DE BEERS is moving out of its historic premises on London’s Charterhouse Street from where it controlled the world’s diamond sales for decades, terminating its physical link to the city’s diamond and jewellery district and drawing the curtain.
At the behest of its majority shareholder, Anglo American, De Beers will move out of the group of buildings that make up its secure and paid-off London headquarters to move across London into Anglo’s rented premises at Carlton House Terrace, 4km away.
The price tag on Charterhouse has been put at not less than £100m by company insiders.
“I have only been in this building five years, so for me the decision to move out and sell it is not as powerful a feeling as for others who have been here for 20 or 30 years,” says De Beers CEO Philippe Mellier.
“We are part of the Anglo American group, which is facing a very difficult period and tough restructuring, so it makes sense that we cut costs.
“This building is of very high value and when you are in deep trouble like this, you have to look at all your assets and your costs, and you do something about it,” he said.
The large complex of buildings behind a modest façade is the last property owned by De Beers on Charterhouse Street after it sold two other buildings as its dominant role in the industry was eroded when Australian and Canadian companies opted to sell their own diamonds and the European Union stopped De Beers selling Alrosa’s Russian diamonds.
During the Second World War, the De Beers office at 8 Charterhouse Street was destroyed by a bomb in May 1941, but sorting operations had already been moved out of London to Louis Oppenheimer’s house in the Berkshire countryside.
Sales still continued in London, however. De Beers returned to Charterhouse Street after the war, and set up offices in a number of buildings, owning a large swathe of the street.
The head office, built in 1979 and situated at 17 Charterhouse Street, was staffed by 1,500 people, half of whom hand-sorted diamonds from major diamond-producing countries in Africa, Russia, Australia and Canada, when De Beers was a monopoly controlling up to 90% of the world’s diamond supply and sales.
“This was the centre of diamond trading for the world,” Mellier says.
Insiders at the offices, which now have 300 employees, tell of the take itor leave it attitude of De Beers to its clients when it came to selling diamonds in the past. “You really didn’t want to pass on buying what De Beers was selling you more than once or twice because you just wouldn’t be invited back,” an employee said.
The now empty passageways of the building are adorned with art donated by clients over the decades, as well as pieces commissioned by De Beers.
The enormous safes in the basement are reached through four sets of iron gates, and in the 1970s and 1980s, 10 truckloads of diamonds were delivered every week, carrying nine-figure sums on board. During a dismal period for the diamond market in the early 1980s those safes contained more than $4bn of diamonds, said an insider.
De Beers moved its sorting and sales business to Gaborone in 2013.
“The purpose of this building is gone. The impact of moving out of this building is lower,” Mellier says.
For many De Beers staff with years of service with the company, the move is a wrench, and the sense of a loss of history and place is acute.
Others regard De Beers and its culture as more than a building and something that will withstand a move to new offices, albeit for just a few years before Anglo’s lease expires and everyone has to move again.
“De Beers is so much more than a commercial entity or a building. We are the purveyors of dreams. That’s what diamonds are. First and foremost, they are an emotional product,” says Andrew Bone, who recently retired after 38 years with De Beers.
“It’s an industry about human engagement and relationships and I suppose that’s why it mattered where we were at Charterhouse Street.”
Charterhouse Street is close to Hatton Garden, an area of London that has been historically renowned for diamonds and jewellery.
“For me, it was far more emotional when Nicky Oppenheimer left after the Oppenheimer family sold out of De Beers to Anglo American. That was far more disappointing than news of the sale of Charterhouse,” Bone says.
The Oppenheimer family sold its 40% stake in De Beers to Anglo for $5.3bn in 2011, giving Anglo 85% of the company once chaired by Ernest Oppenheimer, the man who started Anglo American in 1917.
There are concerns among staff that the essence of De Beers could be lost when it is fully incorporated in the offices of Anglo, which is narrowing its focus to just 16 mines and three minerals – diamonds, platinum and copper. Anglo, for years a bulk miner of products such as iron ore, coal and manganese, wants to realise up to $4bn from asset sales this year to reduce its $12.9bn of debt.
“We are not a mining company. We are a diamond company. Our real work starts when the diamonds are out of the ground. The art of our business is to sort and value diamonds, and put them into the right hands. We mustn’t lose sight of that,” says a senior figure at Charterhouse.