A glittering future

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 01 Jun 2016   Posted by admin

A ‘large special’ diamond recovered from Lulo.

By Samantha James

AFRICAN-focused Lucapa Diamonds has successfully mined and sold several high value diamonds from its Lulo project since it began producing in 2015. In early 2016, trial mining at the E46 area led to the recovery of several ‘large special’ diamonds – diamonds weighing more than 10.8 carats (ct). Lucapa chief executive Stephen Wetherall spoke to Samantha James about the demand for special diamonds in the short term, the long-term market outlook and how expansion plans at Lulo fit into the global rare diamond industry.

Q. There are several mining operations ongoing at Lucapa’s Lulo project in Angola. Could you explain how the different operations fit together in the project? How long will trial mining at E46 continue for?

After Lucapa and its partners secured an alluvial mining licence in late 2014, Lulo commenced mining alluvial diamonds in January 2015. This occurred in areas previously assessed and identified from historical bulk sampling programs. Mining Blocks 8 and 6 have been the focus of alluvial mining operations since August 2015, as these blocks have regularly produced large valuable diamonds, including the record 404ct recovered in February 2016 and three other diamonds larger than 100ct.

The recent trial mining program carried out at E46 was designed to gain additional knowledge on that diamond resource, the types and average values expected to be recovered, as it would inform the viability and potential for a second production plant in this area.

While the average grades recovered in the historical bulk sampling program were high, no special diamonds were recovered at that time. As a result, a trial mining campaign was planned for the first quarter of 2016 to answer a few questions ahead of committing to an expansion plan.

The campaign was timed over a period when access to Mining Blocks 8 and 6 would be restricted due to the Angolan wet season. The trial mining campaign is well advanced, the clouds have since lifted and Lucapa and its partners are expecting to resume mining at Mining Blocks 8 and 6 during the current June 2016 quarter.

Q. How significant are the ‘large special’ discoveries for the trial mining operation and how unique are the diamonds found at Lulo?

The recovery of a number of large valuable diamonds up to 88ct from the trial mining operations at E46 was significant [as] no special diamonds were recovered from this area during the historic bulk sampling program. The largest diamond recovered weighed less than 7cts – therefore, the frequent large white and coloured diamond recoveries from the trial mining campaign at E46 indicate that this area is also host to a large diamond population of higher quality and value, favourably impacting the economic equation of expanding production.

The diamonds recovered from Lulo are quite unique when compared to world supply. The Lulo production has an abnormally high proportion of special diamonds by weight; diamonds classified as Type IIa (a rare category of diamonds which are almost, or entirely, devoid of nitrogen impurities) and also contains fancy coloured diamonds (pinks and yellows). This all culminates in a premium overall average selling price of US$2881/ct from the sale of all Lulo diamonds sold thus far (US$6665 for 2016 alone). Compare this to the world average price of about US$120/ct.

Q. The Antwerp World Diamond Centre (AWDC) and Bain & Company’s 2015 annual report stated 2015 saw a “drop in rough and polished prices against the background of continued but slowing growth in the macro economy” with growth in the second half of the year “uncertain”. How did Lucapa weather these conditions, and what has 2016 so far brought for the industry and the company?

There are many different sizes and qualities of production in the diamond sector. For ease of explanation, let’s classify the industry in two parts – commercial quality production on the one hand and high-value top quality production on the other.

World supply is dominated by commercial quality diamonds with top quality diamonds forming an extremely small part of total world production. Hence the world average price is just US$120/ct.

The comments made above by AWDC and Bain, while accurate, need to be taken in context. The diamond statistics are greatly influenced by the commercial quality pricing trends, which have been under pressure. However, in various diamonds sale announcements to the exchanges, Lucapa and other high quality producers such as Lucara Diamonds and Gem Diamonds have noted that the demand and prices for large high-quality diamonds remain healthy. As large diamonds form a material part of Lulo’s production and therefore revenue (greater than 90 per cent), the top quality producers like Lulo have fared much better than the rest of the market.

2016 started off positively for the industry. Prices have been far more robust than in 2015. Reduced supply this year from the major producers (De Beers and Alrosa) has seen better pricing in the rough sector and certain shortages in the polished inventories, which has led to margins, although small margins, creep back into the manufacturing sector.

While pricing has been positively impacted in the early part of 2016, it could be short term. Questions still remain as to retail consumer demand growth or sustainability in the emerging but slowing markets of China and India and if the majors will keep supply at currently reduced levels. This, I believe, is the reason a number of experts have stated the second half to be “uncertain” for the industry as a whole.

Lucapa Diamonds chief executive Stephen Wetherall with joint venture partner Endiama chairman Antonio Carlos Sumbula.

Lucapa Diamonds chief executive Stephen Wetherall with joint venture partner Endiama chairman Antonio Carlos Sumbula.

Q. Lucapa’s latest quarterly report stated that Lulo generated record quarterly gross diamond revenues of $32.5 million, “underlining the strong global demand for large top-tier gems”. Could you elaborate on the demand and outlook going forward?

Lucapa sees demand and pricing for higher-quality production remaining strong through 2016. In recent days, the demand for large quality diamonds was further evidenced by the sale of an 813ct diamond, recovered last year by Lucara Diamonds from its Karowe mine in Botswana, for US$63 million. This was reported to be the highest value ever achieved for a rough diamond. There are only a few diamond miners in the world producing large valuable diamonds on a regular basis and, like Lucara, Lucapa is one of them.

Unfortunately, the demand and pricing for commercial quality production is not that certain. It is heavily dependent on the major producers supply into the market and other macro-economic factors, most of which are neither controllable nor predictable.

However, if the majors continue to act responsibly, by keeping supply down and there are no surprises in China and India (where most new demand was forecast to originate), then prices should be flat for the remainder of the year. If not, then this sector of the diamond market could be impacted.

Q. What is your long-term outlook on the diamond market? The AWDC and Bain stated in last year’s report: “The supply of rough diamonds in value terms is expected to decline by 1 per cent to 2 per cent per year through 2030.”

In the longer term, the growth in demand for natural diamonds is expected to exceed the projected supply. This imbalance, in the absence of any other outside influence, would normally result in a favourable impact on price. There have been no major new diamond mine discoveries for some time now and a number of large mines are not expected to be in production for too much longer, so I agree that annual supply is expected to reduce both in carat and value terms.

Natural supply will reduce, but will not fall off a cliff as some may claim. As diamond supply reduces, rough prices should increase in real terms, so miners can strip wider and dig deeper for resources that were previously considered uneconomic.

For the higher value, natural rough production such as the Lulo production, supply is limited and large maturing mines nearing their end just makes it even more so. While there will always be short term cyclical, industry volatility and macroeconomic influences, I believe the demand curve for investment grade high value diamonds in the long term will continue to move north.

Q. Kimberlite drilling targets at the high-priority L259 deposit were outlined during the March quarter. How significant are these targets – they could potentially find the source of the alluvial diamonds and what will that mean for the operation?

These targets are very significant. Should one of the targets identified for drilling prove to be a source of the large, irregular shaped, jagged edge, Type IIA diamonds being recovered in Mining Blocks 8 and 6, then given the current grade and values of those diamonds, their source(s) are likely to be very economic.

The size of and depth of a kimberlite pipe hosting diamonds will ultimately determine the type of mine (open pit or underground), investment required and life of mine from which the project value can be assessed.

Lucapa and its partners purchased a mobile drilling rig late last year for the Lulo kimberlite drilling program and this rig has arrived on site. Drilling will commence as soon as the drillers are issued their Angolan work visas, which is not expected to take too much longer. The drilling program will commence at L259 and will include other priority kimberlites in this area, including L248, L13, L15 and E217. The recent recoveries at E46, which include a number of large high value diamonds, have recently escalated the targets in this area for priority drilling as well.

Q. What do you think the second half of 2016 will bring for Lucapa?

Strategically, Lucapa will continue to work with its partners to grow our knowledge of the alluvial diamond areas on the Lulo concession area to increase the life of the alluvial mining operation and to locate the primary kimberlite source(s) of the diamonds.

Operationally, plans for 2016 include scaling alluvial mining operations to pre-wet season rates of 20,000 bulk cubic metres per month (bcm/m) as soon as possible at Mining Blocks 8 and 6; holding more regular diamond sales in the current year to continue to generate positive cash flow; and advance the priority kimberlite drilling and exploration program. Lucapa and its partners will evaluate whether to double alluvial diamond mining rates to 40,000 bcm/m, increase the JORC-compliant inferred diamond resource to extend the life of mine, continue to invest in diamond plant optimisation initiatives (such as the installation of an XRT-scanning module to assist in the recovery of large special diamonds) and install a deep boiling facility to clean diamonds properly and thus enhance their sale value.