Some consumers turn to Canadian diamonds in their quest for ethical diamonds. Learn about their discovery, how diamonds help Canadian communities and how a GIA Diamond Origin Report lets you know if your diamond is a Canadian diamond.
The discovery and mining of Canadian diamonds tells the story of the human spirit overcoming nearly insurmountable odds. The Northwest Territories, where most of these diamonds are found, has a subarctic to polar climate. It can be a challenge to survive in the ice and snow of northern Canada, let alone find diamonds.
How Were Canadian Diamonds Discovered?
Canadian exploration geologist Charles Fipke, raced neck-and-neck against De Beers to help discover the first commercially-viable source of Canadian diamonds. Initially hired by Superior Oil to prospect for base metals, gold and diamonds, he ventured out independently with fellow geologist Stewart Blusson when Superior Oil abandoned the search. Through the work they’d done with Superior Oil, Fipke and Blusson knew two things setting out: De Beers was searching for Canadian diamonds in the Northwest Territories, and they were searching in the wrong place.
De Beers had found indicator minerals—minerals such as garnet, ilmenite and chromite that form in the earth’s mantle with diamonds—that suggested diamonds might be nearby. But Fipke and Blusson knew a glacier had swept these minerals over De Beers’ search area tens of thousands of years ago. Their real source could be hundreds of miles away. Fipke and his partner needed to find, before the De Beers team did, a vertical rock formation called a kimberlite pipe. These formations are remnants of ancient volcanoes whose violent eruptions millennia ago transported diamonds and other minerals in magma from deep within the earth to the surface.
Fipke and Blusson continued their search for almost a decade, trekking hundreds of miles, surveying the landscape by air, and spending long hours analyzing samples in the lab when winter came. In April of 1989, a day before their helicopter funds were to run out, Fipke looked down from the sky and saw a small, frozen lake he immediately named Point Lake. It’s steepness and circular shape reminded him of kimberlite pipes he’d seen in South Africa, a world away. Upon landing, he found gems indicating that he was right on top of a diamondiferous, or diamond bearing, pipe. Fipke and Blusson, nearly bankrupt, immediately sought the support of Australian mining conglomerate, BHP Billiton, to fund exploration of the site. Drilling beneath the lake, the company found what Fipke and Blusson had been looking for—kimberlite and soon afterwards, diamonds. The rush for Canadian diamonds had begun.
The Rush for Ethical Diamonds
So many miners flocked to the Canadian diamond site that BHP looped electric wires around the lake to generate a field that disrupted airborne instruments. The discovery of the Point Lake pipe was not profitable in-and-of itself, but it precipitated the discovery of the Ekati mine, which along with Diavik, is one of the largest of the Canadian diamond mines.
From the beginning, the Canadian government was careful to ensure that mining for diamonds would benefit local peoples while minimally impacting the environment. Before mining began, the Ekati project was first reviewed by the federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, the Government of the Northwest Territories and four indigenous groups. Mining companies had to agree to restore the habitat to its original state after the lifespan of the mine expires.
Exploration and development of the Ekati diamond mining project started in the early 1980s. Construction of the mine began in 1997 and it officially opened in October 1998. The Diavik mine, located 30 km away from Ekati, was discovered in the 1990s and began operating in 2003. Similarly, its owners committed to a “full and safe closure.” All ore, runways and building materials are to be removed and the fish habitat protected or recreated at the close of the mine. A sign in front of the mine states: “For centuries, people of the North have used the resources wisely…Diavik is continuing that tradition.”
Are Canadian Diamonds Ethical Diamonds?
Due to Canada’s strict environmental and fair labor laws, especially in respect to indigenous peoples, Canadian diamonds have become increasingly popular among consumers looking for ethical diamonds. Ethical diamonds mean different things to different people, but there is a general consensus that ethical diamonds are diamonds that do not fund conflict or terrorism. They are produced in an environmentally-responsible way that ensures those who helped mine and process them are equitably compensated.
Diamonds have had a positive impact on local communities and the Canadian economy. In 2003, the Tilcho Tribe, also known as the Dogribs, signed the Tilcho Agreement with the Canadian government, ensuring the Tilcho people receive 2% of the royalties from the Diavik and Ekati mines as well as royalties from any new mines in the designated area. The agreement included US$115 million (Can$152m) in cash over 15 years and roughly US$3.8 million (Can$5m) in training funds. Tilcho-owned companies also receive preference when contracts are awarded.
As of 2018, the Ekati mine employed around 1,625 people with 44% being residents of the Northwest Territories and 57% of those being indigenous peoples. By 2018, Diavik had spent Can$30 billion on northern indigenous businesses, and 27% of the mine’s workforce were indigenous peoples. The operation continues to create ancillary job opportunities in the Northwest Territories, as it employs workers to bring in supplies by land or boat, build roads and more. A diamond cutting and polishing center has been established in Yellowknife, the Northwest Territory’s capital.
Overall, Canadian diamonds are a vital export that boosts Canada’s economy. In 2018, Canada was the world’s third largest producer of diamonds by value and by volume. Canadian diamond production is currently valued at over US$2 billion annually.
How Do You Know If Your Diamond is a Canadian Diamond?
Knowing a diamond’s 4Cs (Color, Clarity, Cut and Carat Weight) is vital to appreciating its quality and value. But knowing the diamond’s country of origin is just as important. It helps us understand the impact our purchase has on the lives of the people who made these diamonds possible. Canadian diamonds are among the few diamonds that are marketed by origin, and most are traceable from mine to market. Many are inscribed with a maple leaf, polar bear or other Canadian symbol or logo, along with a grading report number, making them clearly identifiable for generations to come.
Another secure way of knowing if your diamond is from Canada is by getting a diamond with a GIA Diamond Origin Report, which not only provides a full and unbiased 4Cs assessment, but also clearly states a diamond’s country of origin. The report is available for select Canadian diamonds, as well as certain diamonds from Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Russia and South Africa.
It seems that when Charles Fipke and Stewart Blusson discovered Canadian diamonds at Point Lake, they discovered something else as well—a new way of thinking about diamonds and the way they can transform communities.