Diamonds, The King of Gems

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Gems and Gemology, Spring 1948

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Nineteen hundred years ago Pliny, that erudite old Roman, correctly stated that the diamond is the hardest of all substances. But he is scarcely correct in stating that if placed on an anvil and hit with a hammer, the hammer is shattered and the stone buries itself in the anvil. Nor is he correct where he states that before the stone can be broken it must be steeped in the blood of a freshly killed he-goat. The diamond, nevertheless, is more than four times as hard as the ruby and more than twice as hard as boron carbide, the hardest of all artificial substances.

The first diamond, we infer, was found about 800 to 600 B. c., by some Hindoo wading a stream and being attracted by the fire of a colorless crystal. A Hindoo book, written early in the third century B.C., describes six varieties of diamonds from as many Indian mines. Diamonds reached Rome shortly before the time of Christ, and Pliny states that they were so unusual in his day that they were possessed "only by kings, and by but few of these."

Diamonds were rare in Europe until 300 years ago and were distinctly a masculine ornament, until the time of Agnes Sorel (1422-50 A.D.). In her day glamour girls did not go to Hollywood hut to the courts of kings. Her boy friend, Charles VII of France, gave her a diamond necklace, probably crudely cut which, she tells us, while uncomfortable, she wore out of love of her king. Many women since then have been willing to undergo similar tortures.


Thanks to the mines of India and Borneo, diamonds became more common in Europe in the 17th century; still less rare in the 18th century due to the Brazilian mines and, today, we have an adequate supply from Africa. Were it not, however, for the extraordinary increase in the income of the world's citizens, and the attainment of perfection in diamond cutting, the diamond would still be known only to kings.

The river alluvials of South Africa were found in 1867; the pipe mines in 1870. Then followed a sequence of discoveries of important alluvial deposits: the Belgian Congo in 1907; South West Africa in 1908; Angola in 1913; the Gold Coast in 1919; and Sierra Leone in 1930.

But while the diamond rarely occurs in commercial deposits its occurrences as a mineral curiosity, even in our country, are many. It has been found in numerous places in the southeastern states, in California, and sparsely in other western states. In Arkansas is a true pipe of the South Africa type, but apparently too poor to work. In the Middle West a number of fine stones have been found in the terminal glacial moraine. Therefore, somewhere east of Hudson Bay is a diamond-bearing lode containing fine gemstones. Is it commercial? Quien sabe, as the Mexicans say.

The papers during the past year have been full of sensational tales of the Williamson Mine in Tanganyika Territory. That British mandated African area has been producing a few stones for 33 years. Five years ago, after a long decline, production began to mount but Tanganyika is not today an important factor in the industry. Whether it is to become such, time will tell.

A word or two about certain of these fields. Spirits are said to own the Bornean diamond deposits and without their cooperation diamonds will not reward the miners. Medicine men are at hand to guarantee that cooperation. Their batting average is at least as good as that of the economists of today. When, a century ago, James Brooke, that astounding Englishman who became the first white Sultan of Sarawek, was about to start up a diamond mine, his guide left at the pit a card with the following Chinese characters : "Rajah Muda Hassim, Jam e s Brooke, and Hajji Ibrahim present their compliments to the spirit and request his permission to work at the mine."

South Africa for centuries had been a Bop financially when in 1867 the bright eyes of a little boy, Erasmus Jacobs (he died only a year or two ago); the intelligent curiosity of a Boer farmer, Van Niekirk; of a wandering Irish trader, O'Reilly; and the mineralogic knowledge of a modest man of science, Atherstone, made it-by the discovery of alluvial diamonds-into a prosperous dominion, our valued ally in both World Wars. For a time new discoveries were few, but in 1860 the "Star of Africa" turned up, a stone which, when cut, weighed 45.5 carats. Many larger stones exist, but it is the most important diamond of all time for it turned a hopelessly poor country into a rich nation for Kimberly fortunes transformed Rand prospects into the Witwatersrand gold mines of today.

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