Last week I had the privilege of visiting the Ekati Diamond mine in Canada’s Northwest Territories as a guest of Dominion Diamond Mines — the company behind the Canadamark brand that I partnered with for my recently unveiled four-designer collection. The partnership, in collaboration with MUSE Showroom includes works from Nikos Koulis, Silvia Furmanovich, and Mark Davis — the latter two of whom joined me on this excursion. It was an amazing experience and I’m excited to share some of what I learned.
We leave our hotel in Calgary before daybreak and fly northward for 2.5 hours. Ekati is located about 200 miles north of Yellowknife and just a stone’s throw from the Arctic Circle. We're lucky to be visiting in summer when the days are long and mild. Nights last barely four hours and the average daytime temperature hovers around 60 degrees Fahrenheit. By contrast, in winter temperatures plunge as low as -60 and daylight is a precious resource. Most of the supplies needed to support human life are trucked in during the winter over seasonal ice roads. The site not only has its own commissary, fuel storage, water supply, and electrical generation, but also a dedicated infirmary and medical staff. From the window of the small jet I see the mine approaching — five massive open pits set deep into the lake-riddled tundra. We circle overhead and land at the onsite airstrip. There a bus is waiting to cart us to the facility where we take in a safety briefing and a light breakfast before heading outside.
In the mine nothing is human-scale. Gargantuan three-story-tall trucks feel more like tiny insects than lumbering machines, dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of the tiered lunar landscape. It is the set of a sci-fi movie brought to life. Work never stops. While shifts change every 11 hours, the trucks scurry about 24 hours per day 365 days per year. Despite the activity on the surface I’m told that the supply of the easily accessible ore in some pits is exhausted and many operations have moved underground — a more costly process that involves building elaborate spiraling tunnel systems to harvest kimberlite pipes before bringing the material to the surface for crushing, cleaning, and sorting. The mine could operate in this way for another twenty years or more.
Later in the processing plant we learn that even in this technologically advanced mine there is still an abundance of work done by hand. The process of ’noning,’ for example, involves skilled workers who spot and remove any non-diamond materials before the diamonds are graded. In the machine shop we meet the foreman who is charged with repairing and maintaining the massive trucks and tractors. He displays tires taller than my house and a friendly grin almost as wide. For a place so cold, remote, and industrial the vibe was surprisingly warm. The 2500 employees work two-week stints with equal time off, flying in from their home bases in Calgary, Yellowknife, and beyond. This includes the over 30% who identify as ethnically Northern Indigenous — a demographic that the mine prioritizes in its hiring and purchasing practices. And it would seem as though the employee-centric policies are paying dividends. The energy is exceptional and there's a palpable sense that everyone takes pride in their work and labors together in harmony.
When Kimberlite was first discovered in the area by prospectors in the early 1980s it might have been difficult to imagine what the site would look like today. Now, 21 years and 82 million tons of excavation after the mine officially opened, the landscape is transformed. What was once pristine tundra is now a choreographed cacophony of structures, trucks, pits, tailings, spent tires, and generators running around the clock. In response, the mine partners with native groups and the Canadian government to operate programs for reduction of energy usage, composting, conservation of native wildlife, propagation of local plants, and planning for the reclamation of the site after operations wind down. To date, hundreds of millions of dollars have been proactively set aside for ongoing preservation and future reclamation efforts. These efforts will prove essential for the integrity of both the mine and the surrounding kimberlite-rich areas that are likely to undergo similar transformations in the coming decades.
Sitting onboard the plane back to Calgary I reflect on a long and fascinating day. In the context of a general public distrust of the diamond industry, the traceability practices that we witnessed inspire total confidence in Canadamark while meeting the miners left me with a deep respect for the product and hope for the future.