Op-ed: The Argyle mine is important globally, and locally

By Stuart Kells

November 6, 2020


Mining at the famous Argyle diamond mine, in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, ended this week. In all, the volcanic pipe at Argyle has yielded more than 865 million carats of diamonds.

The mine is on the traditional country of the Miriuwung, Gidja, Malgnin and Wularr people. When the diamond deposit was first discovered and developed, there wasn’t a strong legal or political framework in Australia for protecting Indigenous heritage. As with many other mines on culturally significant land, this led to a cruel trade-off between the loss of heritage and culture on the one hand, and growth in investment, employment and exports on the other. The trade-off is cruel because the economic benefits are transitory, but the cultural losses are permanent.

The Kimberley diamond search was first planned in London in the 1960s, by a company that originated in Africa: Tanganyika Concessions Limited, known as ‘Tanks’. In 1966, that company supported Ewen Tyler’s vision of searching for diamonds in Australia.

Before joining Tanks in London, Tyler had mined for gold in Africa, and he had studied geology at the University of Western Australia. Though born in England, he saw himself as an Australian, and he was determined to search for diamonds in the southern continent.

He moved to Melbourne with his family in August 1969. Three years later, representatives of Tanks and four other companies signed the Kalumburu Joint Venture agreement, to look for diamonds. (The JV was named after the Benedictine mission at the top of the Kimberleys.) Two Australian companies were in the mix: Northern Mining Corporation, and housing builder AV Jennings.

The five companies agreed to spend $100,000 on a year-long program, looking for indicator minerals – tiny clues to the possible presence of diamonds. The search for these traces had to be carried out over an enormous area. Using helicopters, the JV’s search crews collected samples from 190,000 square kilometres of country, an area almost as large as Victoria, or Great Britain.

The Kalumburu partners found their first indicator mineral in 1973. And then, later that year, they found their first diamond. In 1976, CRA joined the search, turning Kalumburu into a six-party JV, which was renamed ‘Ashton’. Towards the end of that year, the searchers found the Ellendale diamond field, and one of the JV participants was floated on the Australian Stock Exchange, as ‘Ashton Mining’, on the strength of the discovery. Ellendale proved to be uneconomic at that time (it would later become known for its yellow diamonds, many of which ended up at Tiffany’s in New York) but a breakthrough would follow soon after.

In 1979, two experienced geologists – Maureen Muggeridge and John Towie – were sampling watercourses in the East Kimberley, between Halls Creek and Kununurra, for the Ashton JV. Maureen was six months pregnant when she and John found the ‘jewel box’ of upper Smoke Creek: concentrations of alluvial diamonds rarely found anywhere else on earth.

In due course, the diamond searchers traced the stones to their source. On 2 October 1979, CRA’s Warren Atkinson and Frank Hughes climbed the ranges, halfway between Lake Argyle and the Bungle Bungles, where they found a volcanic pipe, and a small diamond embedded in an anthill.

When the size of the deposit was announced in 1980, it was world news. The New York Times reported that the scale was amazing; in a single volcanic pipe, the searchers had found as many diamonds as there were in all the world’s active diamond mines at the time.

Total world production of diamonds at that time was around 40 million carats per year. The estimates were that the single Argyle pipe could equal or even exceed that, and therefore double world output. (In its peak production it actually did exceeded that amount, producing 42.8 million carats of rough diamonds in 1994.) What began with $100,000 ended up being valued in the billions.

But there were many challenges in bringing the mine to reality: keeping the JV partners together; securing legal title to the deposit; fending off claim jumpers; negotiating with the state government (in the ‘WA Inc.’ era); reaching an agreement with the Traditional Owners; agreeing a distribution arrangement with De Beers; seeing off diamond thieves; dealing with the challenges of the remote site; and coming up with new processing methods that could handle the enormous output.

Argyle became known for its pink diamonds; almost the entire world supply has come from the mine. There were other colours, too. As many as 80%  of the Argyle stones were brown in colour. When the mining began, that colour was unfashionable, but the miners were able to re-grade much of the mine’s output as ‘champagne’ and ‘cognac’ diamonds.

In the operation of the mine, the miners prioritised the recruitment of women (which was seen as novel in the 1980s and 1990s) and they were determined to have a high proportion of Indigenous people in the mine workforce. At the time of peak production, the proportion of Indigenous people working at Argyle was the highest of any mine in Western Australia.

Though today is the last day of mining at Argyle, there will be another pink diamonds tender next year, to sell stones mined in 2020. Dismantling the mine infrastructure and re-establishing the semblance of a natural landscape is expected to take the better part of a decade. The underground mine and open pit will gradually fill with water and become a permanent lake. Following closure, the land will be returned to the Traditional Owners.

For diamantaires and consumers in Antwerp, Mumbai, Shanghai and New York, the mine will forever be famous for its pink, champagne and cognac stones. For the Indigenous people of the East Kimberley, the mine’s legacy is less clear.

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