A quarter century of digging under ice sees winners, losers, and an Irish billionaire teaming up with De Beers.
On the semi-frozen surface of Faraday Lake in Canada’s subarctic, two diamond rigs are drilling around the clock. It’s spring breakup north of the 63rd parallel, which means the Kennady Diamonds Inc. exploration team is running out of time.
“It’s starting to candle,” says geologist Martina Bezzola, scuffing her rubber boot over the fast-melting ice where vertical tunnels, or “candles,” have recently appeared. The thaw means the team has two weeks to extract kimberlite samples from beneath the lake before they’re banished to drilling onshore. “Basically it’s like sticking a needle into a haystack to determine what’s in the haystack.”
Twenty-five years after the first diamonds were found in Canada’s Northwest Territories, it’s still a game of hurry-up-and-wait. For every thousand grassroots exploration projects, only one becomes a mine. Snap Lake, one of three operating mines in the region, was shuttered by De Beers last year, a casualty of harsh geography and falling diamond prices.
Government attempts to add production value with a cutting industry collapsed years ago; all that remains of “Diamond Row” in the territorial capital Yellowknife is a line of derelict buildings behind barbed wire.
And yet the dream lives on. At a time when global miners are shedding assets, De Beers is about to open the largest new diamond mine in the world, Gahcho Kué, 280 kilometers (175 miles) northeast of Yellowknife. A little further north, Rio Tinto Group last year found—and just sold—the largest gem-quality diamond ever recorded in North America at its Diavik mine, the 187-carat Foxfire.
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