- DONE WITH DIAMONDS: Author Tom Zoellner.
If you grew up in Arkansas, chances are you know that diamonds are one of the Natural State’s claims to fame. Discovered by hog farmer John Wesley Huddleston in 1906 on his spread near Murfreesboro — land that just happened to lie over an ancient volcano pipe — the field has produced some giant sparklers over the years. It has also become a significant part of the state’s cultural identity, making appearances on the state flag and the Arkansas commemorative quarter.
Still, if we’ve got America’s only diamond mine, why isn’t somebody digging them up for a handsome profit?
That’s one of the questions former reporter and author Tom Zoellner tries to answer in his new book, “The Heartless Stone: A Journey Through the World of Diamonds, Deceit and Desire.” Focusing on the often-bloody international diamond trade, a significant portion of the book explores the discovery of the Arkansas diamond deposit, subsequent attempts to profit from it, and a series of unlikely mishaps and catastrophes which led to the failure of diamond mining in the state. The result is a Dust Bowl whodunit, full of backwoods characters, shady businessmen, and backroom deals. It all adds up to what Zoellner sees as a concerted effort by diamond mining colossus DeBeers to sabotage the state’s chances of becoming a major diamond supplier.
A former newspaper reporter, Zoellner spent a year and a half working on the book, going as far afield as the Central African Republic. He said that the diamond trade interested him because of the opaqueness of the industry. He said that over the last hundred years, the DeBeers corporation had systematically cloaked the diamond in an aura of rarity and desirability.
“It’s essentially a worthless product which has nonetheless been imbued with this fantastic mythology that makes us think that they’re something that they’re not,” Zoellner said. “Without artificial scarcity and without that fantastic narrative, diamonds would be dead. They’d be nothing more than a worthless rock.”
Part of that, Zoellner said, is DeBeers’ strategy of carefully controlling production and only allowing a very calculated number of stones to “trickle out” onto the market every year. That strategy was put into jeopardy in 1906, when Huddleston’s Arkansas farm was found to contain the only store of natural diamonds that DeBeers couldn’t manipulate, withhold or otherwise control. Had a commercial mining operation successfully tapped Arkansas’s diamonds, “the result would have been a nightmare for DeBeers,” Zoellner said.
The result was what Zoellner sees as a concerted effort by outside parties, bent on making sure diamond mining in Arkansas would never be profitable. As detailed in Zoellner’s book, attempts to mine the Arkansas diamond pipe throughout the ’teens and ’20s were met with a mysterious series of arsons, near-miss shootings at employees from the nearby woods, and double-dealing mine executives who later accepted lucrative jobs from DeBeers-associated firms.
“This is one of the great conspiracy theories in Arkansas history,” Zoellner said. “There is a lot of evidence that points toward sabotage at Murfreesboro. There’s no smoking gun, but a pattern of events does seem to indicate that commercial mining at the diamond pipe … was taken out deliberately.” Zoellner said it adds up to a “strong, circumstantial case” for sabotage, with the evidence pointing strongly toward DeBeers and its supporters as the culprits.
Zoellner said that the promise of profitable diamond mining was once a source of great hope for Arkansas, so much so that the diamond was included on the state flag when it was redesigned in 1913. While he sees the failure of diamond mining in the 1920s as an intriguing conspiracy, he added that the evidence he has found doesn’t point to an ongoing plot to keep the diamond pipe a state park instead of allowing commercial diamond mining there.
As part of a nationwide book tour, Zoellner will speak at the Crater of Diamonds State Park near Murfreesboro at 7 p.m. Saturday, July 15. Don’t expect to see him kicking over a few clods beforehand in search of one of our famous sparklers, however. After spending a year and a half researching the darkest flaws in the world’s most valued gem, Zoellner has had his fill of carats.
“I have zero interest in diamonds,” he said. “I’m done with them as an object.”