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    Start with a Diamond
    Start with Setting
    Jul 30

    untitled-201.jpgThe modern diamond mine is an impressive feat of human engineering. The size and scope of such a project requires immense amounts of human research, planning, effort and capital. For example, the pipe that feeds the currently operating Argyle Diamond Mine of Australia was first discovered in 1979. It was not until 1983 that the research and studies conducted on the viability of the potential mine were concluded and the open pit portion of the mine began to be excavated. Once the mine excavation began, it took another 18 months and approximately 450 million Australian dollars in mine construction costs alone.

    While each mine has its own series of costs based on the mine’s location and potential diamond reserves, comparing mines can help to illustrate the process of mine development. Through seeing the preliminary costs of a modern, currently operating mine such as the Argyle, one may have a greater understanding of the incredible achievement that was the Mir Diamond Mine. It can be difficult to fathom the immensity of the operation that the former Soviet Union undertook over fifty years ago in its building of the Mir mine in the Siberia region of Russia.

    The Mir Mine was in operation until 2004 and became the largest open pit diamond mine in the world. By the time of its closing the Mir Diamond Mine was over 1700 feet deep (approximately 1/3rd of a mile) and over 3900 feet across at the top (over 7/10th of a mile). This enormous size was grown over the course of the nearly fifty years of the mine’s operation. During its operation run the Mir produced approximately 2 million carats of diamonds on an annual basis.

    The birth of the Mir Mine came out of Stalin’s desire to retain Soviet independence. After WWII, the Soviet Union required large quantities of industrial diamonds in order to rebuild its shattered landscape. The problem for the Soviets was that the diamond industry at the time was almost entirely controlled by DeBeers. What this came down to was the simple fact that should DeBeers decide to embargo the Soviet Union, whether for economic or political reasons, the Soviets would have to at least somewhat bend to DeBeers’ will.

    Some of Stalin’s geologists informed him as early as the 1930′s that certain areas of Siberia closely resembled, geologically, the kimberlite-rich regions of South Africa. This information prompted Stalin after WWII to send out teams of geologists to the areas of Siberia that held the greatest chances of having kimberlite pipes. The active quest for Russian diamonds began in 1947 and came to fruition within the next ten years.

    The Soviet Union’s quest for diamonds was not conducted primarily out of a desire for saleable minerals. The original reason for the search for diamonds in Siberia was due to a material need for industrial diamonds. Industrial diamonds are required for a number of mechanical operations, such as drilling, abrasive grit, precision cutting and other digging machinery. After WWII, Stalin was determined to complete the Soviet Union’s transformation into a world industrial leader and power equal to the United States as quickly as possible. Such a vast, nationwide, industrialization campaign required large and reliable sources of diamond deposits.

    Geologists were sent to Siberia in the late 1940′s in the quest of the diamond reserves that were believed to be there. In 1953, a young Soviet geologist named Larissa Popugaieva was studying mineral samples sent from Yakutia in Siberia in a lab in Leningrad. She discovered that there was a large concentration of garnet in some of the Yakutia samples. This was an exciting sign for the young geologist, as garnet was known to be a marker mineral for diamonds. In other words, if there was a large garnet deposit, there was a strong possibility that a diamond deposit would be found nearby.

    Larissa Popugaieva quickly joined the geologic expedition in Yakutia, informing the diamond hunters to begin following any traces of garnets to their source. This approach eventually lead to a small diamond deposit, but after surveying the reserve, it was found to be far too small to invest in mining operations. This was not a setback to the Soviets, however, as this only proved that the garnet trail had in fact led to diamonds, even if it was a diamond reserve of an unusable size.

    It was in 1955 that the Soviets finally made the type of discovery that they had been hoping for. Once again, it was a youthful Soviet geologist, Yuri Khabardin, whose exertion lead to a remarkable discovery. He, along with other geologists, had been following garnet veins through the banks of the Siberian Vilyul River. He followed a trail of garnets into a fox hole that he found dug into a ravine near the bank. Upon analyzing the soil in the hole, he discovered a high quantity of diamond mineral present. Knowing that he had finally discovered what the entire geologic expedition had been searching for he quickly and excitedly radioed back to his superiors the code for a viable diamond discovery: “I am smoking the pipe of peace.” It was from this code that the Mir or Mirny Mine (‘Mir’ being the shortened form) received its name, as Mirny is Russian for ‘peace’.

    The Mir Mine officially opened in 1957. The kimberlite pipe that fed the Mir proved to be smaller than the pipe in the Premier Mine in South Africa, but this did not slow down the determined Soviets. They not only opened the mine quickly, but they also took every measure to pull out as large a quantity of diamonds from the pipe as possible. They did this despite the less-than-hospitable environment and conditions that surrounded the operations at the Mir Mine location.

    The area of Siberia is one of the most inhospitable regions in the world, a fact that did not make optimum conditions for diamond mining. For example, the Siberian winter lasts for seven months out of the year. This meant that for seven months of the year, the mine operators had to deal with temperatures that were so low as to freeze the rubber tires of the vehicles, causing the tires to break. In addition to this, the oil that was needed to fuel just about everything would freeze, and even the steel being used to build the riggings would snap. The summer months would not make things much better as the land was covered in a sheet of permafrost. This permafrost would become mud as the temperature rose, turning the entire mining operation into a land of sludge.

    These absurd conditions did not deter the Soviets, however. They had wanted to find diamonds on Soviet lands, and they had. No poor weather or climate conditions were going to stop them from getting to those diamonds. The climate might be difficult, but diamonds would mean yet more independence and any need to rely on nations outside of the Soviet Union.

    Utilizing jet engines, the Soviets would burn through the layer of permafrost to get to the soil beneath it. Where the ground was too solid or too frozen for jet engines, they would use dynamite to blast holes from which they would then work outward from. They also discovered fairly quickly that they could not build the diamond mining processing plant directly on the permafrost, as it was too soft for such a large building. This resulted in the need to build the plant twenty miles away from the mine itself.

    Later on, when more mines were opened in the area, a city was built to service the needs of the mines and those who worked in them. The mining city of Aikhal was itself no simple creation. Due to the permafrost of the area, the entire city had to be built on a series of steel poles, so that it would not sink into the mud when the summer months arrived.

    As the Mir Mine grew in production it found ever larger quantities of gem-quality diamonds. It is important to remember that the vast expenditure of wealth and effort put forth by the Soviet Union to find and create the Mir was originally done for the sake of having a domestic supply of industrial-grade diamonds. As this was the case, the gem-quality diamond discoveries were originally seen as nothing more than a by-product to the diamond mining operation.

    The Soviets understood that gem-quality diamonds could be put up for sale, but had not originally counted on there being much of a profit in the operation. However, within a few years of the opening of the mine, they were discovering ever larger quantities of gem-quality diamonds in the Mir. By the early 1960′s the Mir production of gem-quality diamonds, along with the production of gem-quality diamonds coming out of the newer mines in the area, proved to be the Soviet Union’s largest Western-world cash export. In fact, they suddenly found themselves to be in the slightly ironic position of selling most of their uncut gem diamonds to DeBeers.

    To DeBeers, the Mir Mine proved to be a strange and puzzling mystery. The puzzling quality of the Mir was in its diamond production. DeBeers had been mining diamonds since the beginning of the century and knew a little of the normal production rates of kimberlite pipes. Most kimberlite pipes produce an ever growing quantity for the first few years, followed by a plateau and then a steady decline in diamond production. The Mir Mine seemed to break these rules, as the Soviets were showing ten million carats of diamonds produced a year by the mid-1960s, with two million carats of diamond a year being of gem-quality.

    By the 1970s, when the Mir should have been producing smaller and smaller quantities of diamonds, the Soviets were producing an increasing quantity of gem diamonds in their sales to DeBeers in London. These diamonds were all of a uniform size and shape and were dubbed ‘Silver Bears’. While DeBeers could not understand how the Soviets were producing such a large quantity of gem diamonds of such uniform size, and supposedly from one mine that by DeBeers surveys should not be capable of such diamond production, they were, nevertheless, pressured to purchase them all lest the Soviets simply dump the diamonds on the open market, thus flooding it and bringing down diamond prices.

    DeBeers went as far as arranging for a visit to the Mir Mine in 1976, sending Sir Philip Oppenheimer to see the Mir operations. The Soviets kept Sir Philip in Moscow for much of the visit, claiming that weather conditions were holding up the trip to the mine. By the time the visit was made, the time allotted for the trip by the Soviets allowed for only a twenty minute tour of the Mir. Unsurprisingly, this visit did nothing to shed light on the mystery of the Mir’s diamond production.

    The mystery of the Mir Mine’s diamond production may never be known to western officials. With its closing in 2004, the Mir will be known as more than simply the world’s largest open-pit diamond mine, a mine large enough to suck down passing helicopters due to the wind currents produced within its depths. The Mir will also carry on the legacy of Soviet opaqueness as the mine has a production history that continues to remain shrouded in mystery.

    6 Responses to “A Brief History of the World’s Largest Open Pit Diamond Mine”

    1. ghazanfar malik Says:

      we deals in minerals export.

    2. MauriceO Says:

      One huge wonderful experience in viewing the hole left behind by the mining process. This goes along way in tourist attraction as the mine still continues to be profitable long after closure. For more details log into my site http://www.travelnut.me/mir-mine

    3. Nova Honokaupu Says:

      Hey could I use some of the content from this site if I reference you with a link back to your site?

    4. Inez Says:

      I had problems with your website on my browser reading this post and had to refresh the page a couple of times, I am using an older version of Firefox. I enjoyed the articles and comments and can be back!

    5. Brittani Says:

      I’m doing a school project on the Mir Mine; is it known why the Mir Mine was closed down? Please reply soon! Thank you.

    6. monique hartley Says:

      What’s the value of a gem stone in south africa

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