Business Maverick

Business Maverick

The Diamond World Is Scrambling to Keep Buying Russian Gems

An employee sorts through a large collection of rough diamonds on a sorting table at the United Selling Organisation (USO) of Alrosa PJSC sorting center in Moscow, Russia, on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. Alrosa PJSC, one of the world’s top diamond miners, is returning to crisis-stricken Zimbabwe, the latest example of Russia expanding its footprint in Africa.

U.S. sanctions on Russia’s giant diamond miner are causing chaos through the industry, leaving traders and manufacturers hunting for workarounds to keep tapping one of the world’s main sources of precious gems.

Buyers across the big trading centers in Antwerp and Dubai and manufacturing hubs in India have spent the past two weeks consulting lawyers to determine what the U.S. sanctions on Alrosa PJSC mean and how they can continue to buy, according to people familiar with the matter. In the meanwhile, diamonds have stopped flowing from Russian mines to Surat — the world’s diamond-cutting epicenter — because Indian banks are unable or unwilling to process payments.

A delegation from Alrosa visited India earlier this week and held meetings with customers and trade groups to discuss how to facilitate sales, people familiar with the matter said. The disruption is already being felt in diamond prices, as the cost of the smaller stones that Alrosa specializes in has started to rise in the past week.

Alrosa is effectively state controlled: the federal government owns 33% and another 25% is held by local authorities. Losing its supply over a longer period would be seismic for the diamond world — the company accounts for about a third of global supply of rough stones, about the same level as De Beers, which had a monopoly until the start of this century.

Alrosa was scheduled to hold its next sale this coming week — one of the 10 it holds each year — but it’s unlikely it’ll be able to sell any stones because banks are unable to process payments, according to the people.

Yet as western governments levy sanctions on Russia and companies pull away from the country, many in India’s diamond industry still want to keep buying, according to people familiar with the matter. And while big-name U.S. jewelers Tiffany & Co. and Signet Jewelers Ltd. have said they will stop buying new diamonds mined in Russia, retailers in places like China, India and the Middle East have not followed suit.

Read: Tiffany Joins Signet in Banning New Diamonds Mined in Russia

Alrosa’s meetings in India this week included discussions on how to allow Indian manufacturers and traders to pay for Alrosa’s diamonds, the people said. While the discussions included paying in rubles or rupees, no firm arrangements were made. Any deal will need the support of the Indian government, which was not involved in the discussions.

Alrosa declined to comment.

For Alrosa, one option could be to sell its gems to the Russian government, as it did during the 2008 financial crisis. The Russian Finance Ministry declined to comment.

The disruptions around Russian diamonds are being felt through the global industry, which was already facing a shortage of rough stones even before the war in Ukraine. Rough diamond prices have surged in the past year as U.S. consumers, by far the most important market, bought a record amount of jewelery. That created a boom for the companies that trade, cut and manufacture diamonds.

Rough-diamond prices began to weaken last month as inflation concerns started to hit consumer confidence. However, the prices for smaller stones are rising again now as the trade looks to secure supplies.

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