Gem diamonds are, arguably, the ultimate luxury available to millions of people around the globe. They are available in quantities that most other gems fail to come anywhere near, but the operating costs, the labour and the skills that go into producing even the smallest polished gem mean that prices at the jeweller’s counter reflect an individual gem’s luxury status.
Diamonds, it is well known, are an intricate lattice of carbon atoms, a crystal structure that imparts a hardness unmatched elsewhere in nature. And it is this hardness that makes the finest diamonds crucial in the manufacture of high-tech cutting, grinding and polishing tools. Without diamond grit (bort or boart as it is known) much of the world’s modern manufacturing would be made far more difficult than it is.
While diamond mining has been taking in place in South Africa for almost a century and a half, the country’s diamond sector is far from reaching the end of its life. Developments at the country’s three largest mines are designed to expand their outputs and to extend their lives to anywhere between a quarter and a half a century.
Key Facts and Figures
- The first diamond, the appropriately named Eureka, was discovered in South Africa near Hopetown in 1867. It weighed 21.25 carats
- The largest diamond discovered was the Cullinan found at the Premier Mine in 1905 and weighing 3,106 carats uncut
- At the start, diamond discoveries were in alluvial deposits. In 1869 the first diamonds were found in yellow-ground (and then in blue ground) near and in what was to become Kimberley, the world’s diamond capital. The diamond matrix was subsequently named kimberlite
- Diamonds were later discovered in significant quantities in kimberlites in what was then known as the Transvaal – the Cullinan mine in 1902 and Venetia (opened in 1992) and the Finsch mine in the Northern Cape, opened in 1978
- In 2014 South Africa produced 8.12Mct of diamonds of which 308,121ct were alluvial, 27,302 were marine and 7.79Mct were from kimberlite
- 3.2Mct worth R8.88 billion were sold locally
- 5.62Mct worth R7.73 billion were exported
- De Beers, the name which is synonymous with diamonds, was founded by Cecil Rhodes in 1888 and for many years dominated the world’s diamond market
Location and geology
Natural diamonds were formed some 3.3 billion years ago in conditions of intense heat and pressure 150km below the earth’s surface.
The primary sources of all of South Africa’s diamonds are kimberlites in ancient, vertically dipping volcanic pipes most of which were located in the vicinity of the city of Kimberley and which were initially amenable to open-cast. They were largely discovered in the latter part of the 19th century. Early in the 20th century, the Premier mine’s volcanic pipe was discovered near Pretoria and, in the final decades of the century, the Finsch mine’s kimberlite pipe was discovered near the town of Lime Acres in the Northern Cape and, later, the Venetia mine’s kimberlite near the town of Alldays in Limpopo province.
Alluvial diamonds and small diamondiferous fissures have been known and worked for many years along the southern banks of the Orange River as well as along and off-shore of South Africa’s west coast.
Diamond mining in South Africa
The underground mining and recovery of diamonds continues to this day in the vicinity of Kimberley, the site of the early main discoveries in the 19th century. It is, however, on limited scale with a major focus on reprocessing old tailings dumps to recover diamonds left behind by older recovery processes.
To the west of Kimberley, and on the southern banks of the Orange River some 60km upstream from Port Nolloth, Trans Hex mines largely alluvial diamonds at its Baken and Bloeddrif operations.
Further north in Limpopo province, the Venetia mine owned by De Beers is South Africa’s largest diamond producer, recovering some 8Mct a year. Mining is currently by open-cast methods but the depth limits of the open pit are being reached and an underground mine is being developed to continue production below the open pit. Underground mining will be by conventional block-caving or sub-level caving methods.
The Finsch mine, part of the Petra Diamonds group, is South Africa’s second largest producer and operates exclusively as an underground mine using conventional sub-level caving methods. Finsch produces an annual 1.3Mct at present but is being expanded to raise production to 2Mct by 2018.
Near Pretoria and also part of the Petra group, the Cullinan mine (originally called Premier) is being restructured and expanded to mine at ever-increasing depths with a life expectancy in excess of 50 years. Expansion is intended to lift annual production from its current 0.75Mct to 2.4Mct by 2019.