A day for lovers
Diamonds, the hottest ice
Want a Valentine's rock? Then you can't beat diamonds. Born of Earth, harder than nails, and ooh-soo-dear, diamonds are the rock of love. Just ask De Beers, which has manipulated the diamond market so long and so well in its effort to position diamonds as the true symbol of love.
Like the ideal love, a diamond is, well, forever. But just as neglect can ruin love, heat or a nasty whack with a hammer can destroy a diamond.
Iceman cometh. Ditto profits
Like the graphite used in pencil lead and some lubricants, diamonds are a crystalline form of carbon. But graphite's cheap and soft; diamonds are expensive and the hardest natural element (they are also an excellent conductor of heat).
Diamonds, like many crystals, are also quite durable, and "Diamonds are forever" turns out to be more than just an annoying pitchman's slogan.
Diamonds are ancient crystals, formed deep underground when carbon is subjected to high temperature and enormous pressure (just how hot, and how crushing, and for how long we wish we knew. In the diamond biz, those who know don't tell, and those who tell tend not to know...).
Current theories say diamonds form 100 or more kilometers below ground, in ancient rocks called cratons that have been little disturbed by the incessant jostling of continental plates. The crystals can form in cratons because they have the necessary pressure, but are cooler than other places with similar pressure.
Up the tubes
Kimberlite pipes used to be considered rare, says William Sharp, a retired geology professor from the Colorado School of Mines, but about 300 pipes were discovered in Canada Barren Lands alone over the past decade.
The Barren Lands are a vast stretch of bedrock covered by low vegetation and endless lakes and swamps. Buggy in the summer, it's piercingly cold in winter.
The emergence of Canada's Northwest Territories as a center of diamond production owes to the dedicated -- some would say maniacal -- efforts of Charles Fipke, a Canadian prospector who tracked the gems for a decade.
Fipke's search, ably chronicled in "Barren Lands" (see bibliography), was an epic of dogged determination, spiced by death-defying experiences and plenty of prospector's skullduggery.
Although many kimberlite pipes don't contain diamonds, plans are in the works to mine at least a dozen in Canada. Russia also has large diamond reserves -- but the problems of cold and inaccessibility are, if anything, even worse than in the Barrens.
Kimberlite rock itself is hard, igneous stuff, and mining requires expensive drilling and blasting, says Sharp, who spent many years working at mines in Congo, then called Zaire.
Ice moves ice
In prospector's parlance, Fipke and his driven crews moved "up-ice" and eventually located the source near Coppermine, a mining town (you wouldn't guess from the name) in the middle of nowhere in the Northwest Territories.
The first major North American strike threatened the De Beers monopoly by increasing production outside the De Beers mainstay, Southern Africa. De Beers ably sidestepped the threat by making a successful hostile offer for one Canadian mine, and by arranging to market one-third of the output of another.
(For a survey of masterful, modern-day market manipulation, see "The De Beers Story..." in the bibliography).
The diamond trail
Non-destructive testing techniques show that diamonds are not created equal -- they are not identical. "We assumed diamonds were 100 percent carbon," says Sharp, "but they contain a lot of trace elements in the ppm [parts-per-million] range."
These elements lend color to diamonds, and, Sharp says, and "Color is a kind of fingerprint, you can almost take it back to its source. It would not surprise me in a few years if you could take a diamond off a lady, analyze them, and conclude that it came from Angola, Russia, or the Kimberley pit." (Kimberley, incidentally, is the rich South African mine that loaned its name to kimberlite, the rock formation.)
Such an analysis might help track the diamonds that are funding bloodthirsty rebellions, but that's veering far from our Valentine's theme.
Bowerbirds: These romantics need no diamonds.
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