be profitably mined in some of the most inaccessible
locations in the world precisely because the operation
does not require the construction of a vast transportation
infrastructure to remove the final product. Almost all
other mining enterprises, such as iron, copper, lead,
zinc and potash, need to build railroad, pipelines or
ports to bulk ship thousands of tons of ore a day. Most
precious metals, such as gold, silver and platinum,
must be chemically separated from the surrounding matrix
of ore in a smelter that in turn usually requires massive
daily shipments of coal and other materials. A diamond,
however, requires only a primitive landing strip and
a light plane to transport its final product which,
though it may be worth tens of millions of dollars,
seldom amounts to more than a few pounds of stones a
day. Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is
the Letseng-La-Teral mine in the Kingdom of Lesotho.
The twin engine Otter, which De
Beers had bought from the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam-and
which still carried bullet scars from that war-flew
low over the 10,0000-foot-high mountains. The kingdom,
a landlocked enclave roughly the size of Belgium, was,
up until 1966, the British protectorate of Basutoland.
Below, I could see the ruins of fortresses used centuries
before by the Basutos to defend themselves against the
invasions of Zulus and other tribes. The land in the
valleys looked green and rich, and trails through the
mountain passes led to clusters of huts with conically
Suddenly, the plane headed directly
into a mountain wall shrouded by dense clouds. Everyone
aboard, even the South African engineers who made this
trip each week, gripped the edge of the seats. There
was dead silence in the cabin. The wings of the plane
looked as if they were about to touch the rocks they
were flying through. Only then did I see the landing
strip. It had literally been carved out of the mountainside.
The wheels touched with a dull but reassuring thump.
The Otter then slowly taxied up a rocky hill, screeched
to a stop on the edge of a cliff and in a moment a dozen
Basuto workers had tied it down with ropes firmly lashed
around its wings and tail.
Through the morning mist, I could
discern the rectangular shape of a corrugated iron tower
built against the side of the mountain, which, oddly
enough, resembled some of the ancient citadels that
the plane had passed over. It was, I realized, the separation
plant for the diamonds. "Welcome to Letseng-La-Tcrai,"
the pilot said over the intercom. "It's the highest
mine in the world." We were io,ooo feet above sea level
on what is called "the roof of Africa." The pilot explained
to me, as I sat for a moment recuperating from the landing,
that this Otter was the only means of getting in or
out of the mine in winter weather.
When I finally disembarked, I found
standing on this mountaintop a tall, slender man impeccably
dressed in a three-piece pin-striped suit and wearing
a school tie. He seemed completely unruffled and impervious
to the icy wind that blew across the mountain. He looked,
in fact, as if he had just got out of a cab in the center
"Rogan MacLean," he said, introducing
himself. He explained that he worked at the Diamond
Trading Company in London, and he had been sent to Lesotho
to evaluate the diamonds coming out of its mine. He
said that he was in charge of evaluating "large stones,"
which De Beers defined as any uncut gem diamond weighing
over 14.8 carats.
"How many large stones are found
every year," I asked.
"Very few. I'd say well under 200..
This mine is one of the two places in the world we regularly
get them from. The ,I her place is Sierra Leone, but
the fields there are just about exhausted." MacLean
explained, as we waited for a Land Rover to pick us
up, that this mine had only been opened for some thirteen
months, and it had already produced nearly too large
stones. Most of these Lesothan diamonds had a brownish
tint to them but aside from that, according to MacLean,
they were of first-rate quality.
"How much are these diamonds worth?"
McLean explained that the value
of diamonds increases practically geometrically with
their size. He estimated that whereas a one-carat diamond
in good condition would be sold by the Diamond Trading
Company for $3oo, a two-carat diamond of comparative
quality might bring $2,000 (or 1,000 a carat), and a
similar three-carat diamond would fetch $5,400 (or $1,800
a carat). "When you come to my little specialties, a
forty-carat diamond might bring a half million dollars."
Just then a bell began furiously
ringing. Something extraordinary had apparently happened
at the mine. A moment later, the Land-Rover arrived,
and the driver talked with great excitement to MacLean.
As we drove off in the Land-Rover, MacLean explained
to mc that they were ringing a bell because a large
diamond had just been found- the first in nearly two
When we pulled up in front of the
sorting house, we were by a youthful man with a craggy
face and blue eyes. He introduced himself as Keith Whitelock,
the manager of the mine. He seemed visibly elated about
this diamond. "Thought we might never find another big
stone," here,~ he said, as he led us past armed guards
into the sorting house.
"Now you don't have to worry about
closing the mine," MacLean said, with a broad smile.
Whitelock winced at this joke. It
contained a grain of truth.. He told me that he had
lived and prospected in Lesotho for over ten years.
It was his personal Shangri-la.
"It's a pity it has this crack in
it," he said, "otherwise it could have been cut into
a marquise shape." He explained that because of this
almost invisible crack, the diamond would have to be
cut into two separate jewels. "The most you could get
out of this is two twelve-carat round diamonds."
MacLean concluded that more than
half the weight would be lost in cutting and polishing;
depending on the shape of the diamond, somewhere between
one-third and one-half of the weight is lost in cutting.
"What about the color? " Whitelock
"The color is superb," MacLean answered,
pronouncing "superb" as if it were two distinct words.
He pointed out that it was extremely fortunate that
the diamond was pure white. If it had a brownish tinge
to it, as had the last large diamond he had examined
from Lesotho, it would be worth only a tenth as much."This
mine depends on big stones-we need to produce two or
three a month just to stay in business," he explained.
When we got to the sorting room,
Whitelock instructed the chief sorter to show MacLean
the big stone that had just been found. A Basuto guard
with a shotgun looked on as the sorter handed the diamond
The diamond itself looked like a
large piece of broken glass, except that its edges were
smooth. MacLean placed it on the scale. It weighed exactly
fifty-eight carats. He nodded approvingly and pulled
out his jeweler's loupe from his pocket. Looking through
it, he examined the diamond for about a minute.
Whitelock perked up and asked MacLean
how much money this diamond would fetch in London. This
in turn would determine how much money De Beers would
credit to the mine's account.
I'd say it should bring between
six and seven thousand dollars a carat," MacLean responded,
without hesitating. At minimum, then, this single diamond
would be sold to a dealer for $342,000.
"Well, that's enough to keep the
mine going for another two weeks," Whitelock said smiling.
It seemed extraordinary that a single
stone, weighing a fraction of an ounce, could support
for a half month a mining enterprise that employed 800
workers. It turned out, however, that Whitelock was
not exaggerating. The Basuto workers earned on the average
$25 a week-the highest wages for labor paid in Lesotho.
From this amount, De Beers deducts the cost of each
worker's food and lodgings. The South African engineers
and supervisors, most of whom commute to South Africa
weekly in the Otter, earn about $25 a week. With other
operating expenses, such as fuel for the trucks and
electricity for the machinery, the mountaintop mine
cost about $150,000 a week to operate.
Whitelock drove us from the sorting
house to the mine itself. Like the desert mine at Orapa,
it was a kimberlite pipe. It was, however, only one-thirtieth
the size of the pit I had seen the day before in Botswana.
"This is the smallest diamond mine that De Beers operates,"
Whitelock said, as we stood on the edge of the shallow
pit. Below, about a dozen Basuto workers were loading
a truck with a power shovel. "We also have the dubious
distinction of mining the lowest-grade ore of any De
Beers mine." He explained that they had to sift through
three to four tons of kimberlite at the separation to
find a single carat of diamonds. And most of the diamonds
found are not of gem quality. In all, this mine had
produced only 17,000 carats of gem diamonds in its first
year of production.
Oppenheimer had told me that De
Beers had invested more money in this mountain venture
than in any other diamond mine outside of South Africa.
It had cost some $45 million to develop. Why had such
a huge investment been made in a mine that could yield,
compared to other mines, only a trickle of diamonds?
"There is only one reason for this
mine to exist: large stones," Whitelock answered. "Nearly
io percent of the total caratage taken out of this mine
is in the form of large stones. The world is running
out of large diamonds."
MacLean wholeheartedly agreed. "They
are the romance of the diamond business. Movie stars
won't want diamonds if you need a magnifying glass to
see them." MacLean explained that an important part
of his mission to Africa was to determine why the supply
of large stones was so rapidly diminishing. He said
that part of the problem was that most of the older
mines fed the ore directly into the giant crushers which,
though they speeded the automated separation of the
diamonds, also tended to smash larger diamonds into
smaller ones. He had just visited Premier mine in South
Africa, which had, seventy-three years ago, yielded
the world's largest diamond-the 3000-carat Cullinan
diamond. "Today, the crushers at the Premier would break
a diamond that size into a thousand fragments." He argued
that mines capable of yielding such large stones should
install a bypass system in . which the ore, before it
goes through the crushers, is screened by X-ray machines
to detect any larger diamonds.
"We have the bypass system," Whitelock
interrupted, "but it has never turned up any colossal
diamonds for us."
"It will," MacLean answered confidently.
"You'll save the cost of it with a single diamond some
day." He recounted how at the Premier mine he had reconstructed
a million dollar diamond from fragments he found at
its sorting house. "A bypass system would have saved
that diamond, and that alone would have paid the entire
cost of the system twice over.
"We could certainly use a million-dollar
diamond here," Whitelock said, as we continued walking
around the site. "Have you ever been to any place this
beautiful?" he asked me.
I looked down the mountain to where
he was pointing. A stream cut through the emerald green
hill below, and then cascaded down over white rocks.
Surrounding the hill were snow-covered mountain peaks.
The roof of Africa was indeed extraordinary. I asked
the mine manager how he had found this Shangri-la of
"I came here with Colonel Jack Scott
twenty years ago and I never left." He explained that
Scott was a South African adventurer looking for diamonds,
and he had heard of a Kimberlite pipe in Lesotho. Even
before diamonds had been discovered in South Africa,
he continued, Basuto tribesmen mined these kimberlites.
They had been looking not for diamonds but for ilmenite,
a mineral used as a bright cosmetic by the Basuto women.
Scott managed to persuade the paramount chieftainess
of Lesotho to give him a concession to sift through
the kimberlite pipe for diamonds. "We came up on horseback
then, and had to hack a jeep trail up the mountain,"
Whitelock recalled.. "We were stranded for a week in
a blizzard, but Scott got about 1,800 carats of diamonds
out. Shortly thereafter Scott gave up the concession."
Whitelock continued to prospect on
his own in Lesotho, enjoying the trout-filled streams
and endless game. Then, in 1967, a Basuto woman found
a mountain diamond weighing 601 carats. It was the eleventh
largest diamond ever found in the world. Rio Tinto Zinc,
a London mining conglomerate, rushed in to buy the mining
concession from the newly independent government of
Lesotho. At this point, Whitelock joined Rio Tinto Zinc
as a field geologist.
"They built the airstrip that you
landed on this morning and they began digging out the
mine," he continued. Even though Rio Tinto Zinc excavated
large amounts of kimberlite, it found that the ore yielded
too low a percentage of diamonds to be economically
profitable. In 1972, it abruptly abandoned the concession.
Chief Jonathan, the prime minister
of Lesotho, then went to the "logical candidate," as
Whitelock put it, Harry Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer's gold
mines in South Africa were already the chief employer
of Basuto labor, and Oppenheimer's companies had invested
in timber and land in Lesotho as part of a diversification
strategy. Chief Jonathan proposed that Oppenheimer go
into partnership in Mining diamonds with his kingdom.
Oppenheimer, according to Whitelock,
found the idea of discovering magnificent diamonds in
this mountain wilderness , to be an "especially romantic"
undertaking. He likened it to salvaging great works
of art and took the gamble of finding large stones in
Lesotho, even though the economics remained at least
problematical. "And he hired me to manage the mine,"
Whitelock concluded his story.
I looked around at the too-foot-high
separation plant erected on the side of the mountain,
the Swiss-chalet style dormitories for the workers,
and all the mechanized equipment in the mine. It seemed
that an enormous amount of capital had been invested
in this Shangri-la. Could this all be merely a romantic
conceit of Oppenheimer?
Oppenheimer had opened the Orapa
mine less than a year before he negotiated the venture
in Lesotho. He had also during this period acquired
prospecting rights to other countries adjacent to South
Africa-Swaziland and Rhodesia. This sudden expansion
by De Beers into four neighboring countries-Botswana,
Lesotho, Swaziland and Rhodesia-seemed to me to have
been more than a coincidence. It was a time, after all,
of increasing racial unrest in South Africa, and these
neighboring countries could provide safe havens for
We dined with the supervisory staff
in a wood-paneled room that overlooked the spectacular
mining site. They had a visitor from the Soviet Union,
a geologist named George Smernoff. Smernoff, it turned
out, had been stationed in Lesotho for nearly a year
to observe De Beers' mining techniques. This arrangement
with Smernoff was part of an "exchange" between De Beers
and the Soviets..
This remote kingdom seemed an odd
place for an "exchange." On the other hand, since the
Soviet Union was supposedly boycotting South Africa
because of its racial policies, Lesotho provided a convenient
official residence for a Soviet mining expert whose
unofficial business was in South Africa. "Does Smernoff
have access to other De Beers mines?" I asked.. No one
at the table answered.