As poetry, this early 17th century quatrain lacks merit, but as a capsule summary of diamond fever, it has no equal:
Your wife and children sell, sell what you have,
Spare not your clothes, nay, make yourself a slave,
But money get, then to Currure make haste,
There search the mines, a prize you’ll find at last.
The poem was written by a Portuguese businessman who around 1610 went to mine diamonds in India, then the world’s main source for this gem. From among India’s many diamond deposits, he chose one at Currure. After spending an amount equal to 45,000 British pounds sterling in his search without finding a single stone, the prospector sold his clothes and belongings to keep the venture going. Penniless, the Portuguese vowed that if by the end of his workers’ next pay day his luck hadn’t changed, he would poison himself. Luckily, a 437.40-carat rough was found on the very day he planned to take his life. To celebrate his deliverance, the miner wrote the poem quoted above and had it inscribed for posterity on a stone tablet.
What fired this all-or-nothing quest for diamonds? The answer can be found in the annals of another European diamond hunter who went to India three decades later: French jeweler Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, who made the first of six journeys to India in 1641. Besides its many diamond mines, India boasted the greatest royal collections of pearls and precious stones ever assembled. The merchant hoped to become as important a jeweler to the courts of India as he had the courts of Europe.
In his famous book, “Travels in India,” first published in 1676, Tavernier describes the many fabulous gems he bought, sold or was shown, reserving his highest praise for the diamond. “The diamond is the most precious of all stones, and it is the article of trade to which I am most devoted,” he wrote. Although his name is mostly linked with many famous fancy color diamonds, one of them the French Blue (later called the Hope Diamond), Tavernier preferred the finest white diamonds above all others.
Until he voyaged to Asia, Tavernier may have thought that his preference for colorless diamonds was purely European. But once in India, Persia and Borneo, where white diamonds enjoyed the same supremacy of regard, he quickly learned that his tastes were universal. Today, of course, the diamond is the backbone of jewelry sales throughout the world. Yet the fact that colorless (and near-colorless) diamonds have held their present-day standing for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years may come as a shock to those who attribute their pre-eminence solely to the machinations of the De Beers cartel.
Undoubtedly, the De Beers cartel, formed in 1888 as a response to the overabundance of South African diamonds, has contributed mightily to the diamond’s hegemony. Nonetheless, for its first 50 years, the cartel occupied itself with supply-side issues, focusing on market control and price stability. It wasn’t until 1939 that future De Beers Chairman Harry Oppenheimer, a staunch believer in the power of advertising, paid a historic visit to N.W. Ayer in New York to discuss a diamond campaign.
After World War II, De Beers began to pay serious attention to the demand side of the diamond market. Since the 1960s, it is safe to say that the jewelry industry has come to depend on the cartel equally as much for market stimulus as regulation. Today, largely as result of its multi-million dollar ad budgets, 40 cents of every dollar spent in the U.S. jewelry store goes for diamonds—twice what is spent for all other gems combined. Given such success in terms of stoking demand, it is hardly surprising that the popularity of colorless diamonds is often seen as the byproduct of market manipulation. Take away the De Beers cartel, it is argued, and the diamond’s status will soon recede to that of just another gem.
A look at history and the diamond’s unique status suggests otherwise. At least 1,000 years before Tavernier’s arrival in India, the country’s sages considered colorless diamonds the pinnacle of gem perfection. Their reverence stemmed in large part from the white diamond’s “magical” property of dividing white light into all the spectral colors, writes precious stone dealer Benjamin Zucker in his “Connoisseur’s Guide to Gems and Jewelry.”
The Indians’ esteem transcended aesthetics, Zucker writes, Indeed, when they developed what was probably the first color grading system for diamonds, they based it on the country’s ancient class structure. Until very recently, Indian society was comprised of four rigid hierarchical groups: Brahmins (rulers), Vaisyas (landowners), Sudras (merchants) and Kshatriyas (warriors). (A fifth group, the untouchables, had no rights.) Diamond color served as a badge of rank because each social group could only own diamonds with the color grade corresponding to it: colorless (D-G on the modern-day gemological Institute of America color scale) for the Brahmins, lightly yellowish (H-K) for the Vaisyas, noticeably yellowish (L-P) for the Sudra and brownish or blackish for the Kshatriya.
Unleashing Inner Fire
What is most amazing about India’s reverence for colorless diamonds is that it precedes by at least a millenia the ability to facet these gems and unleash their brilliance and dispersion. Indian rulers simply wore unworked octahedral roughs that were deemed of the finest purity and color. And since it was law that the finest roughs be offered to the rulers, the world outside India, says Zucker, saw relatively few top-grade diamonds that after 1000 A.D., despite active mining as far back as 78 B.C.
One can only imagine the reaction to the effulgence of light seen when somewhere around 1400, no one is sure whether in Asia or Europe, the point cut was discovered. By simply polishing the faces of an octahedron rough, the diamond seemed to explode with brilliance.
A century or so later, cutters took two more giant steps toward realizing the incomparable light-handling capabilities of the diamond with the invention of both the table and rose cuts. But the jewelry world had to wait until around 1700 for the invention of the ultimate brandisher of light: the brilliant-cut diamond. Later known as, among other things, “old European cuts” and “old miners,” variously proportioned brilliants predominated in jewelry by 1750. Today the much-refined modern brilliant cut remains the most popular diamond shape and the chief reminder to modern jewelry patrons of the diamond’s main aesthetic virtues: peerless purity and fire.
Please note: this profile was originally published in 1992 in Modern Jeweler’s ‘Gem Profiles/2: The Second 60’, written by David Federman with photographs by Tino Hammid.
The 64.83-carat D-flawless diamond shown in the header is courtesy of Christie’s New York.