De Beers, the world's largest diamond miner by value, is pushing further into China this year, opening at least six new retail stores in the country through its joint venture with luxury conglomerate LVMH , to cash in on sparkling demand.

De Beers' retail venture opened its first outlet in mainland China last year as the group, along the rest of the sector, makes the most of Asia's voracious appetite for luxury.

The United States is still the world's largest diamond jewellery consumer, but by 2015 it will be overtaken by China, India and the Gulf, opening a huge potential market.

We are looking at expanding our shops in continental China big time in 2012, De Beers Chief Executive Philippe Mellier said at the Reuters Mining & Metals Summit. We are growing the business where the biggest growth is - in Asia.

Mellier said the retail venture with LVMH, De Beers Diamond Jewellers, was also refurbishing flagship stores in London's luxury quarter and on New York's Fifth Avenue to attract wealthy Chinese buyers travelling abroad and snapping up branded goods.

Diamonds had a roller coaster year in 2011, with a promising start making way for a steep drop in prices as markets unravelled over the summer months, despite the dearth of new mines, low inventories and rising demand in Asia.

Over the year, however, the price of diamonds sold by De Beers' Diamond Trading Co was still up 29 percent.

The diamond producer expected a more stable year in 2012, with an improvement in the second half after a slow start due to inventories built up by buyers when prices weakened.

Mellier said he was cautiously optimistic.

We said at the end of last year that demand was going to stabilise before rebounding and this is what we are looking at today. We are seeing a lot of stability in the marketplace, which is an encouraging sign for the next few months, he said.

The second half of the year is going to be pretty good, he added, with the United States robust and China expected to continue growing strongly, albeit a slower pace than in 2011.

De Beers, soon to be majority-owned by miner Anglo American Plc , is currently working on a strategic review and said the results of that process could be available mid-year.

DIAMOND DEALS

The diamond industry has seen a flurry of sale and listing activity in recent months, paving the way for deals and new arrivals that could transform the shape of the sector.

Global miner Rio Tinto Plc on Tuesday followed rival BHP Billiton Ltd , announcing it could back away from the diamond business.

Rio's diamond arm, on its books for $1.2 billion, includes the 100 percent-owned Argyle mine in Australia, famous for its pink diamonds, as well as 60 percent-owned Diavik mine in Canada and 78 percent-owned Murowa mine in Zimbabwe.

We can always look at good opportunities. It is very early and even if we were to look, we would keep it to ourselves, Mellier said.

De Beers operates in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, but also in Canada - home to BHP's EKATI mine and Rio's Diavik, and potentially a key area for diamond exploration - with the Snap Lake and Victor mines.

BHP's mine has attracted interest from smaller diamond miners, the jewellery industry and even private equity, but Mellier said De Beers did not fear competition from new players.

I know what competition looks like, said Mellier, an engineer with a background in cars and trains who became the first outsider to take the top job at De Beers last year.

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(Editing by Andrew Callus and Andre Grenon)