There is nothing intrinsically valuable about diamonds. The fact that we think of them as precious is mostly thanks to South Africa's Oppenheimer dynasty. It is they who, with a bit of help from an American advertising man, sprinkled the rocks with romance and convinced the world that diamonds are forever.
Which is exactly why the family's exit from the diamond industry is all the more surprising. Africa's second-richest family, after Nigerian food and cement tycoon Aliko Dangote, sold their 40 percent stake in De Beers to Anglo American this month for $5.1 billion (3.26 billion pounds).
The decision means the dynasty involved in South Africa's diamond industry for a century, is finally getting out of the business.
"It was an extraordinarily emotional and difficult thing for us. I think also difficult because the family have been in diamonds since my grandfather came to South Africa in 1902," current De Beers chairman Nicky Oppenheimer told Reuters.
But stung by the global financial crisis and wrestling with family discord over the direction their investments should take, the Oppenheimers have sold out to preserve their fortune.
The family insist they still take decisions as one and say they plan to invest "a large part" of the proceeds in Africa. One banker familiar with the matter said the family was already in talks to start another joint-venture private equity fund, similar to the $300 million fund set up with Singapore's Temasek Holdings in August.
The odds are good that a big chunk of the $5.1 billion will be reinvested in Africa. Over the past four years the family's investment arm E. Oppenheimer & Son has begun concentrating more on African investments outside the diamond industry -- healthcare, agriculture, media, retail -- at the instigation of heir-to-be Jonathan Oppenheimer. The family will maintain a stake of just under two percent in Anglo American as well as other investments such as a private equity business investing in mid-sized South African companies.
Wealth under pressure
Headed by Nicky Oppenheimer, the clan is South Africa's equivalent of the Rockefellers. The family mansion in Johannesburg -- the gardens are open to the public and require the services of 45 gardeners -- has housed generation after generation since 1922.
Critics say the Oppenheimers benefited under apartheid but Harry Oppenheimer, who was De Beers' chairman for 27 years, was hated by many in the white political elite and ordinary Afrikaners, not least because he supported the creation of black trade unions, provided housing for black employees and encouraged education.
When former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan made his "Winds of Change" speech in South Africa's whites-only parliament in 1960, drawing the wrath of the apartheid government, he was a guest at the Oppenheimer home.
Article continues on page two and three: family strife, existential worries, a bloody succession battle and the next chapter in the Oppenheimer saga...