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A moment with 'the father of Australian diamonds'

Geologist Ewen Tyler AM discovered all three of Australia’s diamond mines – Argyle and Ellendale in Western Australia, and Merlin in the Northern Territory.
During the 1960s,
During the 1960s, '70s and '80s, Ewen Tyler established Australia's fledgling diamond industry

Acting against conventional wisdom, Tyler spent the better part of a decade searching Australia’s vast interior for diamond-bearing kimberlites (ancient volcano ‘pipelines’ filled with diamonds) where none had looked before.

On the verge of having his funding withdrawn, Tyler’s team finally found a diamond in a rock sample – but the journey was only beginning. Here, he reflects on the miraculous Argyle story and predicts the future of diamonds in Australia.

How does it feel to look back on the life cycle Argyle project?

It’s been a life’s journey. I started the search in 1969 and we found Argyle in 1979. We constructed the mine and brought it to production. At one stage it was producing 40 per cent of the world’s natural diamonds.

They might not have been top quality, but nevertheless, we had 10 times more diamonds in a tonne of rock than the average, so we were laughing really!

I retired from Ashton Mining in 1990, though I kept an involvement with Argyle until 2002. It was a very, very exciting time – a once-in-a- lifetime affair. And really, from my 45th birthday when we found the first diamond, my life has never been quite the same.

I’ve become known as the ‘father of The Australian diamond industry’, which is nonsense in one sense – but it’s right in another sense. Without me starting it, it wouldn’t have gone anywhere!

What is your fondest memory from the project?

I think the fondest memory is the discovery of the first diamond, on the evening of my 45th birthday in 1973. It was nowhere near Argyle but it represented a milestone in exploration. We had not had any confirmation that there were any diamonds in the Kimberley.

There had been rumours – one story was that there was a chap in the 19th Century who had taken some diamonds to show an abbott at a monastery – but there was nothing on paper that told me that diamonds had ever been found in the Kimberley before.

We’d found a few pieces of chrome diopside a few months before, but to actually find a sample not only with indicator minerals, but a diamond in it, showed we were on the right track. It took us a long time though – it was six years before we stood on the Argyle site.

The other great day was when we crushed the first tonne of ore. I sent a case of Champagne to the engineering team!

Did you ever have any doubts, or any moments when it seemed like it might have all ended?

If we hadn’t found the diamond on my birthday, I was expecting to be chucked out of Tanganyika Holdings the following Christmas. I’d more or less got my marching orders.

The money was going to dry up; they were more interested in doing something in the North Sea than continuing to back me. That was the first major hurdle – and there were a lot of hurdles.

There was another when people said, “It’s no good buying Australian diamonds – they will all explode if you put them on the polishing wheel.” The press were very unkind to us. If you can’t sell your product and everyone is against you, it’s hard to keep up enthusiasm.

There were lots of government problems too; when we first established the project and were showing alluvial diamonds, the West Australian government was of the opinion they were worth twice as much as they were, so we paid a very substantial royalty.

The government also tried to tell us we couldn’t do fly-in-fly-out, saying it would cost us $50 million to avoid building a town at the mine.

We could have walked then.

When was the first pink stone found at Argyle?

It was something that came out of the alluvial production, before we began mining. Bill Leslie [legal representative in the early years of the project] claims to have one of the first pink diamonds from Argyle but it was not something that we recorded because pinks were a very, very small percentage of the diamonds.

Talking about the pinks made people aware that we had a mine, and we only showed them once per year. While it wasn’t part of the equation at the start, the pink diamonds have created the market and awareness of the Argyle Mine itself.

What do you think about the future of diamond mining in Australia?

I am absolutely convinced there are more diamonds. In fact, I’m a participant in the continuing diamond discovery about 600km south of Argyle. The first diamond mine we discovered was Ellendale; though we didn’t mine it, others found there was a market for Ellendale yellow diamonds.

It’s the same at Merlin in the Northern Territory – another mine we discovered, and mined for a period. It has been shut down but I think there is some stirring to see if it can be brought back.

Is there any chance more pink diamonds will be found in Australia?

I think there are, and I’m looking for more! We’ve got signs of them occurring all around Merlin, some signs around Ellendale, but not much around Argyle.

As a nation, I believe that we’ve got to keep exploring. It’s the nature of this continent; we started off with gold – Melbourne wouldn’t exist without the 1850 Gold Rush. It’s more about finding people who are willing to join this lunatic search! As they say, people who look for diamonds have rocks in their heads – but it’s a lot of fun.

Location of the only three diamond mines locations in Australia. The Argyle Diamond Mine closed in 2020.
Location of the only three diamond mines locations in Australia. The Argyle Diamond Mine closed in 2020.

» Read Ewen Tyler's account of the diamond discoveries: Mines and tribulations: Searching for Aussie diamond mines


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