How a Rogue Geologist Discovered a Diamond Trove in the Canadian Arctic
Behind an unmarked door in a faded business park outside Kelowna, British Columbia, in a maze of rooms crowded with desks, computers, and floor-to-ceiling shelves, Chuck Fipke sifts through 20-pound bags of dirt.
"We take samples, hey, from gravel and streambeds all over the world," Fipke says. He sieves the earth, runs it through magnetic drums and centrifuges and electromagnetic separators. Then his technicians, working with scanning electron microscopes, separate out grains and mount them on postage-stamp-sized squares of epoxy. It's painstaking work but worth the trouble. Fipke has learned to understand those grains of dirt, and that understanding has led him to diamonds.
Eighteen years ago, there was no such thing as a Canadian diamond — as far as anyone knew. Diamonds came mostly from Australia, Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, and Russia. De Beers mined 75 percent of the world's output, much of it tainted by controversial "blood diamonds," sold to fund African wars.
Today, Canada is the world's third-largest producer, by value, of rough stones. In the Northwest Territories, BHP Billiton's Ekati mine has been producing since 1998 and Rio Tinto's Diavik mine since 2003. De Beers opened its first Canadian mine, at Snap Lake, in July — a confirmation that Canada is the new center of the world.
The story behind the addition of Canada to the ranks of diamond-producing nations leads back to one man: a short, absentminded Canadian geologist named Chuck Fipke. When he discovered diamonds in Lac de Gras, Northwest Territories, in 1991, he started the largest staking rush in North America since George Carmack found gold in the Klondike a century earlier. And he's not finished: He's prospecting around the world, toting gravel samples back to his lab in British Columbia to figure out where to look for his next big strike.
In 1970, fresh out of the University of British Columbia with a degree in geology, Chuck Fipke signed on with mining company Kennecott Copper to look for gold and copper in Papua New Guinea. A helicopter would drop him off alone in the middle of a jungle, and pick him up at the end of the day. The terrain was so rough that the chopper often couldn't land — Fipke would just leap out as it hovered close to the ground. One day he turned around to face 20 locals, arrows strung. He raised his arms, slowly removed his vest, and offered it to "the one who looked like the chief." By the time the helo returned for him, Fipke was in his underpants clutching a fine array of tribal shields, bows and arrows, and fetishes. "I've got an amazing collection of stuff!" he says.
Fipke is a small man with a shaved head, a burnished tan, piercing blue eyes, and forearms like Popeye's. As a kid, his frantic start-stop mind made people think he was stupid. After getting his high school girlfriend pregnant, he agreed to marry her ... and then failed to show up for the wedding. (The couple eventually married after the baby was born.) He stutters and says "hey" in almost every sentence. He frequently loses his glasses and his keys, shows up late to appointments, and has a history of spending prodigious amounts of money in strip joints. His nicknames have included Captain Chaos and Stumpy.
After stints in the Amazon, Australia, and South Africa, Fipke opened a mineral separation laboratory in British Columbia in 1977. A year later, Superior Oil hired him to go back into the field — to look not for metals but gems.
Photo: Andrew Hetherington
The company already had a search method. A couple of years prior, a geologist named John Gurney, working with Superior's money at the University of Cape Town, hypothesized that certain common minerals might reliably form alongside diamonds. He used an electron microprobe to analyze geological structures called kimberlite pipes — the places you occasionally (but not often) find diamonds — and discovered that the presence of chromite, ilmenite, and high-chrome, low-calcium garnet did indeed predict a rich strike. He examined a host of pipes in South Africa that had these so-called indicator minerals and published a paper explaining his results.
Fipke heard about Gurney's work on a tour of De Beers' Finsch Mine in South Africa and quickly turned himself into an expert on indicator minerals — combining what he understood of Gurney's work with results coming out of Russian labs and his own skills with field sampling. Superior had worked with Fipke before, back in his gold mining days, so by the time the company wanted someone to go look for kimberlite pipes northwest of Fort Collins, Colorado, Fipke was the best choice. He found half a dozen, but like 98 percent of the kimberlite formations in the world, they didn't contain diamonds in commercially viable quantities.
But Fipke knew that, 100 miles under those pipes, was a craton, a thick, old chunk of continental plate where diamonds form. Kimberlite pipes are created when magma bubbles up through a craton, expanding and cooling on its way up. If the craton has diamonds in it, the result is either a carrot-shaped, diamond-studded pipe reaching up to the surface or a wide, flat underground structure called a dike.
Fipke also knew that the craton underneath the pipes he had found ran all the way up the Rockies. With Superior's backing, he teamed up with a geologist and pilot named Stewart Blusson, formed Dia Met Minerals, and headed north.
By 1981, the two men were sampling the ground in Canada; they would eventually secure mining concessions on 80,000 square miles. "It was just me and Sewart and a floatplane," Fipke says. "We took all the supplies and all the samples in ourselves."
De Beers geologists, it turned out, were already there, relying on their own indicator mineral formulas. But Fipke and Blusson surmised that the indicators De Beers found had in fact been dragged far from the kimberlite pipe eons ago by a passing glacier. What they needed to do was look "upstream" for the point of origin. Fipke got a helicopter and flew back and forth over the Arctic Circle, using a magnetometer to track variations in magnetic field that would suggest kimberlite. After thousands of miles and hundreds of hours in the air, he found a promising site near Lac de Gras, a barren world of lakes and rock and muskeg a few hundred miles outside the Arctic Circle.
He'd been surveying for eight years. He hadn't found a single diamond. Superior had abandoned the diamond business. Dia Met's stock was trading at pennies a share. But based upon a few samples, Fipke estimated a diamond concentration at Lac de Gras of more than 60 carats per 100 tons — with about a quarter of the stones of good quality or better. (In kimberlite pipes that have gem-quality stones in commercial quantities, a concentration of 1 carat — 0.2 grams — per 100 tons can be profitable.) After six months of sampling, Fipke went public. It was 1991, and he had found a kimberlite pipe (buried under 30 feet of glaciated sediment) with a concentration of 68 carats per 100 tons — the first Canadian diamonds ever found. Shares of Dia Met rocketed to $70. Fipke had partnered with mining giant Broken Hill Proprietary Company (now BHP Billiton) to get the diamonds out; BHP opened the Ekati mine at Lac de Gras in 1998. Soon Dia Met's 29 percent share of the mine was worth billions. Fipke would go on to sell his chunk to BHP for $687 million, retaining 10 percent ownership in the mine, worth another $1 billion.
Today Canada's diamond business is soaring. The country's four working mines produced 17 million carats in 2007, up 23 percent from 2006. Diamonds from Canada now account for 10 percent of all diamonds by carat sold in the world. And the addition of more diamonds to the global market hasn't driven prices down. Average carat value has actually risen 15 percent, and the gems from the far north are untainted by the bad publicity that comes from an association with African wars.
Shortly before Fipke sold most of his Ekati claim to BHP Billiton, his marriage, faltering for years after so much time in the field, fell apart. At the time it was the largest divorce settlement in Canadian history. "Cost me $200 million, hey," Fipke says. "Best money I ever spent!"
Fipke now has mining projects in Morocco, Greenland, Canada, Angola, and Brazil. His laboratory bookshelves are heavy with mineral guides — and the family histories of thoroughbreds. Besides diamonds, he's now obsessed with horse racing. "It's a huge challenge, hey, and I like challenges even if they're risky," he says. "And I think I'm really going to do spectacularly well with horses." So far, so good: He has more than 50 brood mares in Ireland and Kentucky and 20 racehorses all over the world. His horse Tale of Ekati placed fifth in this year's Kentucky Derby. "I always go to the Derby with Bo Derek," he says, unlocking the door to a windowless room piled with maps and electron microscopes and computers. "She's a good rider, and she knows horses. And she's a lot of fun, hey! I'm gonna do for horse racing what I did for diamonds!"
Photo: Andrew Hetherington
Whether or not Fipke actually turns out to have an eye for horseflesh, his eye for the characteristics of crystals is unparalleled. He shows me rooms of glass flasks and tubes, the equipment for analyzing all those gravel samples. I peek through a microscope and see a rainbow treasure of sparkling gems: green chrome diopsides and red garnets — the low-calcium, high-chrome G-10s that mean diamonds are nearby.
Over many years in the field and the lab, Fipke has refined his understanding of this unique stew of minerals. "Everyone now knows that G-10 garnets with low calcium might lead you to diamonds, hey," Fipke says. "But how do you distinguish between a Group 1 eclogitic garnet that grew with a diamond and a Group 2 eclogitic garnet that didn't? They look the same." Custom software compares the grains' shapes and chemical compositions, analyzes them against 1,000 minerals that are intergrown with diamonds, and compares them against 10 fields of mineral groupings. If seven to 10 of the fields from one pipe overlap, Fipke says, "there's no doubt; it's full of diamonds. No one else out there can distinguish between these similar tiny particles of minerals that grow with a diamond and ones that don't."
"Look," he says, opening a folder on a table. He has thousands of photos of mineral grains magnified to the size of golf balls. Some are all sharp corners and jagged edges, some rounded. Since erosion and age wear the minerals down, "we can tell when we're getting closer to the source. If the edges are sharp, hey, we know they haven't traveled far from the pipe."
That level of geographic precision has allowed Fipke to stake more claims. He's even working in areas of Brazil where De Beers hasn't been able to turn a profit. "And Angola. Angola has the richest alluvial diamond river in the world," he says, "and there are thousands of diamond works there. But we're looking for the source pipes." Five years ago Fipke started making magnetometer survey flights over the Kwango River. Having identified 100 possible targets, he now has 40 men taking core samples 900 to 1,200 feet under the riverbed. "I'm there at the camp at least three times a year, hey, and it's much harder than in the Arctic. Your drilling equipment just gets buried in enormous piles at customs in Luanda and you can't get it. In the Northwest Territories it was cold, hey, and full of snow, but you get a good parka and you're a bug in a rug. Angola is the most inefficient place on earth!"
I start to ask another question, but Fipke has something else in mind. "I'm hungry, hey," he barks, as the door to the map room slams shut behind us. "Do you like oysters?" But we're not going anywhere: He has locked his keys in the room and has to call someone to drive in and open up his office.
We finally head into town. "Hi, Chuck!" says the hostess, leading us to the back room of a hip Asian fusion place. Around a long table sit 23 young women, all sporting stilettos and big hair. "Chuck!" they shout. We have, it seems, shown up at the bachelorette party for Fipke's granddaughter. The hostess seats us at the next table. Fipke orders four dozen oysters and a bottle of wine that has to be driven to the restaurant from some special cellar, and a young women shimmies into the booth next to Fipke. "Chuck," she says, kissing him on the cheek, "do you think you can pay for us all tonight?"
"Sure," Fipke says, beaming.
"Do you remember this?" says another woman — his daughter, it turns out, who slides in next to him, holding up a purse. "You bought it for me!"
With Fipke suddenly bankrolling the night, the girls break loose, and the restaurant staff starts hauling out the bottles of champagne. Pretty soon a couple of lasses are dancing on the tables, the oysters are slipping down, a second bottle of rare wine is being decanted, and Fipke is remixing the menu like Danny DeVito in Get Shorty.
And the tales spill forth: three week forays into the Peruvian Amazon, travels with the Kalahari Bushmen of Southern Africa, visits to the pygmies of the Ituri forest in the Congo. "I'd just leave my family and go, hey," he says. "I was really into native culture."
Somebody asks him about Brazil, and it reminds him of something important. "Caipirinhas!" he shouts out of the blue. "I want 25 caipirinhas!"
When the bill arrives, it's 3 feet long and $4,000. Fipke pays up, and we spill into the night — his daughter and granddaughter and their friends and now boyfriends, who joined us in the restaurant. On the street, Fipke suddenly leaps into the air and delivers a solid, suede loafer-clad foot to the head of a parking meter. "I fucking hate parking meters, hey!" he shouts. He jumps and kicks another one, and then erupts into a fit of giggles.
We are ushered past the velvet rope at the Cheetah Lounge, Kelowna's classiest strip joint, and Captain Chaos orders another round of caipirinhas for everyone. Three generations of Fipkes pound drinks as naked women dangle upside down from poles onstage.
The room is spinning by the time Fipke takes me aside and lays a big warm hand on my arm. "Hey," he says, "here's the thing. I learned that I did my best. I mean, I really tried my best. How many people can say that? I worked hard, and I mean really hard. I worked seven days a week from 8 am until 3 am. Every day. We drilled and drilled all winter when it was dark and the windchill was 80 below. Everyone thought I was crazy. But most people just never do their best, hey. And I did."Contributing editor Carl Hoffman (email@example.com) wrote about the private space company SpaceX in issue 15.06