DIAMOND GEEZER; A Rugby-Loving Welshman, Who Became a Billionaire Diamond Hunter, Has Been Honoured as One of Canada's Greatest Ever Explorers. ROBIN TURNER and GAVIN O'CONNOR Report on a Modern-Day Boy's Own Adventure

Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales), March 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

DIAMOND GEEZER; A Rugby-Loving Welshman, Who Became a Billionaire Diamond Hunter, Has Been Honoured as One of Canada's Greatest Ever Explorers. ROBIN TURNER and GAVIN O'CONNOR Report on a Modern-Day Boy's Own Adventure


Byline: ROBIN TURNER and GAVIN O'CONNOR

BORN in one of Swansea's most crowded housing estates, the story of 67-year-old Gren Thomas reads like a comic book story of adventure, excitement and self-improvement.

A major sponsor of Canada's national rugby team, he has just been inducted into Canada's Mining Hall of Fame.

Now living in Canada's "millionaire's retreat" of West Vancouver, he occasionally pops into the Red Lion pub he had built - an exact replica of the Red Lion in Morriston, Swansea, which his great-grandmother used to run.

And the story of his daughter Eira, who literally followed in her pioneering father's footsteps across the snowy tundra of Canada's North West Territories, is a Girl's Own tale of reaching the top in what was once a man's world.

Dubbed "the Queen of Diamonds", with her sled dog Thor and defying killer bears and bone-chilling -40degC winds in remote territory made famous by TV's Ice Road Truckers, she helped her father discover the lucrative Diavik diamond mine.

Millionairess Eira (Welsh for snow) is married to an artist who called in for a drink at the Red Lion.

The father and daughter's heroic dual exploration has helped propel Canada above former gem capital South Africa as a diamond producer. Just 20 years ago the country produced no diamonds at all.

As Gren Thomas stepped up to the podium earlier this month at Toronto's luxury Royal York Hotel alongside fellow Hall of Fame inductees like geologist Donald "Digger" Gorman and uranium producer Bernard Michel, he could only have been thinking of his humble beginnings.

At the time he was born in 1941, air-raid sirens were whining and searchlights were desperately seeking German bombers over the war torn skies of Swansea.

The city's vast docks and metal-working history made it a major target and Clase, where Gren grew up in a terraced house (now overshadowed by the DVLA built in the 1960s), was close to the city centre which took the brunt of the Luftwaffe's pummelling.

As he grew older, he loved calling into his grandmother's busy pub, The Red Lion Hotel, but crucially devoted a lot of his time to studying geology.

He won a place at Cardiff University and in 1964 graduated with a degree in mining engineering.

He could have been expected to work at any number of Welsh coal pits.

Instead, he tried seeking his fortune in Canada.

Gren told Wales on Sunday: "It was a summer job I had set aside and I had never known anything else other than coal mining."

After an apprenticeship at tough nickel mines in Falconbridge, Sudbury, Ontario and then at the Giant Mines in Yellowknife in Canada's North West Territories, he decided to strike out on his own.

He founded the Toronto-based Aber Diamond Corporation (named after Abertawe, Swansea).

With survival gear and arctic we at her resistant tents, he headed to the permafrost of Canada's deadly tundra, inhabited by caribou, musk ox, bears and miles and miles of snow.

With him was his daughter Eira, who by this time was a frontline geologist.

Just as Gren evaded the German bombers in the 1940s, the pair survived bears, ice storms and deadly crevasses in their determined search for signs of elusive Canadian diamonds.

In the mid-1990s, they struck it rich by discovering the huge Diavik diamond mine.

After a series of wise trading moves which made Gren one of the wealthiest men in Canada, the mine is now owned by the glamorous Harry Winston Diamond chain plus Rio Tinto Plc.

It churns out eight million carats a year - worth an estimated pounds 440m - and has helped Canada be come the world's number three diamond producer behind Botswana and Russia.

After a successful career in the diamond industry, in which he is still involved through Strong bow Exploration and North Arrow Minerals, Gren now lives in "a sizeable house" in West Vancouver, where some homes change hands for pounds 20m. …

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DIAMOND GEEZER; A Rugby-Loving Welshman, Who Became a Billionaire Diamond Hunter, Has Been Honoured as One of Canada's Greatest Ever Explorers. ROBIN TURNER and GAVIN O'CONNOR Report on a Modern-Day Boy's Own Adventure
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