Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?

(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one. Click here to go to part two.)

A serious threat to the Stability of the diamond invention came in the late 1970s from the sale of "investment" diamonds to speculators in the United States. A large number of fraudulent investment firms, most of them in Arizona, began telephoning prospective clients drawn from various lists of professionals and investors who had recently sold stock. "Boiler-room operators," many of them former radio and television announcers, persuaded strangers to buy mail-order diamonds as investments that were supposedly much safer than stocks or bonds. Many of the newly created firms also held "diamond-investment seminars" in expensive resort hotels, where they presented impressive graphs and data. Typically assisted by a few well-rehearsed shills in the audience, the seminar leaders sold sealed packets of diamonds to the audience. The leaders often played on the fear of elderly investors that their relatives might try to seize their cash assets and commit them to nursing homes. They suggested that the investors could stymie such attempts by putting their money into diamonds and hiding them.

The sealed packets distributed at these seminars and through the mail included certificates guaranteeing the quality of the diamonds -- as long as the packets remained sealed. Customers who broke the seal often learned from independent appraisers that their diamonds were of a quality inferior to that stated. Many were worthless. Complaints proliferated so fast that, in 1978, the attorney general of New York created a "diamond task force" to investigate the hundreds of allegations of fraud.

Some of the entrepreneurs were relative newcomers to the diamond business. Rayburne Martin, who went from De Beers Diamond Investments, Ltd. (no relation to the De Beers cartel) to Tel-Aviv Diamond Investments, Ltd. -- both in Scottsdale, Arizona -- had a record of embezzlement and securities law violations in Arkansas, and was a fugitive from justice during most of his tenure in the diamond trade. Harold S. McClintock, also known as Harold Sager, had been convicted of stock fraud in Chicago and involved in a silver-bullion-selling caper in 1974 before he helped organize DeBeers Diamond Investments, Ltd. Don Jay Shure, who arranged to set up another DeBeers Diamond Investments, Ltd., in Irvine, California, had also formerly been convicted of fraud. Bernhard Dohrmann, the "marketing director" of the International Diamond Corporation, had served time in jail for security fraud in 1976. Donald Nixon, the nephew of former President Richard M. Nixon, and fugitive financier Robert L. Vesco were, according to the New York State attorney general, participating in the late 1970s in a high-pressure telephone campaign to sell "overvalued or worthless diamonds" by employing "a battery of silken-voiced radio and television announcers." Among the diamond salesmen were also a wide array of former commodity and stock brokers who specialized in attempting to sell sealed diamonds to pension funds and retirement plans.

In London, the real De Beers, unable to stifle all the bogus entrepreneurs using its name, decided to explore the potential market for investment gems. It announced in March of 1978 a highly unusual sort of "diamond fellowship" for selected retail jewelers. Each jeweler who participated would pay a $2,000 fellowship fee. In return, he would receive a set of certificates for investment-grade diamonds, contractual forms for "buy-back" guarantees, promotional material, and training in how to sell these unmounted diamonds to an entirely new category of customers. The selected retailers would then sell loose stones rather than fine jewels, with certificates guaranteeing their value at $4,000 to $6,000.

De Beers's modest move into the investment-diamond business caused a tremor of concern in the trade. De Beers had always strongly opposed retailers selling "investment" diamonds, on the grounds that because customers had no sentimental attachment to such diamonds, they would eventually attempt to resell them and cause sharp price fluctuations.

If De Beers had changed its policy toward investment diamonds, it was not because it wanted to encourage the speculative fever that was sweeping America and Europe. De Beers had "little choice but to get involved," as one De Beers executive explained. Many established diamond dealers had rushed into the investment field to sell diamonds to financial institutions, pension plans, and private investors. It soon became apparent in the Diamond Exchange in New York that selling unmounted diamonds to investors was far more profitable than selling them to jewelry shops. By early 1980, David Birnbaum, a leading dealer in New York, estimated that nearly a third of all diamond sales in the United States were, in terms of dollar value, of these unmounted investment diamonds. "Only five years earlier, investment diamonds were only an insignificant part of the business," he said. Even if De Beers did not approve of this new market in diamonds, it could hardly ignore a third of the American diamond trade.

To make a profit, investors must at some time find buyers who are willing to pay more for their diamonds than they did. Here, however, investors face the same problem as those attempting to sell their jewelry: there is no unified market in which to sell diamonds. Although dealers will quote the prices at which they are willing to sell investment-grade diamonds, they seldom give a set price at which they are willing to buy diamonds of the same grade. In 1977, for example, Jewelers' Circular Keystone polled a large number of retail dealers and found a difference of over 100 percent in offers for the same quality of investment-grade diamonds. Moreover, even though most investors buy their diamonds at or near retail price, they are forced to sell at wholesale prices. As Forbes magazine pointed out, in 1977, "Average investors, unfortunately, have little access to the wholesale market. Ask a jeweler to buy back a stone, and he'll often begin by quoting a price 30% or more below wholesale." Since the difference between wholesale and retail is usually at least 100 percent in investment diamonds, any gain from the appreciation of the diamonds will probably be lost in selling them.

"There's going to come a day when all those doctors, lawyers, and other fools who bought diamonds over the phone take them out of their strongboxes, or wherever, and try to sell them," one dealer predicted last year. Another gave a gloomy picture of what would happen if this accumulation of diamonds were suddenly sold by speculators. "Investment diamonds are bought for $30,000 a carat, not because any woman wants to wear them on her finger but because the investor believes they will be worth $50,000 a carat. He may borrow heavily to leverage his investment. When the price begins to decline, everyone will try to sell their diamonds at once. In the end, of course, there will be no buyers for diamonds at $30,000 a carat or even $15,000. At this point, there will be a stampede to sell investment diamonds, and the newspapers will begin writing stories about the great diamond crash. Investment diamonds constitute, of course, only a small fraction of the diamonds held by the public, but when women begin reading about a diamond crash, they will take their diamonds to retail jewelers to be appraised and find out that they are worth less than they paid for them. At that point, people will realize that diamonds are not forever, and jewelers will be flooded with customers trying to sell, not buy, diamonds. That will be the end of the diamond business."

BUT a panic on the part of investors is not the only event that could end the diamond business. De Beers is at this writing losing control of several sources of diamonds that might flood the market at any time, deflating forever the price of diamonds.

In the winter of 1978, diamond dealers in New York City were becoming increasingly concerned about the possibility of a serious rupture, or even collapse, of the "pipeline" through which De Beers's diamonds flow from the cutting centers in Europe to the main retail markets in America and Japan. This pipeline, a crucial component of the diamond invention, is made up of a network of brokers, diamond cutters, bankers, distributors, jewelry manufacturers, wholesalers, and diamond buyers for retail establishments. Most of the people in this pipeline are Jewish, and virtually all are closely interconnected, through family ties or long-standing business relationships.

An important part of the pipeline goes from London to diamond-cutting factories in Tel Aviv to New York; but in Israel, diamond dealers were stockpiling supplies of diamonds rather than processing and passing them through the pipeline to New York. Since the early 1970s, when diamond prices were rapidly increasing and Israeli currency was depreciating by more than 50 percent a year, it had been more profitable for Israeli dealers to keep the diamonds they received from London than to cut and sell them. As more and more diamonds were taken out of circulation in Tel Aviv, an acute shortage began in New York, driving prices up.

In early 1977, Sir Philip Oppenheimer dispatched his son Anthony to Tel Aviv, accompanied by other De Beers executives, to announce that De Beers intended to cut the Israeli quota of diamonds by at least 20 percent during the coming year. This warning had the opposite effect of what he intended. Rather than paring down production to conform to this quota, Israeli manufacturers and dealers began building up their own stockpiles of diamonds, paying a premium of 100 percent or more for the unopened boxes of diamonds that De Beers shipped to Belgian and American dealers. (By selling their diamonds to the Israelis, the De Beers clients could instantly double their money without taking any risks.) Israeli buyers also moved into Africa and began buying directly from smugglers. The Intercontinental Hotel in Liberia, then the center for the sale of smuggled goods, became a sort of extension of the Israeli bourse. After the Israeli dealers purchased the diamonds, either from De Beers clients or from smugglers, they received 80 percent of the amount they had paid in the form of a loan from Israeli banks. Because of government pressure to help the diamond industry, the banks charged only 6 percent interest on these loans, well below the rate of inflation in Israel. By 1978, the banks had extended $850 million in credit to diamond dealers, an amount equal to some 5 percent of the entire gross national product of Israel. The only collateral the banks had for these loans was uncut diamonds.

De Beers estimated that the Israeli stockpile was more than 6 million carats in 1977, and growing at a rate of almost half a million carats a month. At that rate, it would be only a matter of months before the Israeli stockpile would exceed the cartel's in London. If Israel controlled such an enormous quantity of diamonds, the cartel could no longer fix the price of diamonds with impunity. At any time, the Israelis could be forced to pour these diamonds onto the world market. The cartel decided that it had no alternative but to force liquidation of the Israeli stockpile.

If De Beers wanted to bring the diamond speculation under control, it would have to clamp down on the banks, which were financing diamond purchases with artificially low interest rates. De Beers announced that it was adopting a new strategy of imposing "surcharges" on diamonds. Since these "surcharges," which might be as much as 40 percent of the value of the diamonds, were effectively a temporary price increase, they could pose a risk to banks extending credit to diamond dealers. For example, with a 40 percent surcharge, a diamond dealer would have to pay $1,400 rather than $1,000 for a small lot of diamonds; however, if the surcharge was withdrawn, the diamonds would be worth only a thousand dollars. The Israeli banks could not afford to advance 80 percent of a purchase price that included the so-called surcharge; they therefore required additional collateral from dealers and speculators. Further, they began, under pressure from De Beers, to raise interest rates on outstanding loans.

Within a matter of weeks in the summer of 1978, interest rates on loans to purchase diamonds went up 50 percent. Moreover, instead of lending money based on what Israeli dealers paid for diamonds, the banks began basing their loans on the official De Beers price for diamonds. If a dealer paid more than the De Beers price for diamonds -- and most Israeli dealers were paying at least double the price -- he would have to finance the increment with his own funds.

To tighten the squeeze on Israel, De Beers abruptly cut off shipments of diamonds to forty of its clients who had been selling large portions of their consignments to Israeli dealers. As Israeli dealers found it increasingly difficult either to buy or finance diamonds, they were forced to sell diamonds from the stockpiles they had accumulated. Israeli diamonds poured onto the market, and prices at the wholesale level began to fall. This decline led the Israeli banks to put further pressure on dealers to liquidate their stocks to repay their loans. Hundreds of Israeli dealers, unable to meet their commitments, went bankrupt as prices continued to plunge. The banks inherited the diamonds.

Last spring, executives of the Diamond Trading Company made an emergency trip to Tel Aviv. They had been informed that three Israeli banks were holding $1.5 billion worth of diamonds in their vaults -- an amount equal to nearly the annual production of all the diamond mines in the world -- and were threatening to dump the hoard of diamonds onto an already depressed market. When the banks had investigated the possibilities of reselling the diamonds in Europe or the United States, they found little interest. The world diamond market was already choked with uncut and unsold diamonds. The only alternative to dumping their diamonds on the market was reselling them to De Beers itself.

De Beers, however, is in no position to absorb such a huge cache of diamonds. During the recession of the mid-970s, it had to use a large portion of its cash reserve to buy diamonds from Russia and from newly independent countries in Africa, in order to preserve the cartel arrangement. As it added diamonds to its stockpile, De Beers depleted its cash reserves. Furthermore, in 1980, De Beers found it necessary to buy back diamonds on the wholesale markets in Antwerp to prevent a complete collapse in diamond prices. When the Israeli banks approached De Beers about the possibility of buying back the diamonds, De Beers, possibly for the first time since the depression of the 1930s, found itself severely strapped for cash. It could, of course, borrow the $1.5 billion necessary to bail out the Israeli banks, but this would strain the financial structure of the entire Oppenheimer empire.

Sir Philip Oppenheimer, Monty Charles, Michael Grantham, and other top executives from De Beers and its subsidiaries attempted to prevent the Israeli banks from dumping their hoard of diamonds. Despite their best efforts, however, the situation worsened. Last September, Israel's major banks quietly informed the Israeli government that they faced losses of disastrous proportions from defaulted accounts almost entirely collateralized with diamonds. Three of Israel's largest banks -- the Union Bank of Israel, the Israel Discount Bank, and Barclays Discount Bank -- had loans of some $660 million outstanding to diamond dealers, which constituted a significant portion of the bank debt in Israel. To be sure, not all of these loans were in jeopardy; but, according to bank estimates, defaults in diamond accounts rose to 20 percent of their loan portfolios. The crisis had to be resolved either by selling the diamonds that had been put up as collateral, which might precipitate a worldwide selling panic, or by some sort of outside assistance from the Israeli government or De Beers or both. The negotiations provided only stopgap assistance: De Beers would buy back a small proportion of the diamonds, and the Israeli government would not force the banks to conform to banking regulations that would result in the liquidation of the stockpile.

"Nobody took into account that diamonds, like any other commodity, can drop in value," Mark Mosevics, chairman of First International Bank of Israel, explained to The New York Times. According to industry estimates, the average one-carat flawless diamond had fallen in value by 50 percent since January of 1980. In March of 1980, for example, the benchmark value for such a diamond was $63,000; in September of 1981, it was only $23,000. This collapse of prices forced Israeli banks to sell diamonds from their stockpile at enormous discounts. One Israeli bank reportedly liquidated diamonds valued at $6 million for $4 million in cash in late 1981. It became clear to the diamond trade that a major stockpile of large diamonds was out of De Beers's control.

THE most serious threat to De Beers is yet another source of diamonds that it does not control -- a source so far untapped. Since Cecil Rhodes and the group of European bankers assembled the components of the diamond invention at the end of the nineteenth century, managers of the diamond cartel have shared a common nightmare -- that a giant new source of diamonds would be discovered outside their purview. Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, using all the colonial connections of the British Empire, succeeded in weaving the later discoveries of diamonds in Africa into the fabric of the cartel; Harry Oppenheimer managed to negotiate a secret agreement that effectively brought the Soviet Union into the cartel. However, these brilliant efforts did not end the nightmare. In the late 1970s, vast deposits of diamonds were discovered in the Argyle region of Western Australia, near the town of Kimberley (coincidentally named after Kimberley, South Africa). Test drillings last year indicated that these pipe mines could produce up to 50 million carats of diamonds a year -- more than the entire production of the De Beers cartel in 1981. Although only a small percentage of these diamonds are of gem quality, the total number produced would still be sufficient to change the world geography of diamonds. Either this 50 million carats would be brought under control or the diamond invention would be destroyed.

De Beers rapidly moved to get a stranglehold on the Australian diamonds. It began by acquiring a small, indirect interest in Conzinc Riotinto of Australia, Ltd. (CRA), the company that controlled most of the mining rights. In 1980, it offered a secret deal to CRA through which it would market the total output of Australian production. This agreement might have ended the Australian threat if Northern Mining Corporation, a minority partner in the venture, had accepted the deal. Instead, Northern Mining leaked the terms of the deal to a leading Australian newspaper, which reported that De Beers planned to pay the Australian consortium 80 percent less than the existing market price for the diamonds. This led to a furor in Australia. The opposition Labour Party charged not only that De Beers was seeking to cheat Australians out of the true value of the diamonds but that the deal with De Beers would support the policy of apartheid in South Africa. It demanded that the government impose export controls on the diamonds rather than allow them to be controlled by a South African corporation. Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, faced with a storm of public protest, said that he saw no advantage in "arrangements in which Australian diamond discoveries only serve to strengthen a South African monopoly." He left the final decision on marketing, however, to the Western Australia state government and the mining companies, which may or may not decide to make an arrangement with De Beers.

De Beers also faces a crumbling empire in Zaire. Sir Ernest Oppenheimer had concluded, more than fifty years ago, that control over the diamond mines in Zaire (then called the Belgian Congo) was the key to the cartel's control of world production. De Beers, together with its Belgian partners, had instituted mining and sorting procedures that would maximize the production of industrial (rather than gem) diamonds. Since there was no other ready customer for the enormous quantities of industrial diamonds the Zairian mines produced, De Beers remained their only outlet. In June of last year, however, President Mobuto abruptly announced that his country's exclusive contract with a De Beers subsidiary would not be renewed. Mobuto was reportedly influenced by offers he received for Zaire's diamond production from both Indian and American manufacturers. According to one New York diamond dealer, "Mobuto simply wants a more lucrative deal." Whatever his motives, the sudden withdrawal of Zaire from the cartel further undercuts the stability of the diamond market. With increasing pressure for the independence of Namibia, and a less friendly government in neighboring Botswana, De Beers's days of control in black Africa seem numbered.

Even in the midst of this crisis, De Beers's executives in London have been maneuvering to save the diamond invention by buying up loose diamonds. The inventory of diamonds in De Beers's vault has swollen to a value of over a billion dollars -- twice the value of the 1979 inventory. To rekindle the demand for diamonds, De Beers recently launched a new multimillion-dollar advertising campaign (including $400,000 for television advertisements during the British royal wedding in July), yet it can be expected to buy only a few years of time for the cartel. By the mid-1980s, the avalanche of Australian diamonds will be pouring onto the market. Unless the resourceful managers of De Beers can find a way to gain control of the various sources of diamonds that will soon crowd the market, these sources may bring about the final collapse of world diamond prices. If they do, the diamond invention will disintegrate and be remembered only as a historical curiosity, as brilliant in its way as the glittering little stones it once made so valuable.

The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one. Click here to go to part two.

Copyright © 1982 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 1982; Have You Ever Tried To Sell A Diamond?; Volume 249, No. 2; pages 23-34.