Big is beautiful for Lesotho’s diamonds

Some of the largest diamonds ever discovered have been found at just one operation, the Letšeng mine run by Gem Diamonds, a UK-based company.

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Lesotho is not often in the news – and when does feature, it is usually because Britain’s Prince Harry, who likes to make the occasional foray there for charity work, is involved.

The country does, however, possess some of the finest diamond deposits on the planet.

For this reason it is of special interest to those pursuing gem-grade diamonds – anything above 10 carats and in fancy colours, says Hugo Philion, a member of the management team of the Emirati-backed Paragon Diamonds. “White or fancy colours such as pink, brown, red and green usually qualify.”

Diamonds are classified into two categories: type I diamonds that contain nitrogen; and Type IIa diamonds which are nitrogen free. It is the latter that contain colours and is the gem type with which Lesotho is particularly blessed.

Some of the largest diamonds ever discovered have been found at just one operation, the Letšeng mine run by Gem Diamonds, a UK-based company. Like Paragon’s planned operation, Letšeng comprises several diamond-bearing kimberlite pipes and has steadily produced spectacular finds since excavation began in the late 1950s.

Some of the biggest stones range between 500 and 600 carats uncut, or about the size of a chicken’s egg. The 603 carat “Lesotho Promise”, discovered in 2006, ranks as the world’s 12th largest diamond. It was sold for US$12.4 million, to the London-based investment jewel specialist Graff Diamonds. Following a year of painstaking work, it was cut into 26 Flawless D [practically perfect] jewels, and fashioned into a single necklace. Graff estimates its value at about $50m.

Since Gem Diamonds acquired a 70 per cent stake in Letšeng in 2006, the mine has unearthed four of the 20 largest white gem-quality diamonds ever recorded. Last year’s major find was a 198 carat gem that made headlines around the world.

All in all, Lesotho has at least 39 discovered kimberlite pipes, of which 24 are diamondiferous, or those that contain diamonds for mining. And it will need them. The country is desperately poor, ranked 156 out of 177 countries on the UN’s human development index. Most of its people work as labourers in neighbouring South Africa, by which Lesotho is entirely surrounded.

The country was originally established in the 19th century by a tribal chief who led his people to a mountain sanctuary away from marauding Zulu warriors, and later, oppressive white settlers. It remained fiercely independent but utterly dependent on its giant neighbour and the remittances of workers across the border. Diamonds now offer a new source of independent income.

Already diamonds contribute 10 per cent of Lesotho’s GDP, and if new discoveries are made, this could increase. New technologies could reveal further unknown deposits, says Paul Zimnisky, an independent diamond analyst in New York.

“Lesotho, just like the other countries and regions of the world that historically have had economic diamond resources, has been heavily geologically explored,” he says, adding that new technologies could re-open previously searched areas and lead to new discoveries.

“So I see new exploration techniques and technology and evolving operating economics as the biggest drivers of success in the diamond exploration/mining industry.”

In the meantime Lesotho is also hoping to become part of the larger gemstone value chain. In 2011 it opened an academy in the capital Maseru, to train local Basotho men and women to cut, polish and evaluate stones.

It may be time for Lesotho to sparkle.

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