Argyle by Stuart Kells

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

I was looking forward to reading this book by Stuart Kells as I had visited the remote Kimberley area when it was just opening to tourism and the mine was in full production. It was to become “a multi-billion-dollar enterprise that transformed a global industry – and a local community” (255).

What I discovered was more than I expected. This book has many players, all involved in some way with the search for and mining of diamonds and they all brought to the table different attitudes and beliefs.  Many were not prepared to play by the rules, be they traditional or moral.

The research for this book was very much a collaborative effort. Evidence of the thorough work undertaken can be found in the twenty-nine pages of notes and bibliography at the end of the book. It was left to Stuart Kells to transform this information into an interesting and informative book. At times, I was somewhat overwhelmed by the depth and thoroughness of the information provided and so appreciated the window into the various personalities involved and the early beliefs about this industry. The vocabulary used within the industry I also found to be creative and interesting – “grits”, “gletz”, ‘naat’ as well as ‘switching’, ‘bandicooting’ and, ‘lousing’ as modes of theft. What I found of most interest was that in the Middle Ages, some people believed diamonds could mate and produce offspring and therefore for three decades, diamond mines in India were closed to allow the stones some private time in which to pair and breed (3).

Bill Leslie, Ewen Tyler and Alan King Jones had long hoped that the Argyle story, with all its twists and turns, would one day be told but, according to Professor Geoffrey Blainey who wrote the Foreword, the hero of this fascinating and lucid history is Ewen Tyler whose determination to see the mine through to completion against enormous odds was admirable. Some of these were the inhospitable topography and climate in the area, changing government policies, the high exploration costs and the continuous search for funds as well as finding other mining pegs in places where they would have liked control.

In the thirty-three chapters in this book, the reader learns much about the history and geology of diamonds, the language used within the industry, and the cartel-like entity founded by Cecil Rhodes in 1888 – The De Beers Group, which controlled the market value of diamonds during the twentieth century and was reluctant to give up its position. They become privy to different ideologies, suspicions, tensions, and underhand dealings.

What came through clearly to me in this book was the Australian character. Australians are used to hard work, but they do not like to be bullied especially if they perceive they are being disadvantaged in any way. “They had shown that they would not be passive participants” (218). They are resilient and good problem solvers and not afraid of taking a risk. They soon proved that they could market their own stones. Their success in re-marketing the common brown diamond in their champagne and cognac campaigns showed that this newcomer to the industry could be a formidable force in the global market.

The reader learns that the Argyle project “was built on a collection of innovations – in searching, sample analysis, deposit assessment and mineral extraction, and then in sales and distribution. From the moment Tyler persuaded Lord Colyton to look for valuable minerals in Australia, he was leaving behind the old-world way of mining and investment” (254-5). For more than twenty-five years, in carat terms, Argyle was by far the world’s biggest diamond mine.

When annual output began to fall, the decision was made to end mining from the open-cut mine in November 2020 and processing in mid-2021. Whatever the remediation plans, the area will be left with a ‘diamondiferous’ runway and a diamond studded highway.

Blainey tells the reader that Argyle was “one of the most surprising mines in the world. In its heyday it produced a higher annual tally of diamonds than any African mine, and it is still famous as the treasure house of the rare pink diamond” (vii). Yet the Argyle diamond mine was not the first diamond business in Australia. Alluvial diamonds had been found in northern New South Wales as early as 1851 and by the 1870s were being mined there.

Ewen Tyler believes there will be other major diamond discoveries on the Australian continent and that they could do well to apply many lessons from Argyle.

Historian Stuart Kells has twice won the Ashurst Business Literature Prize and has been shortlisted for several other awards. He is Adjunct Professor at La Trobe University’s College of Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce. In this book he has provided a wealth of knowledge about an industry that flourished in a most unlikely place and highlighted the competitiveness and ruthlessness of business practices, the idiosyncrasies of human personalities, and the inventiveness to overcome obstacles which shine through in this history of the Australian Argyle diamond mine.

Argyle The impossible story of Australian diamonds

(2021)

by Stuart Kells

Melbourne University Press

ISBN:978-0-522-87725-0

$34.99; 318pp

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