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The history of diamonds

The first diamonds were found in the alluvium of the Golconda River in India. The exact date of its discovery is not known. An extract from an accounting book written in Sanskrit, in the 4th century B. C., reveals that diamonds were a trading commodity in India at that time.

Perfectly beautiful and highly prized crystals were kept in possession by rich people and rulers. The diamond was popular as an amulet thanks to its exceptional hardness and other great properties. It was a symbol of courage and virility –purely male qualities.

In ancient Egypt people believed in the mystical power of diamonds. When four diamond rings were worn on four fingers of the left hand it would ensured that vena amoris (“vein of love“) would lead from the fingers straight to the heart. Placing diamonds or diamond powder on fingertips was believed to be the best way of ensuring the connection of love with eternity.

Diamonds were probably brought to Europe by Alexander the Great. First, they were considered to be a mysterious rarity with magical and healing proprieties.

It is believed that when Alexander the Great reached the Valley of Diamonds he saw its floor covered with gemstones guarded by giant snakes with deadly stares. But he succeeded in cheating them and took their diamonds. In ancient Greek diamonds were considered to be the tears of gods which fell down to earth. To point out the hardness of diamonds people used to name them “adamas” (invincible). Plinius wrote about diamonds in his “History of Nature” 60 years B.C. The first uncut diamond appeared in Rome between the 1st and 3rd century. Marco Polo mentioned Ormuz as the main Persian diamond market in the 13th century.

In this time Venice was the main market of diamonds in the West. From the beginning of the 13th century the majority of capital cities of Northern Europe maintained trading relations with Venice. Traders with silk and diamonds came from there to Bruges. Bruges became not only the centre of diamond trade but also a place where diamonds were processed.

The diamond industry grew very quickly after that. Lodewijck van Berken (born in Bruges) invented the technique of cutting diamonds.

This technique was kept secret for a long time. It was not until the 14th century that clear octahedrons were first polished on a wooden or copper pad covered with diamond powder. This method was previously used to work gemstones and ivory, however in the case of diamonds, this was a lengthy process. Since the 15th century new methods of diamond processing were developed and unsquared stones were cut by cleaving. In the course of cutting, the original shape of the stone was still kept. Pyramidal shape diamonds were set into rings. The main purpose of processing diamonds was to get rid of the surface roughness and impurities. Samples of these stones were found in fragments of jewellery and old pottery.

The invention of cutting on a steel pad covered with diamond powder offered cutters more possibilities to work stones. At the end of the 15th century the “table” cuts (shapes of rhombus, square, rectangle and rose cut) appeared.

The discovery of a direct sea route to India by Vasco de Gama in 1498 shifted the trading centre from Venice to Lisbon. Antwerp became the most important diamond trade centre since the end of the 14th century. Diamonds were considered to be a perfect symbol of eternal bond. The tradition of unending love has been maintained for several centuries already. The first notion of donating a diamond as a unique symbol of love came from the 15th century.

The tradition of donating a diamond ring as an engagement ring was first introduced by the archduke Maximilian I of Austria in 1477, when he gave it to Mary of Burgundy. Since then the tradition with diamond engagement rings has spread all over the world not only among the aristocratic and industrialist families but also among “ordinary mortals”.

In the Golden age of the 16th century Portuguese Jews and Italian merchants had most of the control over diamond business.

In the 17th century diamonds began to be cut in many different shapes like oval, drops, marquise and others. Specialists who cut the stones however came from Antwerp and worked in the highest floors of houses where light was the best.

By the end of the 18th century the Indian mines were exhausted and although the first mines in Brazil were found in the second half of the 18th century, the prosperity of Antwerp was not restored.

In the second half of the 19th century, Henry Morse of the USA discovered the first modern brilliant cut after extensive experimentation which was later perfected, mathematically substantiated and described by Marcel Tolkowski in 1919, in the USA, who is considered to be the inventor of the modern brilliant cut.  

The first diamond cartel: De Beers

In 1871 the De Beers brothers, owners of a small farm in Kimberley in South Africa gave permission to Dutch diamond hunters to prospect on their own land. The research showed that the land was heaving with diamonds. The news spread quickly and the farm was besieged by fortune hunters soon.

De Beers brothers sold their farm and moved away.

Cecil J. Rhodes and brothers Harry and Barney Barnato were the most ambitious prospectors who bought one concession after another and became the biggest miners in Kimberley. In 1888 De Beers Consolidated Mines Limited was established, the forerunner of the firm that still plays a very important role on the diamond stage today.

The De Beers company has a very complicated system of several companies with mutually linked ownerships, which includes the whole industry beginning with buying raw material from its own mines and mines of other mining companies, through to processing and sales (Diamond Producers Association owns the individual mines of De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd. Other daughter companies are the Diamond Corporation, which negotiates agreements with diamond mines, De Beers Centenary AG, Central Selling Organisation and others.). It is De Beers Centenary that owns the rights of buying raw diamonds mined in other countries, assured by long-term contracts. Moreover it owns shares in more than 1.300 Southern African and international companies. In this way De Beers controlled the worldwide market until 2001, including the production of the biggest mining company Alrosa. The exhausting of Southern African mines and opening of other mines i.e. in Russia, Canada or Australia, however gradually deprived De Beers of their total market control and so they officially gave up the effort in 2001. In spite of that they are still the biggest trader on the market.