A gem of a story

A gem of a story

Diamonds have a long history as beautiful objects of desire. In fact, the world’s love of diamonds had its start in India. Lakshmi Palecanda relates the many stories around the mystique and prestige of diamonds

Cullinan I

Erasmus Jacobs was walking along the banks of the Orange River in Northern Cape, South Africa. His father had told him to find a stick to clear a clogged water pipe. After finding a suitable one, the 15-year-old sat down by the water to take a break. A few minutes later, he noticed a clear blue-white stone that ‘blinked’ at him. He picked it up, played with it for a while, and then gave it to his sister, who later gave it to some neighbours. Through some intermediaries, the stone found its way to a physician and amateur geologist, Dr W G Atherstone, who realised it was a diamond weighing 21.25 carats.

The first discovery of its kind, this diamond became the trigger for the first diamond rush in South Africa. Named the Eureka Diamond, Jacob’s ‘blink klippe’, the Boer word for bright stone, it now belongs to the South African people. It resides in the Kimberley Mine Museum, which is a must on the itinerary of any visitor to South Africa.

Diamonds are unique, beautiful, brilliant, awe-inspiring and intriguing, not to mention expensive, all at the same time. They are also dangerous to own, easily lost, inspire extreme greed, and tend to bring severe bad luck. Produced by highly specific conditions deep in the bowels of the earth and brought to the surface by violent conditions, pulled out of the earth with great difficulty and cut with great skill and precision, this unique form of the humble coal commands a great deal of respect. But how much of it is real and how much is just hype?

Kimberley Mine Museum
The Big Hole in Kimberley


Called vajra in Sanskrit, it is the Greek name that has stuck. Adamas in Greek means unbreakable or inflexible — a perfect name for a mineral that was extraordinarily hard as well as had magical properties to protect against poison or attack.

The beginning of the love story between man and the diamond is shrouded in the impenetrable veils of unrecorded antiquity. However, there are a few flashes of light. It is universally accepted that diamonds were used in India before 400 BCE. In fact, from antiquity through the Middle Ages, any diamond in any place in the world was Indian in origin and came mostly from the Kollur mines in Golconda, Andhra Pradesh. The mine itself was a series of gravel-clay pits in the south bank of River Krishna, employing up to 1,00,000 people.

Diamond trade is mentioned in Chanakya’s Arthashastra. An ancient treatise on diamonds called Rathna Pariksha, or the grading of precious stones, originated in the 5th century. The diamond was revered as a symbol of luck and prosperity, as well as respected for its hardness and ability to inscribe metal. Some historians speculate that diamond export from India might have been forbidden in ancient times. Some even suggest that diamonds might even have been used as tax payments, though of course only by nobles and rich merchants.

When Alexander the Great left the Indian sub-continent, he carried a few diamonds with him into the Mediterranean. Later, they found their way out through Arabian trade routes and the Silk Route, where they became valued for their brilliance and their hardness. Interestingly, in China, where diamonds did not occur in nature, they were initially used as jade-cutting knives rather than as gemstones.

Jubilee Diamond
Jubilee Diamond

Uncut beauties

Another fascinating fact is that not only were all diamonds in the Middle Ages Indian in origin, they were also rough diamonds, used in their natural octahedral states. The practice of cleaving and polishing the octahedral crystal faces to create even and unblemished facets began in the mid-14th century, in Nuremberg, Germany. And this brings up the not-to-be-missed story of the Excelsior.

It was June 30, 1893. Loading gravel into a truck, an African worker at the Jagersfontein Mine in Orange Free State, South Africa, saw a large bluish-white stone that looked like a diamond. He hid it from his coworkers and later delivered it directly to the mine manager. Later it was confirmed that the stone was indeed a massive diamond, weighing 995 carats and named the Excelsior, meaning ‘higher’. Later, another large diamond weighing 651 carats was discovered in 1895 at the same mine and named the Reitz diamond. It would later be cut into two gems, the larger of which came to be called the ‘Jubilee Diamond’.

However, the Excelsior diamond remained uncut for almost 10 years after its discovery. In the end, it was sent to I J Asscher & Co., renowned diamond cutters of Amsterdam. After a year-long study, the company decided to first cleave the diamond into 10 pieces. After more cutting and polishing, 21 gems of varying cuts and sizes were obtained. The largest, the exquisite pear-shaped Excelsior I, was last bought by Robert Mouawad, of Mouawad Company and brand, a high-end Swiss and Emirati luxury goods company.

When found, the extraordinary giant Excelsior weighed 995 carats. However, the total weight of the finished stones was only 373.75 carats. Incredibly, the weight lost thus came to 63% of the original. The diamond had been cut such that the largest stone weighed only 70 carats, thus destroying its historic importance for profit’s sake. To avoid this fate, the Kremlin Diamond Fund has preserved huge diamonds found in Russia such as the ‘26th Congress of CPSU’ (fancy lemon yellow, 342.57 carats) and ‘Alexander Pushkin’ (colourless, 320.65 carats) in their original state.

Jagersfontein Mine in Orange Free State, South Africa.
Jagersfontein Mine in Orange Free State, South Africa.

It gets bigger

Incidentally, the Carbonado do Sergio, the largest rough diamond ever found at 3,167 carats, was broken up into small pieces as industrial diamond drills, being a black diamond. However, the largest ever gem-quality stone is the incomparable Cullinan.

If it was too good to be true, it had to be a prank. This was the thought of mine superintendent Frederick Wells when he was walking through a mine shaft in the Premier Mine, Transvaal Colony, South Africa, on January 26, 1905. Out from the mine wall protruded a large blue-white stone. Believing this to be a prank being played by the workers, Wells nevertheless used his pocket knife to extract it. Amazingly, the stone tipped the scales at 3,106 carats (621.35 gm), making it the largest ever diamond found. It was named for Sir Thomas Cullinan who opened the mine in 1902.

The owners decided that the rough diamond would be deposited with the company and taken to London. Accordingly, it was carried on board a steamboat with detectives, ceremoniously locked in the captain’s safe, and guarded throughout the entire journey. However, it was just a diversionary tactic — the stone in the safe was a decoy. The real stone was sent to the UK in a plain box via registered post.

The Cullinan was presented to King Edward VII on his 66th birthday. It was then sent to the Asscher Brothers of Amsterdam to be cleaved. Its transport to Amsterdam was once again a great event, with Royal Guards in attendance around the clock. And once again, it was a fake that got all the attention; Asscher carried the real gem across with him, in his pocket. One of the myths surrounding the cutting is that Asscher had a doctor and a nurse with him when he first cut the diamond, and when he dealt the first blow, he fainted dead away; he most probably celebrated with a bottle of champagne. The huge gem was cleaved into nine major stones, of which the Cullinan I or the Great Star of Africa (530.2 carats) is the world’s largest clear-cut diamond and is set at the top of the British Sovereign’s Sceptre with Cross. All the Cullinans belong to the British Royal Family and are on display in the Tower of London. Interestingly, Queen Elizabeth II has revealed that Cullinan III and IV are known in her family as ‘Granny’s Chips’.

When England colonised India, they not only traded diamonds but also looted Indian temples and royalty and made off with many remarkable gems. Diamonds being small and easily portable, people literally walked away with fortunes in their pockets. Many of these diamonds were unique and had deep historical significance, and left a trail of ill luck, blood, death, and destruction everywhere they went.

Hope Diamond
Hope Diamond

One of the most famous of Indian diamonds was the Tavernier Blue or the French Blue, later called the Hope Diamond. It is a 45.52-carat deep-blue diamond that exhibits red phosphorescence under UV light. It was acquired by Jean-Baptiste Tavernier from India, either by theft or purchase, and sold to King Louis XIV of France in 1669. It passed to his grandson Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette. During the French Revolution, thieves broke into the Royal Storehouse and stole most of the crown jewels. Many were recovered, but not the French Blue. It surfaced 20 years later, this time owned by King George IV of Britain. It was later acquired by a rich London banker, Thomas Hope. Passing through many hands, it was finally bought by Harry Winston, the American jeweller who donated it to the National Museum of Natural History, where it can still be seen.

It’s cursed

The legend of the curse of the Hope Diamond started when King Louis XIV died of gangrene and all of his children died too, except one. Of course, his grandson and his wife being guillotined may have been due part of it, too. Wilhelm Fals, the Dutch jeweller who re-cut the diamond was murdered by his son who then killed himself. Greek Maoncharides, another owner, drove his car over a cliff and killed himself and his entire family. Evalyn Walsh Mclean, a spoiled American heiress, who bought it, wore it often, and also put it on her dog’s collar, lost her son at age nine, her husband left her for another woman and then died insane, her daughter died of a drug overdose at 25, and she eventually had to sell her newspaper, The Washington Post. And James Todd, the mailman who delivered the Hope Diamond to the Smithsonian had his leg crushed in a truck accident, and suffered a head injury later. Oh, also, his house burned down.

Many large diamonds were used as eyes on idols in temples in antiquity. One such famous gem was the ‘Eye of Brahma’ or the Black Orlov. An incomparable black diamond discovered in the early 19th century, it was 195 carats originally. It supposedly featured as one of the eyes in a statue of Brahma which was enshrined in Puducherry. It was stolen by a passing monk from the temple, and allegedly became cursed. In 1932, diamond dealer J W Paris took the stone to the United States, and soon after, committed suicide. Later, it was owned by two Russian princesses, Leonilla Galitsine-Bariatinsky and Nadia Vyegin-Orlov. Both women jumped to their deaths in the 1940s. It was then bought by Charles F Winson and cut in three pieces in an attempt to break the curse.

White Orloff
White Orloff

Then there is the White Orloff, a bluish-white 189.62 carat stone. This one has two bloody stories attached to it. One myth says that a deserter from the French army stole the gem from the Srirangam temple and sold it to an English sea captain. Another story says that the diamond belonged to the Moghul rulers and was part of the loot carried off from Delhi by Persians under Nadir Shah. An Afghan soldier stole it after Shah’s assassination and tried to sell it to an Armenian dealer named Shaffras.Shaffras didn’t have the money, so he sold it to another dealer. Later, Shaffras offered the dealer double the price, but he wouldn’t sell. So he murdered both the Afghan and the dealer, and gained the diamond. When his two brothers quarrelled with him over the ownership of the diamond, he killed them both. It was finally bought by Count Orlov of Russia as a gift for his lover, Queen Catherine the Great. She had it set in her scepter, where it remains even today.

Then there is the blue-white Nassak diamond, known as ‘Eye of Shiva’. The 89-carat blue gem from Golconda was an adornment in the Trimbakeshwar Shiva Temple, near Nashik, Maharashtra for over 300 years. It disappeared from the temple and reappeared as part of the loot that the British East India Company gained after the Third Anglo-Maratha War. The company sold it to the famous British jewellers Rundell and Bridge, who re-cut the diamond in 1818. It then became a part of the handle of the first Marquess of Westminster’s dress sword. It was imported into America in 1927, and passed into the hands of American jeweller Harry Winston, who re-cut it again into its present flawless 43.38 carats emerald cut shape. Currently, it resides at a private museum in Lebanon.


Allure of the Koh-i-Noor

Of course, no story of diamonds is complete without the incomparable ‘Mountain of Light’, the Koh-i-Noor. Described by Mogul Emperor Babur as ‘worth the value of one day’s food for all the people in the world’, the Koh-i-Noor is one of the most coveted and valuable diamonds of all times. Never bought or sold, it changed many hands as it travelled through many dynasties before ending up at the Tower of London.
Koh-i-Noor, a large 793-carat colourless diamond, originated sometime in the 13th century in the Golconda mines when they were under the rulers of the Kakatiya dynasty. Legend says that it was also an eye of a deity in a temple. During a raid on Warangal, Alauddin Khilji acquired it and then it passed through the successive dynasties of the Delhi Sultanate.

When Babur won the Battle of Panipat, it became his property and that of his descendants. Shah Jahan set it in his legendary Peacock Throne. But Aurangazeb’s grandson, Muhammad Shah, lost it to Nadir Shah of Persia through trickery. When Nadir Shah was assassinated, it fell into the hands of Ahmad Shah Abdali, one of his generals, who became the Emir of Afghanistan.

It came back to India when his descendant, Shah Shuja Durrani gave it to Ranjit Singh, the ruler of Lahore, in exchange for military help. Ranjit Singh willed it to the temple of Jagannath in Puri, but after his death, his son, Duleep Singh, signed the Last Treaty of Lahore, officially ceding the Koh-i-Noor to Queen Victoria. Disliking its Mughal-style cut, the Queen ordered it re-cut to its present oval brilliant shape.

There is an old saying about the Koh-i-Noor that goes: “He who owns this diamond will own the world, but will also know all its misfortunes. Only God, or woman, can wear it with impunity.” This curse seems to have been amply proven, as it has wiped out all the dynasties of the men who wore it. After being set on the British Royal Crown, it has been worn only by Queen Victoria, Queen Alexandra, Queen Mary, and Queen Elizabeth. Liquid currency or valued heirloom, large rock or tiny chip, symbol of love or symbol of status, greed or reverence — it doesn’t matter. Just say the word ‘Diamond’ … and watch heads turn!