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A day in the life of a diamond

September 17, 2007
Considering it is little more than 'an allotrope of carbon', there has always been much ado made of the hardest known natural material on earth. Treasured as a precious stone since the dawn of civilisation, diamonds have had intriguing roles to play in everything from the creation and destruction of kingdoms to the ups and downs of current-day economies. But how do these gems go from rough pebbles to brilliant stones that hold light captive? Prem Panicker finds out.
To hold rough diamonds in the palm of your hand is to experience the sinking feeling that accompanies a horrible let-down.

Vasantbhai Gajaria, owner and chief executive officer of Laxmi Diamonds, does complicated things to a safe behind his desk, reaches into its innards and pulls out a packet wrapped in crinkly blue tissue paper. The paper is always blue; it is the colour that best shows off a diamond, he explains. These are, he tells me as he carefully unravels the tissue, very high end diamonds; since they are uncut, you cannot yet put a value on them but at a guess, each will be worth millions, once they are all cut and polished.

He pours the contents of the package out into my cupped palm. I look down, feeling the anticipation of one who is now holding more wealth, in one hand, than I will likely make in a lifetime, and I see -- blackish pebbles. Black pebbles?

An assistant smilingly pushes a wooden tray lined with blue felt towards me, and hands me a pair of forceps. The surface of the tray is filled with more blackish-hued pebbles. See if you can spot which are the diamonds, and which are just stones, Vasantbhai challenges. I sift through the pile, and carefully pick one up, hold it to the light, think I see the hidden glint of promise deep within. I hold it out to him; he glances casually at it and laughs -- no, that is a pebble picked from river sand, he tells me.

I try, five more times -- and am wrong with four of my picks.

There is apparently a point to the demonstration -- Vasantbhai has organized a tour for me, of his Surat unit, one of three Laxmi Diamonds operates in India. The other two are located in Ambreli and Ahmedabad; collectively, they employ 13,000 workers and process diamonds worth an estimated Rs 160 billion (about $3.96 billion) each year. He also owns factories in Thailand (700 employees) and China (a relatively recent expansion, seeded with an initial 300 workers).

It is necessary, Vasantbhai tells me, for you to see, experience a diamond in the rough, in order to understand what happens to it in our unit.

Photograph: An Egyptian cobra guards a pair of ruby, sapphire and diamond sandals by designer Rene Caovilla at Harrods department store in London, September 10, 2007. Photograph: Shaun Curry/AFP/Getty Images
Also read: The Rise of the Elephant and the Dragon
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