Standing in the Kalahari, gazing down over an enormous, neatly carved chasm in the earth, I pressed a fingertip over the facets of the small stone at my neck. It felt cheesy, embarrassing, but it had been an instinctive, almost unconscious gesture, an attempt to connect, somehow, with what I was looking at.
Jwaneng mine is 2.4 kilometers long and 1.8 kilometers wide. It is 400 meters deep. It comprises three kimberlite pipes (kimberlite being the igneous rock that’s the primary source for diamonds): The south pipe produces 60 carats of diamonds per 100 tons of earth; the north, 150 carats; and the central, 300. Jwaneng is the richest diamond mine in the world.
At any given time, there are four digging units and 60 trucks operating in the mine. From above, these trucks look like matchbox cars as they crawl up the road from the bottom of the pit. But when one crested the rise and pulled next to us, I realized a single tire was more than twice my height. And each truck carries a load of earth that, if it’s been filled from one of the kimberlite areas, is speckled with rough diamonds.
The magnitude of the operation is hard to wrap your mind around.
Two kinds of diamonds are recovered from the mine: gem diamonds and industrial diamonds. Industrial diamonds will find life as drill bits, cutting and grinding tools, and the like—places where their hardness and durability are essential but the clarity and color necessary in a gem diamond are irrelevant.
The gem diamonds, on the other hand, have a different destiny. And over the course of two days in Jwaneng, Gaborone (the capital of Botswana), and Molepolole—as a guest of the jewelers Ben Bridge and De Beers—I got to trace their path along a pipeline that sees them sorted, packaged, cut, and polished.
From the mine, the diamonds owned by De Beers make their way to a facility known as Global Sightholder Sales. GSS, which moved to Gaborone in 2013 from its former home in London, is where all De Beers diamonds mined in Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, and Canada are gathered and aggregated into packages that are then sold to sightholders (companies that have qualified to buy rough diamonds in bulk from De Beers). The aggregation process means that stones from the four countries are mixed together, but no package will contain stones from any sources outside those four countries.
One of the most surprising things to me was just how much traceability there was across the pipeline. Throughout the process at GSS and later at the cutting facility, stones were weighed and digitally mapped, and those images were compared to the images taken at the previous stage.
At GSS, a series of machines sorts the diamonds into categories to make the next step—sorting by hand—more manageable. IBIS sorts by color, grouping stones into more than 186 shades. (Colors and shades are valued differently; the rarest color—and the most expensive—is red.) ANNA sorts by surface structure, determining the crystalline shape of each rough stone. And BORIS sorts according to clarity, measuring how much light can pass through each stone.
After the stones are sorted by machine, they are sorted manually. Walk into one of the rooms where this happens and it’s hard not to gape: Piles of raw diamonds sit in bins waiting to be sorted; more lie on the tables under lights as workers examine them. It is, in the original sense of the word, awesome. (It will not surprise you to learn that security at GSS is tight, to say the least: I had to send them the serial number of my phone and install a special app prior to arrival. On-site, we each underwent a search process more thorough than TSA. No gum or adhesives are allowed, you cannot take liquids in or out of the facility, and you are under surveillance at all times—except, they told us, in the bathrooms. Though…if I were running a diamond facility, I think I’d put cameras in the bathrooms, too.)
In the end, each sightholder package will contain stones with a mix of colors, clarity, carats, and possible cuts (the four c’s)—and be valued somewhere between $400 million and $500 million. And each sightholder buys 10 packages a year. Again: The scale is overwhelming.
From GSS, stones are taken to a cutting facility; for the stones that will be used in Ben Bridge’s jewelry, this is Leo Schachter in Molepolole. Here again the stones are scanned and weighed, and the digital maps are compared to those from GSS to ensure the right stones have arrived.
The yield from a rough diamond, assuming that you decide to cut one large stone from it, will be about 50 percent, give or take, of its original carat weight: For example, for a 5-carat cut, the general rule is that you’ll need at least a 10.8-carat rough. And each stone is unique—the shapes you can cut are determined by the individual diamond’s internal structure.
From start to finish, it takes about two weeks for a stone to be cut and polished at Leo Schachter’s facility. The company has been cutting in Botswana for 25 years, and it continues to train local staff to do the work, bringing over experts from India (which has a long history of gem cutting) to teach them. The stones are cut and polished in phases, by hand and using machines, with different people working on different facets of the stone and one person signing off on each stone before it moves to the next phase.
As with the work of sorting by carat, color, and clarity, the work of determining what cuts are possible is done by machine. The digital scans show the facets and possible stone or stones a rough can yield, as well as the surfaces and inclusions inside the stone and where the imperfections will be.
Although “imperfections” is maybe not the right word—because with a natural diamond, those flaws or variations are often what will draw you to a stone or make it feel special. “It’s interesting, this internal struggle that we’re having is: We taught everybody for so long, industry-wise, that diamonds were supposed to fall into certain criteria in order to be better or good,” says Angela Hope, VP of merchandising at Ben Bridge. “And I just really feel like that isn’t the best way to honor them—that you should buy what you love, and they are a product of nature, and how they turn out is how they turn out. We have influence over that because of cut. But other than that, it’s just kind of what got cooked.”
Synthetic Diamonds: What to Know
Many jewelers that use synthetic (lab-grown) diamonds will highlight the fact that they are guaranteed to be conflict-free as a selling point. But this is something of a red herring—not least because in 2023 you actually can buy a natural diamond with confidence in its source. (Tracr is De Beers’s program for documenting diamonds’ provenance; other natural diamond manufacturers have similar programs, and Ben Bridge has a tracing program for its Ikuma diamonds, which are mined in Canada.)
There are two ways to create a lab-grown diamond: high-pressure high-temperature or chemical vapor deposition. Both methods require that you start with a small piece of natural diamond—which, of course, may have been mined. And both methods require a sizable amount of energy to turn the raw materials (pure carbon for HPHT diamonds; carbon gas for CVD diamonds) into rough diamonds. And while lab-grown diamond manufacturers argue that the environmental impact of their stones is less than that of mined diamonds, in reality it’s not that straightforward. Energy use varies greatly among both lab-grown producers and mining operations—as with so many questions around sustainability and environmental impact, there’s no easy black-and-white answer.
There’s also a great deal more regulation around the mining of natural diamonds—lab-grown diamond production is not subject to the same level of scrutiny and does not offer the same level of transparency when it comes to production chains, factory working conditions, and so forth.
In addition to government regulations, De Beers sightholders are required to meet the company’s best practice principles—strict standards for sustainability and ethical working conditions. After their initial qualification as sightholders, they must recertify annually and are subject to random spot-checks from third-party auditors; if they fail to meet these standards, their contract with De Beers is immediately terminated.
What is true is that a lab-grown stone is identical—both in chemical composition and physical structure—to a natural diamond. They also tend to be a lot more affordable than natural diamonds. If you are interested primarily in size or number of stones and have a limited budget, a lab-grown stone is likely a good choice.
Leo Schachter, a De Beers sightholder, is the company that cuts all of Ben Bridge’s Signature diamonds (the two have been working together for nearly 26 years). The Signature cut—it’s stunning—has additional facets to lend the stones extra brilliance. For each new collection, Leo Schachter sends a spreadsheet with all the available stones and cuts to Ben Bridge’s creative team. From there, the Ben Bridge team selects the diamonds they will use for their new designs.
The new Signature collection (pictured above) was inspired, in part, by our visit to Botswana. “I really wanted the diamonds and what we were there to celebrate and learn about to be the focus,” Hope told me. And you can see this in the pieces: Done in responsibly sourced platinum or recycled 18-karat gold, they are clean-lined, with settings that seem to hug the stones without obscuring them.
Diamonds We Love—and Pieces to Style Them With
Ben Bridge SignatureDiamond Stud EarringsBen Bridge, $6,599SHOP NOW
Sapir BacharVessel Ringgoop, $299SHOP NOW
Ben Bridge SignatureDiamond Solitaire Hoop EarringsBen Bridge, $3,599SHOP NOW
G. Label by goopDeven Pavé Link Necklacegoop, $8,000SHOP NOW
Ben-AmunAstrid Ringgoop, $120SHOP NOW
Jade Trau for Ben Bridge SignatureDiamond Station NecklaceBen Bridge, $2,799SHOP NOW
Diamonds are so much more than just jewelry in Botswana. De Beers first discovered diamonds in the country in 1966, the same year Botswana gained independence and held its first elections. At that time, around 88 percent of the country’s export earnings were from beef. Today, more than 80 percent of its export earnings are from diamonds. Diamonds make up more than 30 percent of the country’s GDP, and that number has grown in proportion to the carat production from Debswana (the fifty-fifty partnership between De Beers and the Botswanan government that owns Jwaneng and three other diamond mines in the country).
This is just the big picture. There are also the smaller, more personal endeavors, like Bana ba Keletso, a preschool we visited in Molepolole, which Leo Schachter has helped fund since it started working in the town. We visited the school on our way to the cutting facility. The staff explained that for some of the students, the meals they get at school are the only ones they’ll have for the day. And while the school aims to provide three meals a day, sometimes they can’t afford to. A sobering reality, especially in a town where millions of dollars of diamonds are being cut and polished.
But it’s not the end of the story: When I spoke to Hope this fall, she told me that Ben Bridge will now fund the food program at the school, guaranteeing all of its students three meals a day. “They haven’t been able to go to maximum capacity because they’re trying to manage their resources and make sure that the people they have are taken care of, which makes sense—I understand the why,” Hope told me. “So the hope is that locking down this piece will help to create a domino effect and help them open the doors a little bit more.”