History of Diamonds

History of Diamonds

Diamonds symbolize wealth, status, love and eternity. Throughout time, diamonds have represented invulnerability, magic, healing, and protection. “Diamond” comes from the Greek adamao, meaning “I tame” or “I subdue.” Adamas was used to describe the hardest substance known, and eventually became synonymous with diamond.

Diamonds began appearing as accent stones used to highlight gems of the day such as pearl, Ruby, and Sapphire in Europe in the 13th century. By the 16th century larger diamonds began to appear as the centerpiece stone in jewelry as stone cutters started to develop faceting techniques which released the fire and brilliance of diamond crystals.

The first true diamond-cutting center is believed to have been established in the early 1300s in Venice, Italy. By the late 14th century, diamond trading went to Bruges and Paris, and later to Antwerp as the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to the Orient around the Cape of Good Hope. This discovery provided Europeans a more direct route for trading diamonds coming from India. Goa, on India’s Malabar Coast, was established as the Portuguese trading center allowing diamond trading from Goa to Lisbon to Antwerp.

Around 1600, gemstones become the featured item in jewelry style, rather than the prominence of metalwork in the past. This style change came at time of peak Indian diamond production. Silver and gold are now used only as a framework, and enamel disappears from the front of jewels. The styles of the day include natural elements such as leaves and flowers, ribbons and bows, and simplified geometric patterns such as ovals, and circles. The first brilliant-cut diamonds appear, releasing the inner fire and brilliance and further establishing the diamond as the “Jewel of Jewels”.

Two events in late 1800 changed the role of diamonds forever. First, the discovery in the 1870s of rich diamond deposits in South Africa changed diamond from a rare gem to one available to anyone who could afford it. Second, the French crown jewels, sold in 1887, were purchased by new-wealth, particularly in the United States, which was establishing itself as a wealthy and powerful nation.

In 1875, world annual production exceeded 1 million carats for the first time. From then on, diamonds would change the face of jewelry manufacturing forever

The story of diamonds in South Africa begins at the end of 1866 when 15-year-old Erasmus Jacobs found a clear crystal on his father’s farm. Within the next 15 years, South Africa produced more diamonds than India had in more than 2,000 years.

The first diamond discoveries in South Africa were alluvial, meaning that they were found on the banks of rivers and streams. There are tails of large diamond crystals found simply laying on the beaches of South Africa. However, by 1869 it became necessary to develop hard rock mining techniques to recover the diamond crystals in “blueground”, later called kimberlite, after the mining town of Kimberley.

In the 1870s and 1880s the Kimberley area that produced 95% of the world’s diamonds became a center of great wealth and fierce rivalries, most notably that between Cecil Rhodes and Barney Barnato. These English immigrants had turned 31-square-foot prospects into large mining companies. In 1888, Rhodes prevailed and merged the holdings of both men into De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd., a company that is still synonymous with diamonds

How Diamonds are Cut

In its rough form, a diamond is a lusterless, translucent crystal that resembles a chip of broken glass. For it to be transformed into a jewel, it must be cut into a particular gem shape and then polished, facet by facet. The transformation from rough stones to jewels had to be done by hand, and only a relatively few craftsmen, mainly in Antwerp and Amsterdam, possessed the necessary skills. Diamonds were first “cleaved” by placing a chisel at the stone’s weakest point of structure and striking it with a mallet. If the precise point was located on the diamond’s structure, the adhesion would be so weak that the diamond could be separated with a fingernail. If pressure was applied to the wrong point, or in the wrong direction, the diamond would shatter. After the medieval cutter succeeded in cleaving the diamond into the basic shape of the desired jewel, he placed it in an egg shaped tin cup, called a dop, and attempted to remove any imperfections in it by striking it with another diamond, since only diamonds were hard enough to cut diamonds. This process, which was extremely slow and painstaking, was called bruting. Even though the medieval cutter could eventually give the stone a jewel-like appearance through these methods, he was extremely limited by the natural shape of the diamond.

Modern Round Brilliant Diamond

The situation suddenly changed at the end of the fifteenth century when a Jewish diamond cutter in Antwerp named Lodewyk van Berken invented the scaif. The scaif was simply a polishing wheel that was impregnated with a mixture of olive oil and diamond dust, but it completely revolutionized the art of diamond cutting. The rough diamond was clamped in a dop and held against this whirling disc, while the diamond dust on it ground away the diamond to the desired angle. With the scaif, it became possible to polish symmetrically all the facets of the diamond at angles that reflected the maximum amount of light. As disciples of Van Berken applied the laws of optics to these angles, they created sparkling gems that fascinated the princes and aristocrats of Europe. Charles the Bold, Duke of Normandy, became the patron of Van Berken and commissioned him to cut a 137-carat diamond, which became known as the Florentine.

Diamond cutters from all over Europe came to Antwerp to study Van Berken’s methods, and orders for these light reflecting gems flowed in from all the royal courts, making Antwerp the preeminent diamond-cutting center in the world. At the head of the Pelikenstrasse, the street that winds through Antwerp’s diamond district, is a bronze statue of Van Berken dressed in a jerkin and skull cap, with a holster full of diamond tools strapped across his waist. He holds in his right hand a diamond.

The next major innovation came in the twentieth century with the invention of the diamond saw. The first diamond saws were a circular steel blade continually lubricated with oil and diamond powder, which allowed the cutters to go against the grain of the diamond without shattering it. The diamond saw allowed cutters to salvage jewels from badly misshapen and deformed diamonds. Unfortunately sawing required about one-tenth carat of diamond dust for every carat of diamond sawed through. And it was also a much slower process than cleaving, requiring several days to accurately saw a 2-carat stone. Despite such disadvantages, the diamond saw became the common method of shaping diamonds in the postwar years. Since it was far easier to train workers to saw diamonds rather than to cleave them, sawing quickly transformed diamond-cutting in Antwerp from an esoteric craft to a semi-mechanized process.

The final refinement of the process for cutting diamonds came in 1919 when a twenty-one-year-old mathematician named Marcel Tolkowsky calculated the formula for the ideal proportions of a cut diamond. “Ideal Cut” diamonds still use Tolkowsky specifications to this day. If you wish to sell a diamond, fill out the Sell A Diamond Form. Our diamond buyer will contact you shortly.