Week after week, month after month, three young Italian prospectors methodically paddled up & down the swift tributaries of the Caroní River. Their leader, a geologist, was convinced that diamonds were to be found where the streams cut through the jungle-swathed sandstone edges of the Gran Sabana plateaus along Venezuela's remote Brazilian frontier.

One day last January, the weary, ragged prospectors stopped where the Avequí River cuts over the mountain's edge. One of the men tossed a few shovels of river sand on his suruku (three-screened pan). He spun and twisted it, then turned over the screens and looked. The...

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