‘Lab-grown diamonds do what crystal and zirconiums have done: they are a fantastically fun bit of fashion jewellery’
THE global economy’s love affair with fossil fuels may now be cooling faster than the planet is warming. This makes Al Cook’s decision in 2022 to leave the oil industry for diamonds look like a prescient leap from sinking ship to lifeboat. Until, that is, the lifeboat sprung a leak. De Beers’ rough diamond revenue cratered in 2023, culminating in ninth tender sales of only $80m compared to $454m a year earlier.
Pointedly, this took sales below pandemic levels and was the lowest number reported since the company began publishing the results of its sight sales in 2016. India’s moratorium on imports and China’s flagging recovery are among the reasons cited for the poor performance. Cook has some choppy waters to navigate but there is optimism the diamond sector will revive this year. Aside from macroeconomic challenges, De Beers is waiting on sign-off of a new sales agreement with Botswana. The in-principle deal signed last year was described by Cook as a triumph. Then there is the threat posed to De Beers of lab-grown diamonds. Cook told investors in December the near-90% discount at which these diamonds trade effectively consigns them to “fun” jewellery items.
This makes the more serious moments in life, such as weddings, the preserve of natural diamonds. On the production front, De Beers began underground mining at its Venetia mine in South Africa and in January approved the $1bn underground expansion of the Jwaneng mine in Botswana. Meanwhile, there’s been some talk – as is customary in the down-cycle – that De Beers doesn’t belong in the Anglo American portfolio. Normal scuttlebutt for sure, but Anglo badly needs its 85%-owned subsidiary to regain its sparkle.
LIFE OF AL
A geologist, Cook holds an MA in Natural Sciences from Cambridge and has completed the international executive programme at INSEAD. He is a fellow of the Geological Society of London as well as a fellow of the Energy Institute. He spent 20 years with BP running operations before moving up the management ranks to become chief of staff to the CEO. He then spent nearly seven years with Equinor before he landed at De Beers. His geological expertise makes him a good cut for De Beers, especially as it’s been decades since a major new source of diamonds has been discovered.