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The Historical Allure of Diamonds

The Historical Allure of Diamonds | Map of the world. From Theatre contenant la description de la carte generale de tout le monde, Paris: 1642, by Melchior Tavernier (d. 1641). 45-1198*, Houghton Library, Harvard University | A History of Diamonds

Follow the allure of these remarkable gems across the globe as we investigate the history of diamonds

The Historical Allure of Diamonds

While many people associate diamonds with South Africa, these remarkable gems in fact had a more varied journey of discovery, spanning the known world across centuries, before putting South Africa on the map.  The history of diamond mining and trading in fact began in India around the 4th century B.C., before eventually reaching South Africa and other prominent sources including Botswana, Canada, and Australia, thousands of years later.

Diamonds in India

Diamonds have been used throughout history as talismans and cures for illness, as well as cutting tools, going as far back as the Dark Ages.  However, the first recorded accounts of diamonds being mined for embellishment and trade can be traced to fourth century BC India, where they were extracted along riverbeds and streams for an impressive 1000 years.  During this time, the majority were traded between India and China along Eastern trade routes, including the famous Silk Road. 

Valued for their seemingly indestructible quality and shining appearance, diamonds were reserved for a select few, the royalty of the East.  This is how India remained the source of diamonds for so long – their supply could meet the limited demand. Most Indian mining was carried out along the Krishna River in the kingdom of Golconda. This is where many famous and fabulous diamonds are said to have been discovered, including the Regent Diamond and the infamous Koh-I-Noor Diamond.

For many years, diamonds remained a luxury only the most elite in Indian society could afford.  However, tales of these precious gems began to catch the attention of famous European explorers such as French gem merchant and traveller, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier. He spent a number of years exploring India, and in 1642, acquired a remarkable blue diamond that is also thought to have been found in the Golconda mines. This gem was later cut into the famed and spectacular Hope Diamond  

The European Fascination with Diamonds

Once the desire for diamonds spread to the West, India’s diamond trade expanded to include the aristocracy and upper classes of Europe. Here, diamonds became a desirable and highly sought-after jewel, especially as diamond faceting began to develop and reveal the gem’s sparkle.  The increased trade of diamonds from India to the rest of Europe was greatly influenced by the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama, after discovering the sea route to the Orient around the Cape of Good Hope.

The Koh-i-noor diamond mounted in the centre of the cross pattée on the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother's Crown | A History of Diamonds
The Koh-i-noor diamond mounted in the centre of the cross pattée on the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s Crown.
[Image from Britannica online]
Onlookers take in the display of the Koh-i-noor Diamond Display
“Onlookers take in the display of the Koh-i-noor diamond with two smaller diamonds at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in the Crystal Palace in London. The Koh-i-nor was placed in a covered gilt iron cage that excluded daylight and was illuminated with a ring of gas jets and metal reflectors surrounding it. (Courtesy The Illustrated Exhibitor and other sources)” [From GIA online]

The first diamond engagement ring is thought to have been presented as early as 1477, given to Mary of Burgundy by the Archduke Maximillian of Austria. It was said to have been composed of elongated ‘slices’ of diamond set in the shape of an ‘M’. Interestingly, it was only until much later, in 1947 with a genius advertising campaign by De Beers, that diamonds became the quintessential gem for engagement rings.

The Birth of Diamond Cutting

Diamond cutting originated in royalty-owned Golconda, India, a then major centre whose name took on the meaning “a place of great wealth” amongst Europeans.  However as more diamonds flooded the European market and demand increased further, the diamond cutting industry was born in Venice. From there, the industry stretched to Burges, Paris, and later to major cutting centre Antwerp.  Here cutting technology and styles developed further, and over centuries the unsurpassed brilliance and fire of diamonds was slowly revealed.

From India to Brazil

Although it was widely believed that India was the only source of diamonds for centuries, their monopoly over these alluring gems eventually declined as their supplies began to dwindle.  Focus then turned across the globe when, in 1725, a bright light shone over Brazil with the discovery of a new diamond deposit. This light continued to shine for over 150 years. However, as the ruling classes – the biggest market for diamonds until this time – began to decline, affluence had spread to the greater middle class and demand grew yet again; this meant that by the 1800s the small deposit in Brazil couldn’t keep up.

The Modern History of Diamonds

This is about the time where “the modern history of diamonds” began, with the discovery of the first South African diamond deposits and subsequent diamond rush. This discovery shaped the future of diamonds, how they are still perceived today and secured South Africa’s position as a primary producer of these precious gems.

Discovery

In 1866, a young man named Erasmus Jacobs discovered the Eureka Diamond while exploring the banks of the Orange River near Hopetown. Thinking he discovered nothing more than a transparent pebble that had blinked at him from the water, the diamond passed from Erasmus to his little sister, then to their mother. Schalk van Niekerk, their neighbour, was a collector of gems and suspected the pebble might be of some value.  He offered to purchase it from the Jacobs family, who having no idea of its worth, simply gifted it to him. Schalk van Niekerk then had the stone examined by Lorenzo Boyes, a civil commissioner in Colesberg, who discovered it could scratch glass. It was then sent on to an amateur gemmologist who promptly pronounced it to be a 21.25 carat diamond. Soon after, farmers began in earnest to start looking for these valuable gems which they called “blink klippe”, meaning shiny stones.

The Diamond Rush

The next and most significant diamond discovery in South Africa was the Star of Africa, or the Dudley Diamond, weighing 47.9 carats (not to be confused for the Cullinan Diamond, also referred to as The Great Star of Africa). This diamond was discovered by a humble shepherd boy along the banks of the Orange River in 1869. The boy sold the diamond for what he deemed to be an exceptionally good price, to none other than Schalk van Niekerk. Although the shepherd boy could never have guessed how great his role in the history of diamonds would be, it would be his discovery that truly triggered the Great Diamond Rush and the huge influx of prospectors to this new unprecedented diamond field, now known as Kimberley.  Kimberley itself was created after many diamond mines were connected to make the town, and was considered one of the most important diamond areas in the world due to its large diamond pipes.

The Dudley Diamond Image From kimberly.org.za | A History of Diamonds
The Dudley Diamond [image from: https://www.kimberley.org.za]

By 1875, thousands of diggers had gathered in Kimberley, which was now producing 95% of the world’s diamonds.  With this massive increase in supply, the diamond industry experienced its first major shift, with diamonds now no longer as rare but rather available to anyone who could afford them.  The diamond jewellery industry flourished. By 1880, Englishman Cecil John Rhodes formed De Beers Consolidated Mines to regulate and control the diamond supply.

In 1902 The Premier Mine, later renamed The Cullinan Mine, was founded by former bricklayer-turned-prospector Thomas Cullinan. He was later knighted for his contributions to industrial development, and became known as Sir Thomas Cullinan.  During World War I, this mine was eventually absorbed into De Beers.

In 1905 it shot to celebrity status when the Cullinan Diamond, the largest rough diamond found to date, was discovered here. The Cullinan Diamond weighed over 3,106 carats and is near colourless. This unbelievable gem was cut into 105 assorted diamonds by Joseph Asscher of Amsterdam and his company, famed diamond cutter and namesake of the Asscher cut diamond. Many of these assorted stones, including a collection of small unpolished diamonds, are now owned by Queen Elizabeth II.

Aerial view of the Premier Mine, South Africa, where the Cullinan diamond was discovered | A History of Diamonds
Aerial view of the Premier Mine, South Africa, where the Cullinan diamond was discovered
image source: Wikimedia Commons
The Historical Allure of Diamonds | A history of diamonds: the pieces obtained from the Cullinan Diamond . 
Image source: user chris73 Wikimedia Commans
The pieces obtained from the Cullinan Diamond rough; top left The Great Star of Africa
image source: user Chris 73 Wikimedia Commons

The Cullinan Mine, also the only noteworthy source of blue diamonds in the world, has produced more than a quarter of all the world’s diamonds weighing over 400 carats. Notable discoveries other than the Cullinan Diamond include The De Beer’s Centenary at 275 carats and the Golden Jubilee Diamond at 755 carats. The Cullinan Mine holds much of the responsibility for South African significance in the history of diamonds.

From this point demand for diamonds fluctuated drastically, through World War 1 to 1932, when the diamond demand was so depressed that mining operations actually ceased at one point.  De Beers Mines went on to experience many difficulties during both World Wars and along with the Great Depression, diamonds began to lose most of their lustre.  

In 1947 however, a genius timeless slogan ignited the popularity of the diamond engagement ring and ushered in a new era of diamond purchasing. “A Diamond Is Forever” was coined by Frances Gerety, a young copywriter hired by De Beers, and is still considered one of the greatest achievements in 20th-century marketing. Many credit Frances as one of the greatest influences on the re-birth of diamonds and the demand for them, especially for diamond engagement rings.

The Historical Allure of Diamonds 1
Token of Love, 1950’s De Beers Advert

Image source: Forevermark, De Beers Group

Between the 1980’s and the present day, many new and exciting strides have been made in the diamond industry. De Beers no longer controls the market as sole custodians and diamonds now flow freely through numerous channels. As advances in various sciences were made, scientists were able to understand how diamonds are formed and how they reach the earth’s surface.  Diamonds were found to be incredibly ancient – all diamonds dated so far were formed before the extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago, and the oldest dated diamonds are 3.5-3.3 billion years old! 

Because these gems remain one of the hardest substances on earth, industrial diamonds, also known as non-gem quality, play a vital role in many different industries, including metalworking and mining. The majority of 21st century diamonds are supplied by Russia and the Congo.

In 1982, the Jwaneng mine in Botswana opened and became a famous source of high-quality diamonds, now third in the world for total diamond recovery. 2015 saw the discovery of the Lesedi La Rona, the world’s third-largest gem-quality diamond, found in the Karowe Mine of Botswana.  Other major producers include the Argyle mine of Australia (famous for pink diamonds) and Canada.

In all this history, we would be remiss not to mention two major developments.  First, the 1919 invention of the modern brilliant cut by Marcel Tolkowsky, which to this day is the most popular cutting style used in diamond engagement rings, pendants, earrings, and more.   This cut design is composed of 57 facets (58 if you count the culet), all mathematically perfected to bring out the most brilliance and fire in a diamond.  Since India’s first cut diamonds thousands of years ago, India has now once again become a major centre for diamond cutting, with a majority percentage of the world’s cut diamonds produced in Surat.

Second, the formation of the Gemmological Institute of America in 1939, and the profound effect this had on the diamond industry. The mission of the GIA to protect all buyers and sellers of gemstones by setting and maintaining the standards used to grade gems is still in effect today. In 1953, the GIA developed an international diamond grading system which is still considered the most trustworthy and authoritative to this day. This is due to the scientific laboratory methods used to objectively grade gemstones. This International Grading System was named The Four C’s.  Due to their strict standards, diamonds graded and certified by the GIA are considered worth more than those without this certification, which is a high selling point within the diamond jewellery industry.

The splendour of diamonds has consistently dazzled the human soul throughout history and remains one of the most desirable gems around the world today. When wearing a diamond, you are not only wearing a wonder of aesthetic beauty, but also a piece of history older than recorded time.

If you’re up for a little game to test your newfound diamond knowledge, try out this quiz from the Cape Town Diamond Museum.

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