The sale of the 14.62 ct Oppenheimer Blue diamond by Christie’s last month has caused an absolute sensation in global diamond and jewellery circles, not only because it is the largest vivid blue diamond ever to appear at an auction but also, more significantly, because it fetched the highest price – an astonishing $57.6-million, just shy of R900-million – for any diamond ever sold under the hammer.
Inevitably, the news reports in this regard have focused almost solely on the nature of the diamond itself, which Christie’s described as having a “perfect hue, impeccable proportions and a fabulous rectangular shape”, and the staggering price paid by the unnamed buyer. Little mention has been made of the diamond’s history, nor of the man after whom the gem was named.
However, on intensive investigation, it comes as little surprise that no historical details have been provided because, in fact, the diamond’s origins are clouded in mystery. The only detail known with any degree of certainty is that the diamond was mined somewhere in South Africa.
While it is most probable that the stone was sourced from one of De Beers’ mines in the early part of the twentieth century, trying to ascertain exact details is largely impossible, as the company has been compelled to close its archive.
Even Christie’s, which was responsible for the sale, has scant information. An email correspondence with Christie’s international head of jewellery, Rahul Kadakia, suggests that the only information available is this: “The Oppenheimer Blue diamond was offered for sale at Christie’s on behalf of its last owner. The first transaction took place towards 1999, when it weighed approximately 14.71 ct. “It was subsequently repolished to its current weight of 14.62 ct. “The Gemological Institute of America did not provide us with earlier details and I am assuming that the stone almost certainly was mined in South Africa. If this was the only stone that the rough gem yielded, then it must have weighed . . . 30 ct to 35 ct.”
While the gem’s origins may remain a mystery, much is known about the man after whom it was named. For well over a century, the Oppenheimer name has been synonymous with the world of diamonds. Although it could have been named after any one of the half dozen highly successful and pioneering diamond magnates within that family, it was for Sir Phillip Oppenheimer that it was christened. While we may also know that the Oppenheimer Blue was acquired as a gift for Phillip Oppenheimer’s wife, Pamela Fenn Stirling, there is, unfortunately, little clarity regarding when it was bought or how much was paid for it.
Phillip Oppenheimer, who died at the age of 83 in 1995, was most renowned for his role as a long-time president of the London-based monopoly diamond trading firm, the Central Selling Organisation (CSO), and as director of both De Beers Consolidated Mines and Anglo American Corporation.
Born in England on October 29, 1911, Phillip Oppenheimer was the son of Sir Ernest Oppenheimer’s youngest brother, Otto. His illustrious diamond career began in 1934, when he joined the CSO, after having obtained a degree in law and history from Cambridge University. Despite his family connections (by 1934, the Oppenheimer family already had a powerful grip on the global trade of diamonds), he started his career at the very bottom of the ladder – as a kind of office boy – before training as a diamond sorter in London, then Antwerp and Kimberley. It was only in 1948, following his father’s death, that Phillip Oppenheimer took over management of the CSO. Eight years later, he rose to the ultimate rank of chairperson and was simultaneously made a director of De Beers.
His two greatest career achievements, at least according to his first cousin and close colleague, Harry Oppenheimer, who was chairperson of both De Beers and Anglo American for more than a quarter of a century, were managing De Beers’ relationship with the Russian government and the flood of diamonds that came from Sierra Leone after it gained independence in 1961.
In an address he gave at Phillip Oppenheimer’s memorial service, Harry Oppenheimer elaborated: “Two of [Phillip’s] greatest business achievements were, firstly, his entering into and his conduct of our relationship with the Russian government for the marketing of their diamonds from the very beginning of their important and growing diamond industry. They called for qualities of understanding determination, toughness and staying power. “All these Phillip had in full measure, and the maintenance of the structure of the diamond industry over a long period of more than 30 years in circumstances which had never previously been contemplated was largely due to him.
“Phillip’s second and equally important achievement was the manner in which he handled the problems that arose as a result of a huge and virtually entirely unregulated production of diamonds by individual diggers in Sierra Leone. This involved not only the establishment of sound relations with the government of that newly independent country, but also the building up and control of a large organisation manned by young men with the skills and self-confidence and the toughness required to go out into the tropical bush to buy diamonds from difficult, suspicious, often primitive African diggers. “The creation of this new element in our affairs had, and continues to have, effects far beyond its original field in Sierra Leone and gave quite a new strength and resilience to the De Beers marketing organisation. All this was, in the first place, due to Phillip’s imagination and courage.”
The calibre of his stewardship is best illustrated by the fact that, when Phillip Oppenheimer stepped down as president of the CSO at the end of 1993, yearly world diamond sales channelled through the organisation had risen from $154-million in 1948 to $4.4-billion. Significantly, it was for his services with regard to UK exports that he was knighted in 1970.