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Impact diamonds: An opportunity or a wildcat venture?

03 may 2021

Almost every year, the Russian press reports on the future development of the Popigai deposit of impact diamonds in the north of the Krasnoyarsk Territory. These “sensations” have already grown more and more detailed, including the relevant agreements between the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the leadership of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), and the Krasnoyarsk Territory, as well as attracting ALROSA and AFK (Joint-Stock Financial Company) Sistema as investors, and even positioning this project as a joint one with the Republic of Belarus. According to the Popigai diamond proponents, they promise brilliant prospects to Russia and the world, they say that the development of the deposit will provide the world industry with new rough diamonds, the annual demand for which may rise to 1 billion carats. The public interest in the issue has been mounting and it inevitably requires answers to the questions - why has a unique diamond deposit discovered half a century ago turned out to be in no demand so far and what is the real prospect of its development taking into account the current state of the world diamond market?

Let’s start with some historical background. The Popigai impact diamonds (i. e., the ones formed as a result of a meteorite impact) were discovered in 1971 by geologists of VSEGEI (A. P. Karpinsky Russian Geological Research Institute) under the leadership of V. L. Masaitis. The diamonds are in the form of inclusions in bedrocks (impactites) and in placers formed during the destruction of bedrocks. Within the Popigai meteorite crater, two primary deposits were identified - Udarnoe and Skalnoe - as well as the local areas of high-diamond impactites (Syuryunge, Vstrechny, Taas, Tongulakh, Ege-Yuryage), and several placers (Dogoiskaya, Balagan-Yuryakskaya, etc.). The actual reserves and inferred resources of impact diamonds in bedrocks on a total area of ​​about 120 sq. km in the Popigai region amount to 212 bn carats1. The reserves and resources of the alluvial impact diamonds are estimated at several tens of millions of carats. The ore grade reaches 23 cpt and higher, but there are no gem-quality diamonds in the ore.

Let us mention the most significant stages of the discovery and the attempts to develop the Popigai diamonds:

- January 1971 - diamonds were discovered in the samples of the rocks from the Popigai crater obtained by the expedition headed by V. L. Masaitis in 1970;

- December 1971 - VSEGEI gave the first rough estimate of the geological reserves of impact diamonds; it was argued that these reserves exceeded the ones of kimberlite diamonds in all the diamond-bearing provinces of the world. The information was classified as “top secret”;

- May 1973 - VSEGEI holds a meeting where the results of studying the geological properties and diamond potential of the Popigai crater obtained in 1970 to 1972 were presented. The plans of the research and production work for 1973 to 1976 were outlined;

- February 1974 - VSEGEI submitted a report to the USSR Ministry of Geology, which assessed the prospects for the use of the impact diamonds. The report substantiated the need to set up a special-purpose geological exploration expedition;

- March 11, 1974 - a meeting at the Central Committee of the CPSU on the issue of the impact diamonds was held, and a decision was made to classify all the information on the Popigai diamonds as secret;

- March 13, 1974 - a confidential resolution of the Central Committee of the CPSU and the USSR Council of Ministers “On the creation of a mineral resource base for the diamond mining industry in the north of the Krasnoyarsk Territory” was issued;

- April 1974 - The Ministry of Geology of the USSR established a Polar Exploration Expedition based in Khatanga for a detailed study and determination of reserves of the impact diamond deposits;

- 1975 - The State Reserves Committee approved the reserves of the Udarnoye deposit at 11.9 bn carats in all categories, with a grade of 7.13 - 7.19 cpt. A feasibility study for the development of the Udarnoye deposit was developed (by TsNIGRI (Central Geological Research Institute for Nonferrous and Precious Metals) and YakutNIPROalmaz);

- 1976 - 900 tonnes of ore from the Popigai crater were delivered by military transport aircraft (!) to the city of Mirny for beneficiation;

- December 1978 - The State Reserves Committee approved the reserves of the Skalnoye deposit, the report was approved and the right was given to carry out the project engineering of the Mining and Processing Plant (MPP). The total reserves of the Popigai crater’s impact diamonds were estimated at over 260 bn carats. A feasibility study for the development of the Skalnoe deposit was developed;

- January 1979 - a decree of the USSR Council of Ministers was signed on the construction of a beneficiation plant in Khatanga with its commissioning in 1980;

- 1981-1982 - The financing of work on impact diamonds was sharply reduced and all the relevant departments lost their interest in the impact diamonds;

- 1983 - The Ministry of Nonferrous Metallurgy of the USSR (P. F. Lomako) gave a conclusion on the inexpediency of developing the impact diamond deposits.

The decision of the Ministry of Non-ferrous Metallurgy (which included the diamond mining industry at that time) put an end to the development of the Popigai diamonds. Although an additional exploration of the deposits continued for some time and the beneficiation plant in Khatanga regularly produced the concentrate, there was no talk about a full-fledged production or project engineering regarding a mine and MPP, and by 1985, the project was almost completely stopped. Why did the USSR stop developing the impact diamond deposits?

It is widely believed that the Popigai diamonds have lost out to its synthetic competitors. Here is a typical example of such statements, “By the beginning of the 1980s, the USSR had already organized the production of inexpensive synthetic diamonds, which, along with natural industrial diamonds, fully satisfied the needs of the domestic industry. Expensive impact diamonds, albeit high-quality ones, turned out to be of no use.”2 This statement was repeated in almost all the publications about the history of the Popigai diamonds. Moreover, some authors presented the matter in such a way that the leadership of the USSR had a choice - to build factories for the synthetic diamond production or to mine the Popigai diamonds, “It did not come to development since the Soviet leadership relied on the construction of a network of factories for the synthetic diamond production.”3 And in the long run, synthetic lobbyists allegedly won. That was not the case, and in fact, the competition with the synthetics was far from the main reason for stopping the development of the impact diamond deposits.

Indeed, let’s look at the chronology of the Soviet synthetic diamond industry development:

- 1960 - V. N. Bakul developed the industrial technology for diamond synthesis;

- 1961 - the Institute of Superhard Materials (ISM) with a pilot plant was established in Kyiv, and the first production lot (2,000 carats) of synthetic diamonds was manufactured;

- 1963 - IMS developed a plan for the introduction of diamond tools based on synthetic diamonds at 580 (!) factories in the USSR;

- 1966 - the largest in Europe Poltava plant of synthetic diamonds and diamond tools produced the first batch of products;

- 1970 - the USSR was ahead of the USA in terms of synthetic diamond production.

Thus, a full-fledged industry for the production of synthetic diamonds was created in the USSR prior to the impact diamond discovery. The creation and development of this industry were carried out within the framework of the five-year plans to meet the needs of the industry in diamond tools, which was directly seen in the names of the factories like Poltava plant of Synthetic Diamonds and diamond tools, Borislav plant of Synthetic Diamonds and diamond tools, Yerevan plant of Synthetic Diamonds and diamond tools, etc. By 1970, the USSR almost completely satisfied its needs for the diamond tools, moreover, it actively exported these goods, including the exports to the industrially developed Western countries. The production of the synthetic diamonds, together with natural industrial diamond production at the Yakut deposits, fully provided the industry with cheap rough diamonds in all categories and for all purposes.

So, why did they need the Resolution of the Central Committee of the CPSU and the USSR Council of Ministers “On the creation of a mineral resource base for the diamond mining industry in the north of the Krasnoyarsk Territory” dated March 13, 1974? Why was there a need for the detailed exploration of the Popigai diamonds, the creation of the Polar Geological Exploration Expedition and the beneficiation plant, and even for such expensive transportation of the ore by military transport aircraft? If the Popigai diamonds were initially considered only as competitors to synthetic diamonds, and with a higher cost price, none of these efforts would have been made.

And at this point, we have to return to the main motive the Soviet government had in making the decisions in the diamond industry. Since the discovery of the first deposits in the Urals in 1937, diamonds had been viewed primarily as an export commodity having a high unit value. In the 1970s, there was no shortage of natural or synthetic industrial diamonds in the USSR, but there was always a scarcity of foreign currency. And when V. L. Masaitis discovered the diamonds of a previously unknown type (but still, they were diamonds!), a hope evolved that there were large gem-quality diamonds. With such huge reserves and huge grade - an order of magnitude higher than in the Yakutia’s pipes - they could be ‘sitting on a gold mine’ (more precisely, on a diamond mine)! All budget problems could be easily solved, and at the same time, communism could also be built. To test this tempting hypothesis, one can use the air division flying back and forth - just in the case of success!

Unfortunately, no gem-quality diamonds were found at the Popigai deposit, and the hope for the export potential of this deposit withered year by year. Since 1981, the interest in the impact diamonds began to evaporate markedly, and the funding became much lower. Why did all this started exactly from 1981, and not earlier or later? The matter is that the Pomorskaya kimberlite pipe and the Lomonosovskaya pipe were discovered in the Arkhangelsk region in 1980 and 1981, respectively. Also, gem-quality diamonds of the usual kimberlite type were found there. This is the main reason that the country’s leadership lost their interest in the impact diamonds. Their export potential was zero, while the Arkhangelsk pipes, on the contrary, hold promise for the future, which was a decisive factor - the impact diamonds lost to the Arkhangelsk gem-quality rough diamonds, and not to the synthetic diamonds.

Let’s return from the USSR times to our turbulent time. What has changed in the motivation of the people running the country’s diamond industry? Nothing has changed. The rough diamonds are still viewed as an export commodity - a source of currency. And the consumption of natural industrial diamonds by the industry today hardly reaches a couple of percent of the diamonds - the rest is replaced by synthetics. Moreover, the synthesis technologies are developing by leaps and bound, their cost is decreasing. And the world market does not experience any shortage of industrial diamonds. Of course, the impact diamonds have specific properties that distinguish them from natural and synthetic diamonds and have both advantages and disadvantages. Various studies of impact diamonds have been carried out by many specialized organizations over the past 30 years and have produced mixed results. There are many discussions in the professional literature devoted to this topic, we believe that the conclusion made by the experts of TsNIGRI was quite convincing, “The research results could not unambiguously reveal the advantages of using impact diamonds for technical purposes in comparison with kimberlite and synthetic industrial diamonds.”4

Do the impact diamonds have any export potential as a raw material for the production of diamond tools? No, the potential is still zero. During the Soviet times, the development of the Popigai deposit was estimated at 1.5 bn roubles, today, given the almost complete lack of infrastructure in this area, the development would also cost 1.5 bn, but US dollars. And these are just quarries and MPPs, by conservative estimates. To promote these rough diamonds on the market, it is necessary to offer a whole range of technologies for their use. These technologies do not exist in Russia today, and potential buyers do not have them, either. Who, where, and at whose expense will create these technologies? How much will it cost to promote such a product in a competitive market oversaturated with synthetic diamonds that are constantly being improved, becoming cheaper day by day, and easily adapting to new tasks and industry requirements?

And finally, the main argument. The Popigai deposit is truly unique and the industrial reserves of such diamonds are in Russia only. This fact is considered by the apologists of the impact diamond mining as an undoubted advantage. In fact, this is a fatal disadvantage that makes the market value of these rough diamonds negligible. Imagine that you are a diamond tool manufacturer (for example, in the USA) and have rebuilt (modified, developed) your technological facilities to use the impact diamonds. And you have one supplier of rough diamonds. The only supplier in the world that has an absolute monopoly. Have you heard anything about sanctions? About a country risk? Will you invest in such a business? Especially considering that today, diamond synthetics can be produced anywhere in the world and there are hundreds of competing suppliers on the market? These are rhetorical questions.

Probably, the Popigai deposit is of extreme interest from the point of view of earth sciences. But from the standpoint of the diamond market, its development is a pure wildcat venture, and this was well understood even in the USSR. Given that this crater is included in the UNESCO Geological Heritage List of the highest category, the best thing to do is to leave it alone.

Sergey Goryainov, Rough&Polished

1Masaitis V.L., Kirichenko V.T., Mashak M.S., Fedorova I.G. Primary deposits and placers of impact diamonds in the Popigai region (Northern Siberia) .// Regional geology and metallogeny. 2013. No. 54. Pp. 89-98.
2Yuzmukhametov R.N. From the history of the discovery of the Popigai deposit of impact diamonds. // Social Sciences. 2011. No. 6. Pp. 218-221.
3The diamonds found near Yakutia will last for at least a thousand years. // Information agency "SakhaNews". 03-04-2021. https://www.1sn.ru/260628.html
4Golubev Yu.K., Kulikov D.A., Karpukhina M.V. On the prospects for the development of the Popigai diamond deposit // Mineral resources of Russia. Economics and Management. 2018. No. 5. Pages. 16-20.