Cold cuts

This story first appeared in the Chicago Tribune Sunday magazine. You can also read it here.

The diamond weighs less than a raisin, and costs more than a car. Which makes it entirely ordinary. At the Oak Street jeweler Lester Lampert, where it waits folded into a square of pale blue paper, the round $15,600 diamond is considered "a bread-and-butter stone." Its only unusual detail is a tiny serial number etched around its rim. Viewed through a microscope it reads: NWT2 TUNDRA 1235.

The fine print, like a dog's papers, gives this diamond pedigree, establishing its identity, credentials and provenance. This diamond, its ID attests, traveled from the sub-arctic permafrost to the velvet-lined comfort of the Gold Coast. En route it played a 1.47-carat role in a drama that has revolutionized the $56 billion diamond industry.

The stone, crusted in ancient dirt, was pried from a pit in the Northwest Territories of Canada, a country unknown to the diamond trade until a geologist with little more than a shovel and a hunch dug up a single stone a few years ago. His find proved so rich that it made Canada a major diamond producer and helped break the grip of the cartel that controlled the supply--and price--of diamonds for more than a century.

Tundra 1235 was cut and polished in Yellowknife, a frostbitten frontier outpost given new life by the mines opening up nearby. It was then exported to New York, its laser tattoo guaranteeing that it is not a "conflict diamond," harvested at inhuman cost from war-torn Africa.

Now on consignment in Chicago, the diamond with a government-certified social conscience hopes to impress a nervous would-be groom or a dazzled bride.

There's one path into Yellowknife, if the ice is hard enough to form a bridge, or broken up enough to accommodate the ferry. On the flight from Vancouver, flight attendants serve foil-wrapped squares of caribou potpie, chopsticks optional. At the airport, luggage twirls around a stuffed and mounted polar bear. Robertson's Taxidermy welcomes you.

Yellowknife, the saying goes, is where the gold is paved with streets. Two fading gold mines rumble below the center of town. In deepest winter, the sun, slanting low across the horizon, tints the streets dawn blue at 10, dusk pink by 3.

Yellowknife is home to 18,000 "Northerners." Many are actually southern Canadians, naturalized by a second tour of winter. Others include the native Dene, once known as Indians, and Inuit, formerly Eskimos.

Early Dene (pronounced DEN-ay) fashioned copper, dug from the Arctic coast by Inuit, into tools, earning them the name Yellowknives. It was passed on to the jumble of buildings hammered up in the 1930s, after prospectors discovered the local quartz was veined with gold. Miners, too, depended on the yellow knives, handy for opening cases of dynamite. Copper doesn't spark.

No one mentions the weather. Not the government employees trudging to Yellowknife's 11-story twin towers, not the Dene in town for snowmobile parts, nor the packs of Japanese tourists in matching goose-down parkas, drawn by the mystery of the Northern Lights. Not until 40 below. That's when eyelashes freeze, when a deep inhale can cause lung damage. Forty below, in local parlance, is cold.

The climate is too dry for much snow. But the arctic air crystallizes on every surface, crusting the stunted spruce, the wide streets and square buildings with sugar frosting. Yellowknife is harsh and beautiful.

Men come here to work. Miners can earn about $45,000 a year. Men come to hunt. The woods are quick with caribou, marten and lynx. Men come prospecting for riches in the rock. Their high hopes and hard luck mingle with the morning cigarette haze at The Diner. Men come, in the words of poet Robert Service, because they "won't fit in."

Some 200 miles farther north, on the treeless plain called the Barren Lands, at the bottom of a deep hole, shovel-mouthed trucks chew at a pile of black dirt. They scrape up diamonds, worth more than $1 million a day.

The mine is named Ekati. It means "caribou fat." Which is to say, wealth.

Workers commute by air, two weeks in, two out. Trucks haul fuel and equipment up the ice road, which is navigable about 10 weeks a year. Everything else flies.

On a recent January morning, men, and a few women, wait at Braden-Burry Expediting, a private air terminal, feet secured in steel-toed boots, hands at ease in the caribou mittens that Dene grandmothers trim with beaver fur and beaded flowers. About 40 percent of the work force is aboriginal.

Workers with their carry-ons weigh in, hand over their green boarding passes and file on-board the Canadian North 737. Flight attendants pass out packets of Oreos and the morning's papers. Above the clouds, a thin slice of orange sunlight hovers. After about 35 minutes, the pilot announces he will be landing--if he can find the airstrip in the ice fog. The plane touches down. Workers descend into a frozen haze.

The ground, seemingly conscious of the curve of the Earth, arcs underfoot. The sky, a liquid blue, hovers close. Wind sweeps fine white powder across a sand-colored factory, a dormitory and a very large hole. Those incursions aside, the landscape offers a broad sweep of nothing. This is the end of the Earth.

A yellow school bus, letters crossed out to spell "cool bus," materializes against the white. It winds along the frosted road and stops at the camp "accommodation complex." In the lobby, next to the earplug dispenser and blasting schedule, workers have their IDs scanned and bags X-rayed. The place sleeps 550 in small, private rooms. The cafeteria offers sirloin, Cantonese pineapple turkey and a view of tundra. There are workout rooms, squash courts, pool tables, and smoking lounges with wide-screen.

But what the facility most resembles is a minimum-security prison. Diamonds are small, and portable.

Panda Pit gapes a half-mile across and 500 feet deep. The lake that once covered it has been fished clean and drained. Granite walls spiral down to a heap of dirt on the bottom. This is kimberlite. It's crumbly like clay, dark like charcoal and studded with diamonds. One, dug up in the winter of 2000, made its way to Oak Street.

The kimberlite deposit is the remains of a subterranean volcano that long ago erupted into the redwood forest. On the way to the surface, about 100 miles down, molten kimberlite passed through a rocky field where carbon, under the right pressure and temperature, had crystallized into diamonds. The carrot-shaped kimberlite deposit, salted with the diamonds it had swept up, stayed put for 50 million years. The continent drifted north, glaciers scraped the forest clean, meltwater pooled on top. Caribou stopped by for a drink. No one named the lake.

In 1991, a geologist named Chuck Fipke took a look at a small green chunk of chrome diopside his son picked up nearby. It was the sort of rock that geologists call an indicator mineral. This mineral indicated diamonds.

Fipke had been hunting that green pebble for 12 years. He knew that the tundra rested on a geologic formation called a craton, and that the world's 15 major kimberlite pipes--South Africa to Siberia--lie in cratons. He wasn't the only one who had made this calculation; De Beers also had geologists camped on the tundra.

The De Beers cartel was formed by a coalition of South African mines in 1888 to control the plunging price of diamonds. De Beers invented the industry's arcane system of selling to hand-picked buyers pre-selected stones. De Beers also linked romance with stone. A 1948 marketing campaign declared, "A diamond is forever," inspiring 80 percent of American couples to seal their engagements with a ring. De Beers once marketed 80 percent of the world's diamonds. Until Chuck Fipke picked up that pebble.

"Those are the kinds of guys we should celebrate in story and song," says Mike Vaydik, general manager of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut Chamber of Mines. "If we were Americans, we'd run him up the flagpole a little more."

Fipke's find is now the Ekati Diamond Mine, opened in 1998. It produces about 6 percent by value of the world's rough, as unpolished diamonds are called. The Ekati mine is 80 percent owned by Australian mining giant BHP Billiton Ltd. Fipke and his prospecting partner, Stewart Blusson, each own 10 percent.

In the days after the discovery was made public, dozens of prospectors choppered blind into the arctic, tossing staking posts out the windows. The rush yielded two other mines, Diavik Diamond Mines and Snap Lake, not yet in production. When Diavik opens next year, Canada is expected to produce 12 percent of the world's rough, ranking it fourth behind Botswana, Russia and South Africa.

The new source of diamonds--outside the cartel, untainted by African conflict, next door to the world's biggest diamond consumer--shook the industry.

"It's impossible to overestimate the importance," says Matthew Hart, author of "Diamond: A Journey to the Heart of an Obsession." "If you want to think of De Beers as the 800-pound gorilla, here was another 800-pound gorilla. It basically broke up the old cartel."

Tiffany & Co. bought into the Diavik mine. "This company has basically got a line directly into the rough, bypassing the old cartel by a country mile," says Hart. "That is revolutionary."

De Beers now buys 35 percent of Ekati's output and has purchased the Snap Lake mine project, its first outside Africa. With competitors in Australia and Russia as well as Canada, its share of production has slipped to about 65 percent and it has relinquished its role in controlling prices. So far, the market has remained fairly stable. "It's not like the market is flooded," says Rob Bates, who covers the diamond industry for Cahners Publications. "It's still hard to get these things out of the ground."

The hydraulic front shovel is heavy in the jawbone, a yellow diesel-snorting T-Rex. Stranded at the bottom of the pit, like Mike Mulligan's steam shovel Mary Anne, it gnaws at the broken rock. Four scoops and the bed of the 218-ton truck is full. The truck begins its slow ascent to the rim of Panda Pit. Banks of lights glow from the perimeter, night and day. Wrigley Field meets Grand Canyon.

The truck dumps its load into a crusher, which empties into the process plant. Workers enter through a pair of glass doors, set about a foot apart, called a mantrap. The idea is to limit access to one person per ID. First one door opens and closes. Then the next. For a long moment, the worker is pressed between the two, a bug in a bug-box.

The windowless building stretches six stories high. Conveyor belts of kimberlite move in every direction, clattering through scrubbers, grinders and screens. Each day 10,000 tons of large rocks go in; 9,000 carats of small ones come out. That would nearly fill a coffee can and is worth about $1.5 million.

Workers completing their 12-hour shifts pass a mirror, ankle-high, to check their soles for stones. There's a small metal box mounted to the wall. It has a slot and a label: "Last Chance Box."

Only two workers ever touch the stones. The hands-off process, a company brochure notes with Orwellian tact, is designed "to protect employees." The diamonds leave by air, escorted by a rotating roster of employees whose names are known to few.

Workers fly home too. Most go back to Yellowknife; a few go directly to tiny towns stranded on the tundra. Aboriginal chiefs requested the direct flights to keep members away from Yellowknife and the sort of bars that thrive on two weeks' leave, with paycheck.

Dolphus Nitsiza, 29, grew up trapping lynx and marten outside the hamlet of Wha Ti. Now he and Melissa Mantla live together in Rae, a Dene town 60 miles outside Yellowknife. "Sometimes I don't want him to go back [to Ekati]," says Mantla, 26. As she talks, Tegan, in diaper and moccasins, and Dylan, in Batman T-shirt, scale the new couch in the new home on a new street that seems more suburban cul-de-sac than Dene town. "But financially," she says, "it's good."

At BHP's Sorting and Valuation Facility in Yellowknife, the diamonds are valued one by one. Despite the frost-crusted razor wire, the incessant stare of cameras and the bomb-threat instructions stationed by each phone, the sorting room looks like a high school chem lab. Long tables are divided into workstations, each prepped with a blotter, scale, microscope, pencil and loupe--a hand-held one-eyed lens that magnifies by 10. Here Fiona McLeod sorts. There are three grades, 21 categories, four colors. The job demands perfect eyesight, intense concentration, and an ability to imagine the inner life of the crystal. A speck from one angle might blossom to a splotch from another. "You are looking at the good part of the diamond for what it could yield," she says, magnifying glasses flipped up on her forehead, "rather than at the trouble or imperfections to what it can't."

McLeod learned her trade in Australia. Like the Armenian and Belgian cutters in town, she's filling Yellowknife's skilled-labor gap. "Northerners," says miner Nitsiza, "we don't know much about diamonds."

Loose on the table, in the weak northern light, the rough diamonds glow. They have a powdered look and a slippery feel. There are big, yellow rocks destined for the "fancy" category, dark nuggets that will be ground into sandpaper grit, heaps of fine gray and white grains that could have been scooped from the beach, and amber crystals that promise to shrug off their coats on the grinding wheel. Some are round or triangular or jagged like rock candy. Some hold the perfect octahedron shape of a diamond. That's what Tundra 1235 looked like when it came through early in 2001. McLeod graded it a near-top-quality "sawable," meaning it could most profitably be divided and polished into two gems.

Stones are bagged into Ziplocs, tax-assessed, sealed and shipped to Antwerp for finer grading and sale. Canada may have diamonds, but not the expertise, or market, to sell them. A few stones, like Tundra 1235, return to Yellowknife.

Ever since 1670, when King Charles II of England declared the land surrounding Hudson Bay his hunting ground, the North has specialized in export. Once the pelts and gold and uranium are gone, so are the jobs. When BHP was petitioning to open its mine, the territory's finance minister suggested keeping some rough diamonds at home to seed a cutting and polishing industry. He couldn't compel BHP to sell to locals. But if it refused, he vowed in Yellowknife's most famous passage of public oratory, he would "bring in a tax regime that would choke a mule."

There are now three polishing and cutting plants in town with a total of about 100 employees. Each operates with government subsidy, some imported labor and enormous skepticism: Remote frozen Yellowknife is competing with the thousands of cutters established in New York, Tel Aviv and Bombay.

The diamond-shaped windows of Deton'Cho Diamonds Inc. look out on N'Dilo, a Dene neighborhood where teepees for smoking caribou meat tilt between the homes. Deton'Cho, which means eagle, was formed to train and profit the Yellowknife Dene. Should there ever be any profits. "It takes years to be very good, and fast," says vice president Frans Van Looy, who was a master cutter in Belgium for 25 years. "That comes. But can you afford to [wait]? That's the question. This is not potatoes."

The packet that arrived from BHP last February contained 51 stones. No. 33 weighed 4.21 carats, about the size of a pointy eraser affixed to a yellow pencil. Van Looy agreed it should be divided and cut brilliant, which is to say round. John Wifladt got 33A, the big half.

Wifladt started training in June 2000. It took him two months to cut his first diamond. It unnerved him to know that a 100th-of-a-carat mistake would lop $100 off the stone's value. "I'd always be, like, 'I don't want to screw up, I don't want to screw up,' " says Wifladt, 26. "I got good that way."

Stone 33A arrived on his bench last March. It was the week that everyone got off early for the annual Caribou Carnival. There were snowmobile races, hockey shoots, snow-hardened maple syrup rolled on a stick, and the tea-boiling contest that tests wood-chopping prowess. By then he could finish a brilliant in a day.

"I don't really think about anything," says Wifladt on lunch break at his mother's house, absorbed in chicken nuggets and the hockey game. "I just put on my headset and listen to Metallica. Or Slayer. Or Pearl Jam."

The 17 cutters work in perpetual gloom. A single fluorescent bulb at each bench spotlights the rock that will emerge a jewel. Wifladt's tools are few: a set of black-handled clasps, called tangs. A grinding wheel called a scaife. A tin, emptied of raspberry candies and filled with diamond dust. Gripping a tang, he touches the stone to the diamond-powdered scaife. Over and over again. "You have to be careful," he says, eye to loupe. "You can't be heavy handed."

Much of what makes a diamond glow isn't there. In a brilliant cut, about 60 percent of the rough is sheared away. What's left are 57 luminous windows, each smooth, aligned, and matched to a set of precisely calibrated angles. The diamond should take light in through its flat "table," refract it dozens of times, and send it glistening back toward its admirer. Any variation and light leaks out the bottom.

The 2.89 carats of rough emerged from Wifladt's bench at 1.47 carats finished. In April, a laser inscriber, a console of knobs and switches, engraved the slim band that divides the diamond's top from bottom: NWT2 Tundra 1235.

"They're nice to look at," says Wifladt. "But I'd rather buy a new truck."

In Sierra Leone and Angola, civil war is funded by diamonds. Or fought in pursuit of diamonds. "It's discouraging and depressing and corrupt and inexcusable and shameful," says author Hart, who traveled the diamond map to report his book.

A London group called Global Witness has documented the forced labor, child labor and severed limbs. The United Nations has condemned the "blood diamond" traffic. Industry leaders have sworn not to trade tainted goods. The U.S. Clean Diamond Trade Act, which passed the House and is now under consideration in the Senate, would block the import of "conflict diamonds." But there's no way to examine a naked stone and know where it came from, or at what human cost.

Which is part of why Bob Bies, territorial manager for diamond business development, spends his days shuttling between two of Yellowknife's three cutters, polar-bear seal in hand. Tundra 1235's serial number was keyed to a certificate issued by the government of the Northwest Territories swearing that as a Canadian Arctic diamond it was mined, cut and polished in Canada. The certificate also records the diamond's Gemprint, an image of its unique crystalline structure.

Then the diamond and its papers were packed in a white box addressed to Larry Wadell, president, M. Ben-Dor Diamonds, New York.

Wadell grew up in diamonds. His father, once a diamond sawyer, taught him the import trade, and supervised the selection of the 2.45-carat trillion-cut stone he slipped under a room-service dome to propose to Orith. "Guys get to be a hero for about 10 days," he says. "Then you fall back into mere mortal."

A year ago, he was shocked by a documentary on conflict diamonds. "I have kids," he says. "You see these amputees, it really takes [away] your taste for buying a diamond." Wadell added Canadian Arctic to his line, under the brand name Tundra. "It's very morally correct," he says.

Wadell walked the diamond across 5th Avenue, in New York's crowded diamond district, to the headquarters of the Gemological Institute of America. That's the organization that in 1953 standardized diamond grading. Perhaps as many as six graders at its Gem Trade Lab examined the stone, assessing its "four C's." The color scored F, one grade off the entirely colorless D. Clarity rated vs2, about halfway down the 11-point scale from flawless to "included," but still considered a high rank. The cut is brilliant, the most popular, and usually most valuable, shape. The carat weight is just off the large "magic" weight of 1.5. Which may make it a good buy for someone seeking the heavy flash of 1.5 carats, at a slightly lighter price.

"Twenty years ago, you didn't need a certificate to sell a diamond," says Wadell. "If you called this a 2, then the retailer called his a 2 and the consumer bought it as a 2. Whatever it was, didn't matter. All of a sudden, certificates became important. You have to authenticate the color and clarity. People want to know."

The grading report--scores and diagrams--was locked into a database. One copy flew Fed Ex with the diamond to Chicago.

At Lester Lampert, the diamond's flashy looks outshine its dossier of documents. "A diamond is a diamond," says David Lampert, president of Lester Lampert Inc. So far, he reports, no one has come in asking for one with a non-violent history. Besides, he believes, new controls will keep conflict diamonds out of U.S. showcases.

But the paperwork is not without value, Lampert says. It establishes Tundra 1235 as a Canadian product, a brand in the gem industry's increasingly competitive market. Even De Beers, in partnership with LVMH (Mo't Hennessy Louis Vuitton), is launching its own label: "Forever." The trend toward branding is a way to assure customers, whether shopping in Tiffany's or Wal-Mart, that they're getting their money's worth.

After all, a diamond has little practical value. You can't eat it, live in it or drive it. Like Tundra 1235, patient in its paper wrapper, all it does is sparkle. Brilliantly.