Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?

An unruly market may undo the work of a giant cartel and of an inspired, decades-long ad campaign

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.

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