though welcome, won’t in itself blow your gourd. Nor can the Promises and Legacies, given their infrequency, be counted on to pay the monthlies. That’s a job done by the droves of smaller unknowns rattling along the conveyor belts. As Whitelock said, ‘In the week that we sold the Promise, we sold about four or five other stones, recovered in the previous month, for more money than we sold the Promise.’

The real value of the Eureka stones, it seems, is less financial than symbolic. It’s the message they send, the charismatic force they exercise. Debbie Bowen, a recovery manager, said that within an hour after the Promise had announced itself with a ‘clunk’ in a glove box at the end of the conveyors, all the mine’s senior staff – drinking Moёt Chandon in coffee mugs – had gathered to see it. Not just see it. They were ‘feeling, smelling and weighing the huge rock.’ As for the worker who was first to lay eyes on it, she was found in a ‘hysterical, semi-hyperventilated state, lamely pointing to the box’.

When she cried out, Elphick said, nearby staff thought she was ‘being electrocuted’. Major finds have an electrifying effect. ‘There are many, many people who’re excited – and many who’re relieved.’ The electricity issues far and wide, amping Lesotho’s national pride, vindicating early believers in the Letseng project, reinforcing corporate credibility, charming investors, and galvanising roleplayers worldwide into action.

‘More particularly, on the mine there’s a huge adrenaline surge – when these things are found, I try to get there ASAP and tap into that feeling.’

A cold coming he had of it, too. There’d be no helicopter ride: terrible weather, with the mountain enveloped in clouds. Elphick picked his way up the roads by car, a pilgrimage highlighting Letseng’s severities. Don’t say ‘discovery’ to miners. It’s like the four-letter word ending in ‘uck’ and beginning with ‘l’. Say ‘recovery’. It’s planned, calculated, the magi know where the miracles are, and as Elphick said, ‘Letseng is behaving absolutely according to the science.’

‘Recovery’ is also damn hard work accomplished against resistance. High winds blow throughout the year, heavy summer rainfall brings landslides, and in winter pipes freeze and roads are snowbound, as they were during Elphick’s journey. ‘When we arrived, the Lesotho army had circled the mine. They had platoons of people every 50 metres around it, standing deep in the snow.’

And the Promise? It doesn’t sound like much initially. ‘Slightly smaller than a cricket ball.’ And, by comparison, run-of-the-mill is ... what, a golf ball? ‘No, much smaller than that – the ordinary stone is smaller than a pea.’ He paused, then added, ‘That’s at Letseng. Most mines find things the size of a bead.’

That’s at Letseng, he said, which perhaps explains why Whitelock, the mine CEO, was so wryly dismissive of the two stones. When he’d broken news of the Promise to Elphick, he said, ‘It’s not a stone to put on a velvet cushion and show around the capitals of the world.’ More like ‘a lady of the night: a stunner in the right light and view but in the wrong light, the wrong view ... well, you know ...’ The Legacy: Pfft. Didn’t think it even warranted a name.

The quietest fact is the most absorbing of all. Until recently Letseng had lain dormant for nearly two decades. De Beers pulled out in 1982 when a combination of local politics and macro-economics deep-sixed the mine. It was shuttered, used briefly as an army base, then its buildings were dismantled and the place abandoned to the elements.

In 1999 Whitelock’s company received its mining grant, in 2004 Letseng was officially reopened, and today is renowned as a one-of-a-kind kimberlite, regularly yielding diamonds of topmost colour, the ‘gin and tonics’ (clear-clear, a hint of blue), its roughs frequently in the 100-plus-carat range and beyond.

It looks like the most serendipitous big-break of all. A man stumbles onto a forgotten wasteland, strikes pick earthwards. Out flushes a geyser of sparklies and gin. Then again, the place hadn’t been forgotten, not completely. Whitelock was its GM in the De Beers days, he had built it, had done the original feasibility study. Whitelock remembered; he persevered.

So his dismissiveness isn’t flat-footedness. It’s ballsiness: That’s nothing.

The Whitelock call is for us, dear reader. ‘I’ll tell you this,’ he said. ‘One of these days that mine will produce a thousand-carater. Don’t fall off your chair when you hear that.’

A thousand – you’re confident of it?

‘Yeah,’ Whitelock said. ‘Oh yeah.’

And where are they now, those two stones?

At the time of writing, the Letseng Legacy was incommunicado, under the fastidious care of Graff himself and the Antwerp firm DIAMCAD, a team of super-high-tech diamond surgeons. Will it pull through?

With things like the Legacy and Promise, you don’t plonk a cigarette behind your ear, show some plumber’s crack, and then sail into them hammer and tongs, hoping for the best. Before that first laser incision, before the polishing begins, months of study go by. Computer scans are taken, 3D simulations generated. The aim is to determine the best configuration of cuts for the best yield of jewels. Even so, much could go wrong.

Such as?

‘Everything,’ Graff answered in an e-mail. ‘One wrong direction while cutting into the stone and you can compromise your perfect yield and the opportunity for creating a high-carat might be lost forever. ... One wrong move when sawing into the diamond and it can shatter into a thousand pieces. ... We have master cutters working for us and with their skill comes a world of experience and expertise. But during the cutting process, even the most experienced diamantaire holds his breath in anticipation.’

For the meantime the Legacy’s future hangs in the balance, though Graff’s marketing manager Fiona Spence said, ‘We expect to see something in August.’

As for the Promise, it remains unsold two years after its recovery and its subsequent transformation into 26 satellite jewels. To hold the original stone ‘was like touching history,’ Graff explained. ‘The yield is a miracle in itself. It has never been achieved before.’ Despite having had offers for different stones, selling them piecemeal ‘has never crossed my mind.’

Crafted into one necklace, the Lesotho Promise is now yours for $50 million. Indeed, an exhibition is scheduled later in the year in Monte Carlo.

At the Hotel de Paris. Not that famous bus stop.

 

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