Wynand Hendrikse is a diamond diver. For 20 years, he’s spent his days sailing off the western coast of South Africa, exploring a private offshore concession an hour south of the Namibia border. His office is on a boat, and his uniform is a wetsuit and fins; his mission is to scan the shallow sea floor for precious minerals. Almost every day he spends on the water, he hauls up a pile of diamonds, which he then turns into bespoke pieces at his Stellenbosch design studio. His clients, he says, include sports stars and actors, but he rebuffs you if you ask for their names. In other words, his life doesn’t suck.
For hundreds of years, a rough marine system called the Benguela Current has provided a bounty of conflict-free diamonds in an area called the Angola-Benguela Front. The diamonds, which originated deep in the earth, were swept to the ocean floor over millions of years after circulating through African waterways along various rivers and deltas. That’s where they encounter the strong Benguela waters, which can carry only the heaviest stones, collecting with it a glittering trail for humans to recover.
Whereas mining elsewhere on the continent has led to countless documentaries about the brutal conditions that surround the gemstone trade, the oceanic practice has a far more peaceful history. According to a vague local legend, says Hendrikse, the front was discovered in the 1970s when a young boy picked a shining stone from the beach one day, only to find later on that he’d turned up the region’s first diamond.
Now parts of the front off the Namibia border are estimated to have more than 1.5 billion carats worth of diamonds, according to the Benguela Current Commission—even enticing De Beers to set up shop.
Now you can, too, as long as you have a Padi Open Water 1 certificate and $16,000 to spare.
Earlier this year, Hendrikse founded Benguela Diamond safaris and now offers daylong trips for groups of two to six guests. The program is available primarily through Cape Town’s ritzy Ellerman House, a 15-room Cape Edwardian mansion that once belonged to the shipping magnates Sir John and Lady Ellerman, though it’s also offered as an add-on to itineraries with the high-end travel agency Epic Road. (You can book the excursion in conjunction with stays at Ellerman House or Wolwedans Private Camp in Namibia with help from Epic Road’s Mark Lakin.)
The experience begins with a limousine ride to a private charter flight for the roughly one-hour journey to the colorful coastal town of Port Nolloth, where Hendrikse maintains a beachside villa. That’s where you’ll meet your dive masters, share a catered breakfast, and learn about what the day has in store. Hendrikse’s small, industrial-feeling boat is built to withstand the choppy waters that make this offshore concession so rich in shiny stuff.
“The waters in most areas along this front are too harsh for travelers to have this experience,” said Lakin. “Port Nolloth is the safest option.”
The underwater diamond-hunting process for guests is all about observation. While you look for glassy stones, the master divers do the more laborious part, maneuvering giant suction pipes to pump up promising gravel. The largest chunks get separated out and brought back to the deck of your ship, where you can “jig” them on a vibrating pan to reveal your catch: not just diamonds, but sometimes garnets and bright green olivine’s, as well.
The process, explained Hendrikse, is like panning for gold. And according to a spokesperson, guests are “almost 100 percent guaranteed to find a diamond.”
Back on dry land, you’ll clink glasses of South African wine over lunch—catch of the day, of course—and huddle up with an expert grader, who can assess your stones and help you decide which one(s) to get cut, polished, and set into a custom piece.
The whole process of getting a stone from the sea floor to setting takes three days, and while everything from the private flight to the meals is included in the experience, local regulations (i.e. taxes, concession fees) require you to pay for whatever gem you want to keep. According to Hendrikse, you can expect to pay roughly $10,500 for a 1.00-carat H VS2 round brilliant cut diamond, including VAT.
“To date, the largest stone found in the area was an 80-carat rough diamond,” said Henrikse, detailing the grandest hopes that a day-diver might have. (Once cut, that gem would most likely yield roughly 16 carats.) Coming out of your adventure with a one-carat cut stone is a more realistic goal, though, and according to Lakin, the quality of whatever you find should be exceptional.
“An astounding 95 percent of the stones in this area are gem quality, because only the best-quality stones survive the rough currents to the coast,” he says.
But more importantly, the stones are guaranteed to be fully sustainable.
“Traceability has become extremely important,” explains Henrikse, pointing not just to the nature of conflict-free diamonds but also to fair working conditions for his employees.
Lakin, whose company makes a point of working with responsible local operators, would agree. “The consumer demand for diamonds isn’t going anywhere any time soon,” he said, although the industry has shown signs of slowing. “The most pragmatic solution is to try to shift people toward a more conscious approach.”
More conscious, yes, but also way more fun.
©2016 Bloomberg News