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Hunting for more in Canada's diamond fields

Kelowna, B.C., is a long way from any diamond mine, but it's home to a lot of diamond millionaires.

A disproportionate number of the city's residents got rich 20 years ago when Dia Met Minerals discovered what later became the Ekati mine, then the greatest diamond discovery ever in Canada.

One of the city's diamond millionaires, and the connection between Ekati and Kelowna, is Chuck Fipke, the legendary geologist who led the team that found Ekati.

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Another key player in the discovery also calls Kelowna home. Ed Schiller was a director of Dia Met and drilled the first hole that discovered the kimberlite that housed the gems that created the wealth.

Mr. Schiller now spends his time growing wine grapes and dabbling in business. Fortune seems to follow him around. He was most recently involved in Athabasca Potash, which was bought by BHP Billiton for $340-million in March. But he's obsessed with diamonds - and particularly with finding them.

Mr. Schiller, who earned his PhD in geology, knows pretty much everything about the Canadian diamond exploration game.

He can tell you what all the players are up to, how their projects compare, where (in his opinion) the best odds are, and who has a shot at making it.

The path to finding a mine is paved with disappointment. You might get lucky and stumble on encouraging outcroppings. You might get luckier and find indicator minerals and geophysical anomalies. You might even find a kimberlite.

Our conversation came as investors, miners and northern governments start facing the realization that the diamond mines are rapidly running out of reserves. The Lac de Gras region in the Northwest Territories, home to both Ekati and Diavik, has given up a lot of stones over the past two decades, and the wealth that comes with them. But the pickings are getting slim.

Harry Winston's CEO Bob Gannicott likens it to eating beef. "We've already had the T-bone steak and we've already had the prime rib roast. We now have to move on to the hamburger and the chuck steak," he told The Globe and Mail in April.

And while lots of money has been spent looking for more diamonds in the area, no economic discoveries have been found.

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Yet Mr. Schiller is convinced that the diamond game isn't finished. The Canadian Shield, he reckons, has more riches to relinquish.

"I think we'll find at least four or five more mines in this country," he says. His belief is the result of endless and continuing scrutiny of exploration results, geological breakthroughs and experience, which he explains in excruciating detail for the layman.

It's also based on simple reasoning: the Canadian Shield is huge and we've only been looking for diamonds in earnest for a quarter-century. And we've developed the skills to find them.

The path to finding a mine, though, is paved with disappointment. You might get lucky and stumble on encouraging outcroppings. You might get luckier and find indicator minerals and geophysical anomalies. You might even find a kimberlite.

If the gods really smile on you, the kimberlite might bear diamonds. And if you're blessed they'll be economical to mine and you'll make a lot of money.

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But it's a tough game. That fateful first hole at Ekati found diamonds, and quadrupled the stock price. But those results proved uneconomic. Subsequent drilling proved up the reserve.

"Finding a mine is tough," Mr. Schiller says.

But it's not impossible. Mr. Schiller is a director of Diadem Resources, which is scrounging for stones a few hundred kilometres northwest of Lac de Gras. He's coy about why he chose Diadem. He describes its property as "interesting" without elaborating.

But he's still bullish on the prospects of new mines in Canada. "The geology suits itself to it and there's still a lot of exploration to do."

Given that geology, and how little time has passed since diamonds were first discovered, he figures that there are more treasures lurking in the hard rock. There are a handful of companies looking in earnest for that treasure besides Diadem - Peregrine Diamonds, Stornoway Diamond, Shore Gold and Shear Minerals to name a few - with varying degrees of success so far.

That's good news for the North, whose economy is already rapidly deteriorating as the diamonds become scarce. And it's good news for investors brave enough to take the sizable risk. They may want to keep a close eye on what Mr. Shiller is up to. Finding a mine is hard. But can you get lucky twice?

"Yes," Mr. Schiller says. "I think you can."

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About the Author
Investment Columnist

Fabrice Taylor, CFA, publishes the President’s Club investment letter, for which he and The Globe and Mail have a distribution agreement. More

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