Craft: The Cutting Edge
Near the end of the runway at the airport in Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, are five one-story industrial buildings surrounded by tall chain-link fences. These are three diamond-cutting factories as well as Diavik’s and BHP Billiton’s diamond sorting facilities.
The three factories belong to companies experienced in diamond manufacture. The first cutter to set up shop in Yellowknife was Sirius Diamonds, whose factory was built in 1998, the same year Ekati began to produce stones. The next year it was joined by Arslanian Cutting Works NWT Ltd. The newest one is Tiffany’s, which is expected to open in April 2003. The Diavik sorting facility is new as well, and received its first stones produced by the concentrator on Nov. 26, fortuitously the day CMJ visited the mine (for the article on Diavik see page 10). Another diamond cutter in Yellowknife, Deton’Cho Diamonds, is currently undergoing reorganization.
Peter Finnemore, a South African master diamond cutter with 36 years of experience in the business, started the Sirius factory in Yellowknife, and continues to be its manager and master designer. He showed CMJ the stages in the process and the equipment involved, and talked about the challenges of running such an enterprise north of 60N.
The Sirius factory cuts about 1,000 carats of rough diamond per month, with 28 cutters. This includes six experienced master cutters from Armenia, who also train apprentices. Students can take a 16-week introductory diamond manufacturing course at Aurora College in Yellowknife before starting to work at the factories. Then there is a three-year apprenticeship program before a cutter is certified. Sirius employs the first six or seven diamond cutters that were certified in Canada.
The method of making finished diamonds is standard, but some of the equipment at Sirius is state-of-the-art. Finnemore himself examines each stone first, always polishing a window to see inside. He evaluates the flaws and stress, and determines the eventual size and cut. Stones smaller than 0.2 ct are lent to the college, for their students to cut. Most of the apprentices, while they are gaining experience, cut the Sirius fine or Sirius ideal cut; only a small part of the Sirius product is cut to the more-stringent 000 standard.
The factory specializes in producing stones with moderate clarity (SI1 or SI2), colourless to faintly yellow colour and a close tolerance to the ideal angles of the different facets, but angles may be altered a bit to maximize the size of the finished product. The name of the game is to produce stones that will make the most money. “A 0.5-ct stone will fetch a lot more money than a 0.49-ct stone,” Finnemore explained. “A lot.”
The stones have usually been boiled in acid to remove dirt, before arriving at the factory. This, however, does not remove the dark or frosted opaque coating of diamond material commonly found on the surface of Canadian rough stones. Sawing of the table top (the large flat surface on the top of a cut stone) is done by a conventional diamond-impregnated saw, or by a high-tech laser saw if the stone is highly stressed. Very irregular stones may be just polished rather than sawn to produce the table top. Any noticeable inclusions are dealt with at this stage, so the stones will proceed along the human assembly line without further deviation.
Most of the stones cut at Sirius are round brilliant, although some are cut square (princess or barion), or rectangular (emerald or radiant). A school will be set up in Yellowknife this year to teach cutters some of the fancy cuts. The company also offers “Two for Eternity” diamonds: two stones that are cut from the same rough diamond, and sold as a pair.
Stones that will end up round are bruted, which involves grinding two sawn diamonds against each other until they both have nearly perfectly round outlines (girdles). High-tech semi-automatic equipment is used to block the stones (cutting the eight major facets on the pavilion (bottom) and on the crown (top). These facets are polished again to ensure that the pavilion and crown facets line up perfectly (symmetry). The girdle is also polished again to ensure that it is round to within a tolerance of 0.01 mm.
Finally the gems go to the master cutters for the final polishing, adding the small “fire” facets (40 of them on a round brilliant) that add the sparkle.
The standard of workmanship is high. The Gemmological Institute of America has awarded the Sirius factory an “Excellent” rating for both its symmetry and the final polishing on its facets.
Every stone cut at the Sirius factory in Yellowknife is laser-engraved with the company name, a trademarked symbol (a four-legged polar bear facing left), and the serial number the stone was assigned when it was received at the factory. The company has already spent $1 million marketing the Polar Bear diamond to make it into what Finnemore contends is the best known, most popular diamond in Canada.
All the factory’s rough diamonds now come from the Ekati mine. The rough stones from Ekati are all sent first to BHP Billiton’s valuation centre in Antwerp, Belgium, before being purchased at market value by Sirius and the other cutters. Sirius will attempt in early 2003 to become a sight-holder (direct purchaser) for the Diavik diamonds as well.
“The most important thing is that we’re getting the rough diamonds–that’s why we’re here,” says Finnemore. Rough diamonds are in short supply, especially stones guaranteed to be Canadian. “If we could have our shop elsewhere, where labour is cheaper and more abundant, we would.”
With the diamond mines and petroleum business booming, there is a real labour and housing shortage in Yellowknife. Training and work is not easy for the cutters, requiring concentration every minute in the 40-hour work week. And the pay, ranging from $15 to $25 per hour from apprentice to master cutter, cannot compete with the wages offered by the mines. Nor is it easy for the company to constantly train apprentices, while continuing to pump out product. The profit margin is not high in the cutting business, according to Finnemore.
He says it was very difficult starting up the factory as a completely new industry in Yellowknife. But the proof of success is in the high-quality cut diamonds flowing every month from the little factory in the northern city of 18,000.
When you look at a Polar Bear diamond, consider that it was mined near Lac de Gras, flown 300 km southwest to Yellowknife, sorted in Belgium and returned to Yellowknife, where it was cut, polished and laser-engraved probably by five northerners and one or two master cutters from Armenia. The factory completes just 35 stones per day. At about $5,000 for a top-quality, 0.5-ct stone, don’t you think it’s worth it?