By Dr Emrys Chew

Diamond is probably the best known of all gemstones, unsurpassed for its hardness, fire and brilliance. Known as the ‘king of gems,’ its history is long and extensive. Valued for an extraordinary ability to refract light, the ancients held that diamonds were splinters of stars fallen to earth, the tears of the gods, or hardened dewdrops formed during a rare conjunction of the planets at dawn. But as the hardest mineral on earth, diamonds were used as tools long before they were cut as jewels. According to the Liezi, a Chinese text from the fourth century BCE, craftsmen in the ancient world would mount a diamond at the tip of an iron tool called a burin, using this instrument to engrave cameos and carve ornaments. An ancient Sanskrit manuscript records that diamonds, subject to customs duties and tax, were a major source of state revenue over 2,000 years ago. Some of the great individual pieces acquired legendary status beyond ordinary commercial values: when the gem known as the Koh-i-Noor (or ‘Mountain of Light’) was presented to the Mughal emperor Babur in 1526, its value was set at ‘one day of the whole world’s expenditure’. At the other end of the spectrum were humbler diamond tools in the hands of traditional artisans, to which the intricate marble designs of the Taj Mahal would eventually owe their existence.

In the realm of gemstones, diamond is the only one to be composed of a single chemical element. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that diamond, like graphite and charcoal, is a form of carbon. Graphite, which has a hardness of 1 to 2 on the Mohs scale, consists of weakly bonded sheets of carbon atoms, while charcoal is non-crystalline; both are dull and black. But diamond is the hardest of all natural minerals, achieving the maximum rating of 10 on Mohs’ scale; this supreme hardness coupled with superlative lustre and dispersion when faceted, give diamond the lasting fire and brilliance for which it is prized. Diamond crystallizes in the cubic system at enormous pressures and temperatures; and its crystal structure—where the bonding between carbon atoms is immensely strong and uniform—gives rise to its exceptional properties. Formed within the earth’s crust at depths of up to 180 kilometres, diamonds were then incorporated into kimberlite or lamprolite magmas, which brought their precious cargo to the surface in a series of volcanic eruptions over a timespan exceeding 1,000 million years. From volcanic pipes or river gravels, it would take a further 250 tons of ore to find a single crystal capable of yielding a one-carat polished stone; and only one in a thousand diamonds weighs over one carat. Diamonds in nature may be transparent, translucent or opaque; and stones range from colourless to black. Most are filled with inclusions and faintly tinged with other colours due to impurities incorporated during the formation of the crystal. The most common impurity, nitrogen, produces yellow and brown diamonds; irradiation produces green diamonds; and traces of boron produce blue diamonds. The most valuable and collectible stones are those that are flawless or clear, and are either naturally colourless or so-called ‘fancies’—stones possessing distinct body colour, such as caviar, champagne, cognac, canary-yellow, amber-orange, green, blue, purple, pink, and red, the rarest of all. In view of these remarkable properties and the violent circumstances surrounding the birth of such a rare natural treasure, it is little wonder that the word ‘diamond’ should derive from the Greek adamas (Latin, diamas) meaning ‘unconquerable’. The descriptive name adamas, probably used to characterize hard metals and stones, was first applied to diamonds by the Roman poet Manilius, and occurs in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History as early as the first century. Having said that, even diamonds are not indestructible. While being virtually impervious to scratches, diamond has a perfect cleavage, the natural tendency of a crystal to break along a certain plane. A forceful blow may still chip or cleave the stone, and it is this that enables diamond to be cut and faceted.

Nonetheless, unique in blending this aura of adamantine strength with prismatic brilliance and rarity, diamonds were invested with spiritual and mystical significance as well as social and ceremonial functions. The ancient Hindus believed that offering a diamond to Krishna was a guarantee of eternal life in the highest heaven. Buddhists used the diamond as a symbol of spiritual balance, peace of mind, clarity of thought and unlimited insight. The ancient Greeks believed that diamond talismans would repel evil spirits and guard against poison, intrigues, lunacy and sorcery. In Arab folk medicine, the diamond was thought to cure the ills of body and mind. In earliest times, they were reserved primarily for male adornment: diamonds worn as talismans were meant to render the wearers invincible in battle; their scarcity meant they were usually the preserve of kings and noblemen, worn as badges of rank. The Greeks also believed that the fire in the heart of the stones reflected the constant flame of love. Yet it was only from the later Middle Ages that diamonds were given to women as love tokens, when it was held that the diamond’s purity symbolized feminine virtue. In 1477, the Archduke Maximilian of Austria presented a gold ring set with a large diamond as a betrothal gift to Princess Mary of Burgundy, thus starting the tradition of exchanging diamonds as tokens of eternal love. From the early modern period, a shift in cultural perceptions began to take place, with more attention being paid to the worth of diamonds, rather than the mystical powers attributed to them. Due to heightened public awareness of their value, mine owners perpetuated myths that diamonds were poisonous, ostensibly to discourage mineworkers from swallowing diamonds in an attempt to smuggle them out.

Historically, diamonds have been sourced from all over the world. However, those described in ancient texts probably originated in India, where diamonds were first thought to have been found in the twelfth century BCE. Alexander the Great reportedly knew about the diamonds of India. Arab traders, who were the first to use the carat as a unit of measurement, would later prove instrumental in developing this Indo-European diamond trade; it is from these long-established Indian Ocean trading networks that the written accounts of European diamond merchants would later emerge. The most important source was an extensive mining area near Hyderabad known as Golconda, which served as the commercial centre for the diggings as well as the site of the first primitive diamond cutting. The first European to describe the scene at Golconda (1565) was Gaveia de Orta, physician to the Portuguese Viceroy of Goa. But for more detailed narrative we must refer to the famous French jeweller and traveller, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605-89), whose Six Voyages (published in 1681) remains a mine of information on the early production and trading of diamonds, with drawings and descriptions of some of the legendary Indian stones. Although diamond output at Golconda declined sharply by the end of the seventeenth century, its legacy lives on in what would become the 105.6-carat Koh-i-Noor; the 189.6-carat Orlov; the 140.5-carat Regent; the 2.3-carat Red Raj; the 40.7-carat Dresden Green; and the blue 45.52-carat Hope diamond. Even now, the term ‘Golconda’ still describes a type of diamond peculiar to India, one of unusual limpidity—what Tavernier called ‘first-class water’—generally colourless but with an occasional bluish tint.

As the Indian diamond supply dwindled, smaller finds occurred at Kalimantan in Borneo and Minas Gerais in Brazil (around 1725). But these were not sufficient to meet the ever-growing demand. Once the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama had opened a direct sea route between Europe and India in 1498, Antwerp became the European centre of the diamond-processing industry. Diamond-cutting technology became more sophisticated and diamond-faceting and polishing techniques increasingly refined. Whereas earlier diamond cutters had sought to maintain the size of a stone, choosing weight at the expense of brilliance, the development of mathematically-devised brilliant cuts from the seventeenth century now began to display the fire and beauty of the stones to their full advantage, making diamonds more popular than ever. In 1867, the discovery of diamonds near the Orange River in South Africa sparked off the world’s biggest diamond rush. Production from the De Beers, Kimberley, Premier and other Southern African mines soon helped to satiate the world’s massive appetite for diamonds. From these mines, we have also witnessed a number of exceptional stones, including the 3,106-carat Cullinan (which in turn yielded nine major pieces, including the two ‘Stars of Africa’ in the British crown jewels); the canary-yellow 128.51-carat Tiffany; the 273.85-carat Centenary; the 203-carat Millennium Star; and the amber-tinted 545.67-carat Golden Jubilee diamond (currently the world’s largest faceted diamond). During the mid-nineteenth century, diamonds were also discovered in eastern Australia. But it was not until 1979 that geologists unearthed the Argyle pipe near Lake Argyle, potentially the richest diamond deposit in the world. Today, the Argyle mine alone is responsible for supplying over one-third of the world’s annual diamond production. This includes nearly all the pink diamonds available and a host of other naturally coloured specimens, some commanding prices in excess of $1million. But finally, since 80 per cent of the diamonds consumed worldwide are earmarked for industrial use, it is worth noting that Australia is also the largest supplier of industrial-grade diamond.

Further Reading

Primary Sources:

  1. Liezi, The book of Lieh-tzu: a classic of the Tao, originally written in the 4th century BCE, trans. A. C. Graham (London, 1991).
  2. Ma Huan, Ying-Yai Sheng-Lan: The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores (1433), trans. J. V. G. Mills (Cambridge, 1970).
  3. Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo, trans. Teresa Waugh (London, 1984).
  4. Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, Travels in India, trans. V. Ball, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1925), originally published in 1681 as part of his larger text, Les six voyages de J.-B. Tavernier.

Secondary Sources:

  1. Ian Balfour, Famous Diamonds (second edition, Colchester, 1992).
  2. Patrick Voillot, Diamonds and Precious Stones (London, 1998).