BOOK REVIEW / Crystalline romance, or just a form of carbon?: The Last Empire - Stefan Kanfer: Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 19.99

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THERE must have been a time when everybody knew a De Beers story. My grandfather has often told one about a boyhood friend who was famous in the diamond business as the only man who did De Beers down over a trade. The name was surrounded by such mystique that even without knowing anything about De Beers, this sounded like a formidable achievement.

The Last Empire - De Beers, Diamonds and the World is peopled by scores of unlikely minor characters such as Henri Lemoine, the glorious hoaxer who fooled De Beers into believing he could make artificial diamonds long before it was possible, or William Lindsay Pearson, the Australian adventurer who was paid the dollars 56,000 reward for retrieving the Oppenheimers' stolen jewels although he was suspected of stealing them in the first place. There is the amazing, eccentric John T Williamson, owner of a mine in Tanzania, whose trained Maribou storks walked eerily alongside Harry Oppenheimer and his assistant when they came to buy him out. The most extravagant of all is Barney Barnato, one of the original Randlords and a ham actor of unbounded energy who came to a Maxwellian end.

And then there are the major characters. Cecil Rhodes, 'the Colossus', appears formidable and despicable at the same time. Stefan Kanfer's verdict on Africa's eminent Victorians is that they exhibited 'high intelligence, retarded sexuality, unstable temper and most important, an attachment to subtropical lands far from home'. We are left to marvel at what an explosive mixture this was.

The anecdotes are sorted as carefully as a De Beers man would his gems. Kanfer's research has taken him back to the chance events that began the diamond rush. The history of the company, which unfolds through the lives of Ernest and Harry Oppenheimer, is also the history of South Africa itself, with De Beers swinging from being the arrogant persecutor of the Boers to the liberal critic of apartheid, until its story becomes entangled - thankfully only right at the end - in the shell companies and disclosure requirements of modern international finance.

The informative chatter of the book hardly ever flags, and when it does it is because Kanfer has been seduced by one too many of these gleaming anecdotes which he has unearthed from mounds of documents.

The details of how the business developed are there, with the crucial financial battle between Rhodes and Barnato meticulously detailed, but the focus remains on the characters. The most memorable moment of all comes when Rhodes tipped the carefully classified diamonds he was selling to his rival into a bucket to buy himself enough time to clinch his deal.

The author acknowledges the help he has received from the company itself and from Harry and Nicholas Oppenheimer. He offers a sympathetic, though not uncritical, portrait of the family and, in the last resort, of De Beers, too. An insipid quip by one of the directors precedes an account of the inhuman conditions of black workers in the mines in the Sixties, just at the time when the empire was booming and Harry was accumulating 'oils done by the better French Impressionists'.

De Beers never let a principle get in the way of business, and found that black African countries and even the Soviet Union could be brought round to dealing with them. The Oppenheimers' arguments to the South African government over improving the lot of the blacks appealed not to altruism but to enlightened self-interest, and a hard-bitten form of it at that. But in South Africa even that made them dangerously progressive.

It is curious that the sale of what amounts to no more than a dream - inflated by ineradicable slogans such as 'A Diamond is Forever' - could have been kept alive so long by such a pragmatic organisation. At the beginning of the story a digger is quoted saying, 'A diamond stood rather for crystallized romance than for a form of carbon worth so much per carat.'

For the sake of this dream, thousands like him were prepared to put up with the sordid camps round the first mines. This book provides a fascinating account of the many forms that this mystical allure has taken. An allure of which the De Beers, with 90 per cent of the world's diamonds, are still the proprietor.

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