It was early in the “Diamond play”, the term that had gained prominence in Northern Canada in the early 1990’s. There was a buzz like I had never heard before. “Diamonds in Canada”!?!? could it be true? There were rumors and rumors of rumors.. no one knew for sure, only that there was something there. Then it came out. Chuck Fipke had found diamonds in the North West Territories and they had partnered with BHP, the large Australian mining firm. Yes, it was real. Every junior mining company in Canada ran to the NWT to try and claim land as close to the find as possible. It got so crazy that there were people dropping claim markers from helicopters, trying to beat others to the land.
Stories from up there abound; it was truly the wild west. Another Klondike rush, but this time, for diamonds.
I was in the fortunate position to have known many of the CEO’s and board members of some of the junior mining companies running in there. One in particular was a company known as Mountain Province Mining. One of the drivers behind the company was Roy Shatzko and his brother Paul was the CEO. I had known Roy from his days as a player for the Edmonton Eskimo’s and as a fellow member of the Center Club in downtown Edmonton. Roy came to me and said that it looked like they might have found a diamond mine. They had some interesting early samples and wanted to meet with a major mining company to see if they could work out a deal. That’s the way it was then, to explore, analyze and build a working diamond mine was a multi-billion dollar ticket, usually starting at close to $5 Billion.
So out of necessity, the junior mining companies would partner with a major player in the industry and exchange a large, often controlling share of the property, for the major’s expertise and money. This is where Roy and Paul found themselves. We talked about it and they decided they would like to talk with the only big player not yet in the NWT, DeBeers. Coincidentally, I knew some people to talk to at DeBeers, so I arranged some preliminary meetings. Roy sent some samples and DeBeers confirmed that there was something there. Now came the courting.
Now, I had only seen the diamond industry from the bottom looking up. Having started out selling costume jewellery, then ‘genuine’ stones and eventually diamonds, I never thought I would see it from the top down, from the inside of the hallowed halls of the CSO. This was DeBeers’ head offices in London and the building where so much history, so many diamonds, and so much lore stemmed from. But this was my opportunity, DeBeers wanted to do a deal with Mountain Province and I weaseled my way in between and acted, along with a good friend and Diamantaire, Dave Lapa, as facilitators between the groups.
Then it happened, the invitation came to visit Nikki Oppenheimer, then Chairman of the DeBeers group, grandson of the diamond legend Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, and Son of Harry Oppenheimer. I’d read about these people in school and here I was on my way to meet one.
We were picked up at our hotel and taken to the CSO, (the Central Selling Organization and the heart of Diamond trading for a hundred years), a relatively nondescript building a short walk from the River Thames. It was a bleak exterior, almost prison like on the bottom floors. We went in and there was one information desk in the center of a longish lobby with a big dark wood double door on the wall next to it. There were a few men standing around, all former British elite armed forces for security, each with that tell tale short hair cut and maybe a bulge under their arms. We were given name tags and little pocket sized itineraries in soft leather wallets that told us who we were meeting and when they were prepared for us. The name tags could be tracked as we went through the building and of course, they gave us our very own security officer to make sure we went where we were supposed to go and no where else.
I tried hard to hide my excitement (unsuccessfully I have to say) as the big deep brown wooden doors with small cut crystal glass windows in the shape of rough diamonds opened and we went ‘behind the curtain’. We rode the elevator up to our first stop, the Diamond Information office. Here we were shown amazing things and had many of our questions answered. It was crazy. I held my first 1000 carat+ rough diamond; I still remember the heft and coolness of the stone to the touch. It was industrial quality and couldn’t really be used in jewellery, but it was impressive none the less. But the one thing that I immediately think of when I remember that visit was seeing where the coloured Diamonds. If you can imagine for a minute a simple picture frame, I think about 15 x 20 inches or so. In it were diamonds of all sizes and shapes and colours.. There were green and yellow, orange and red and brown, blue and pink and white. It was incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since, and I’m sure I never will.
To be honest, I was a bit numb after that. They took us through the entire CSO, through the sorting rooms, the grading rooms, the shipping and receiving, the site rooms and the layout rooms. (There’s a story I’ll tell you about that in another blog). I wasn’t numb really, but it was a highlight in my career and I lapped it up.
Another thing that I will never forget is the ‘value layout’ they did for us. This is something that they would do for prospective mining partners and visiting dignitaries. There was a long white counter along one side of the building all lit with natural light from the windows all along that side of the building, and on that counter they had arranged piles of rough diamonds, each totaling US$ 5 million. The purpose of this layout was to show us the different values of rough diamonds that are found in the production from every mine, diamonds that ranged from the highest qualities to ones that are suitable only for drill bits.
So imagine 40 feet of counter, and maybe 30 piles or so of rough. At one end is a single large clear and beautiful diamond crystal worth $5 million by itself. Followed by the next group of maybe 6 crystals worth $5 million together.. each following group or pile was of smaller and poorer quality, until at the end of the counter was a pile the size of a bathtub! With literally tens of thousands of crystals that together amounted to less than the $5 million. It was a real eye opener for all of us. It helped me to understand just how rare those large amazing diamonds are.
We did eventually get a contract between Mountain Province and DeBeers and there is a successful mine, the Gahcho Kue which is still operating today. Roy Shatzko has since passed on, Paul has since moved on, the CSO building is being turned into offices, and DeBeers has largely moved it’s operations to Botswana, but I will never forget that day.
Sometimes in life, we are presented with opportunities. An idea creeps into your mind, “I wonder if” or “someone should”. Most of the time we just let it pass and go on with our lives. I’m telling you now, don’t let it pass!
When the idea came to me “someone should try to set up a cutting industry in Canada” after I first heard that we might have diamonds here. If I didn’t act on it, I would never have experienced the things I have.
That “someone” who should, is you.