Australian Diamonds

By Anna on July 16, 2014 at 4:51 pm

Bario Neal is proud to offer ethical, traceable Australian diamonds. Currently, all of our Australian diamonds originate from the Argyle Diamond Mine (ADM) in the Kimberley region of northwestern Australia. We are also exploring a new source for rough diamonds from the Ellendale Diamond Mine, in West Kimberley, but for this post we’ll focus on the Argyle Mine.

Far from any populated areas, in a region of precipitous mountains and severe cliffs that descend into lakes and rivers reflecting the bright red soils and deep green scrubby foliage, lies the Argyle Diamond Mine. The Argyle mine is the world’s only significant producer of rare pink diamonds, and produces a large portion of the world’s supply of naturally colored diamonds, including champagne, cognac, and rare blue diamonds. The Ellendale mine is especially known for its production of rare yellow diamonds.

ADM is owned by mining giant Rio Tinto Limited, which also owns the Diavik mine in the Northwest Territories in Canada. Like the Diavik mine, the style of mining that occurs here is open-pit, the safest type of mining in the developed world. The mine is being expanded into an underground operation to extend its life through at least 2020. The mine has been in operation since 1985, and since then has produced over 790 million carats of diamonds.

Underground operations at the Argyle Mine, image courtesy ADM

After the diamonds are mined at ADM, they are sent to Rio Tinto’s diamond sales and marketing office in Antwerp, Belgium where they are sorted and prepared for sale. Most of these diamonds are sold as rough to Indian diamond traders and manufacturers. But the rare pink diamonds from ADM have a slightly different path, since they are so valuable. These diamonds are cut and polished by Argyle Diamonds themselves, whose business headquarters is in Perth, Australia where their state-of-the-art cutting facility is also located.

Australian diamonds in general have a fluorescent quality, and are characterized by black pique, or tiny black spots of undigested carbon. They also have strong graining lines, which all diamonds have to a certain extent, and a twisted internal grain that makes them very challenging to cut and polish. Because of this internal grain, diamonds mined at ADM are categorized as extremely hard. For comparison, diamonds mined at the Diavik mine in Canada have little internal graining, and are therefore much easier to cut and polish, and are categorized as soft. [2]

In the world of diamonds, Australian diamonds are in a unique league with Canadian diamonds in that the governments of these countries hold mining companies accountable for their mining activities and their social and environmental impacts, not to mention the strict labor laws that are on par with those of the US. Where more research is required, however, is in the cutting and polishing stage, some of which does not happen in Australia. Cutting and polishing is an area where human rights abuses can enter the picture, with child labor and dangerous facilities being some of the most common afflictions of this industry. More on this below.

Cutting and Polishing

The origins of our Australian diamonds are completely traceable, including the mine and cutting and polishing facilities. Most of our Australian diamonds are cut and polished in a facility in either Mumbai, Valsad, or Surat India, or  in Australia.  We also work with Australian diamonds that are cut and polished in Hong Kong, Bangkok, and New York.  We rely on the Jeweltree standard as well as first-hand reports from some suppliers to be sure that the Australian diamonds we work with are cut and polished at a facility that treats its workers well.

Our Australian white melee (small) diamonds are cut and polished in a Jeweltree-approved facility. In order to pass the Jeweltree audit, this facility had to meet a long list of rigorous standards that includes human rights and environmental standards. Our champagne and cognac Australian diamonds are not cut in facilities that have undergone the Jeweltree audit. This only means that Jeweltree has not performed an audit on these facilities, not that the facilities did not pass the audit. Most of the larger champagne and cognac Australian diamonds are cut in a facility in Mumbai, while the smaller sizes are cut in Surat. [1] These facilities function according to the Business Excellence Model (BEM) standards, which you can read more about here (http://www.managing-innovation.com/tools/Business%20Excellence%20Model.pdf). [1] [3] They have also been run by a business owner with good standing in the international jewelry trade for over 10 years. [1] [2] These facilities do not employ children, they pay their workers fair wages, and offer a safe working environment.

Our rose cut Australian diamonds  are cut and polished in Mumbai, Hong Kong, Bangkok, or New York, depending on the characteristics of the rough diamonds and the type of polishing required. Our supplier visits each facility at least once a year to confirm their commitment to workers’ rights and health.

All pink and blue diamonds are either cut by Argyle Diamonds themselves in one of their Australian facilities, or by one of their contracted manufacturers in a Rio Tinto/Argyle-approved facility, and then shipped back to Argyle Diamonds. [1] Any pink diamond over .15 carats is cut in Australia, and pink melee are cut in India.

As with so many other aspects of the ethical jewelry industry, this is part of a process toward more ethical, transparent, and just standards. Bario Neal is in partnership with those members of the jewelry industry that are at the forefront of this movement.

Social Responsibility

The Argyle mine is located far from any towns or cities (115 miles from Kununurra and 1200 miles from Perth–or about a 5 hour plane ride). There is a well established residential camp located at the mine site, and many workers travel from Perth and stay for two-week work periods. The workers here are well paid and receive excellent benefits, including medical assistance, insurance, study assistance, healthy lifestyle programs, and more, which you can read more about on the Argyle Diamonds website here (http://www.argylediamonds.com.au/employee_benefits.html). Under its  “localisation policy,” ADM gives first preference to residents of East Kimberley, and is especially committed to providing training and employment opportunities for indigenous people.

Today ADM is generally considered to have a positive impact on the Australian economy, including the financial stability of locals and people indigenous to the area. But this was not always the case. When the mine site was first being explored in the late 1970’s-early 1980’s, interested parties failed to respect the sacred sites and cattle farms of aboriginal peoples who lived in the region. Their cattle industry and many of their sacred sites were completely disregarded, disrupted, and in some cases destroyed by the establishment of the mine. [4] Now, however, Argyle Diamonds does a great deal of work upholding high environmental and ethical standards.

Argyle believes it has the ability and responsibility to make a positive, lasting effect on its stakeholders. [1] The Argyle management team focuses on its concerns for the environment in which the company operates, and the people and businesses they affect. The region of East Kimberley, where the mine exists, has significant social and economic disadvantages, and Argyle has invested in the local community by actively developing a stronger economy for the region that is not dependent upon the mine itself. [1] Argyle has developed professional training and business development programs that are especially geared towards indigenous people, which are meant to improve the region’s skill base and increase the number of successful businesses in the area. The “Traditional Owners” program helps indigenous people start businesses and maintain their success through trainings, with the hope that this community will continue to be economically successful long after the Argyle mine has closed. [1]

Gamma Radiation satellite imagery was used to explore the area, image courtesy ADM

Environmental Impacts

The Mining Act of 1978 is the main statute that governs mining in Western Australia, including the diamond mining industry. Australia’s environmental protection laws are rigorous and thorough, and as of 2011, all mining operations are required to have a mine closure plan that lays out the remediation techniques once the mine has closed operations. You can read more about Australia’s Mine Rehabilitation program here (http://www.minerals.org.au/file_upload/files/resources/enduring_value/mine_rehab.pdf). That said, the Argyle Diamond mine is a giant open pit mine that can be seen in satellite images. While the mining here is done responsibly, and is benefitting Australia economically, it cannot be denied that there are severe negative environmental impacts of this mine.

ADM functions in an ecologically significant area whose ecosystem is extremely stable when not disrupted, but takes a long time to recover when it has been. ADM’s environmental management program seeks to minimize environmental impacts as much as possible while continuing necessary operations, and rehabilitate disrupted areas as soon as possible. A basic outline of its environmental program includes conservation of natural resources, especially water and energy; protection of rare and endangered species; promoting environmental awareness among its workforce; protecting heritage sites of indigenous people; environmental monitoring to measure the effectiveness of management programs such as water quality, streamflow, and vegetation regrowth; greenhouse emissions monitoring; and waste monitoring. [1]

 

Certification

The majority of the colorless Australian diamonds we offer come with an Origin Australia ® certificate, ensuring their Australian origin and that they were cut in either Jeweltree-approved or supplier-approved facilities. We source our Australian diamonds from suppliers that are partners of the Jeweltree Foundation, which means that they are committed to upholding the same high standards for social and environmental responsibilities set forth by Jeweltree. Jeweltree is committed to supply chain transparency, socially responsible mining and polishing practices, and ecologically sustainable mining sites. The Jeweltree Foundation also offers support for small fair trade mining initiatives in developing countries by facilitating access to the international market. You can read more about Jeweltree, which is working hard to revolutionize the jewelry industry, here.

Many thanks to Charmaine Thane and Jorge Arrieta, who both made the writing of this article possible with their wealth of knowledge on the Australian diamond industry.

References

[1] Interview with Jorge Arrieta; Director, Nicollo Bella, May 2014.

[2] Interview with Charmaine Thane; Director, Inspira Diamonds Pty Ltd., May 2014.

[3] Managing Innovation Tools. http://www.managing-innovation.com/tools/Business%20Excellence%20Model.pdf

[4] A Different Kimberley: Aboriginal Marginalisation and the Argyle Diamond Mine. Richard Howitt. 1989.

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