Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Historical origins Diamonds
Because historians cannot find a precise date for the discovery of diamonds, they have examined written texts to find the first references to these precious stones.
The oldest text that historians have considered is the Bible (Old Testament), which contains several references to diamonds. Exodus (28,18) contains a description of clothing worn by the Great Priest of the Hebrews, which is decorated with twelve precious stones, among them a diamond. Diamonds are mentioned in other verses and in particular in Ezekiel (3,9), with the phrase "Like an adamant harder than flint or a diamond point have I made your forehead [...]". But the meaning of the words of the time, and the translation in particular, can offer no real guarantee: do the words refer to diamonds as we know them today?
Starting from the VIIIth Century BC, the ancient Greek poet Hesiod spoke of "adamas" ("invincible"). However it is only in the writings of Pliny the Elder, 800 years later, that the use of the word "adamas" can be associated to diamonds with certainty.
Finally, the tomb of a little girl was discovered near Rome in 1993. This richly decorated tomb dates from the Ist Century BC and contained intact jewels such as golden necklaces, bracelets mounted with sapphires and emeralds, and brooches adorned with precious stones. The style, type and finish of the jewelry show that they came from ancient Syria, probably from the region of Palmyra. One of the rings bears a rough, octahedron-shaped diamond originating from central India, and is mounted in such a way that one of its points always touches the skin, probably for good luck. Carbon-14 dating has confirmed that this is the oldest piece of jewelry bearing a diamond that has ever been found.
From Antiquity to the XVIIIth Century, India was the only producer of diamonds.
Two wonderful manuscripts (considered to be lapidaries) dating from the VIth Century summarize the elements that at the time were considered essential for the value of a diamond: purity, clarity, color, brilliance, fire, hardness and above all, rareness.
The color of a diamond was at the time closely associated with the caste system. The priests (Brahmins) alone were allowed to own white diamonds. Warriors and knights (the Kshatriyas) could have red diamonds (probably not real diamonds, but spinels). Yellow diamonds were attributed to the Vaishyas, i.e. the landowners and merchants. Finally the artisans and peasants - the Shudras - could acquire gray and black diamonds, if they had the means.
Little information exists concerning the birth of the commercial diamond routes, but manuscripts dating from before the VIth Century refer to diamond exports to the West originating from the plains of the Ganges.
The first relatively serious information on diamond production in India dates from the XVIIth Century, when Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605-1689), a French precious stones merchant, traveled several times to India, first with the support of Cardinal Mazarin and then with that of Louis XIV. Tavernier recounts his adventures in "The Six Voyages of John Baptiste Tavernier", a superbly illustrated book first published in Paris (1676) and then in London (1678). This book contains skillful sketches of each of the stones that he sold to the Sun King.
During his travels, Tavernier visited only three of the numerous Indian mines: Raolconda, Gani Colour and Soulempour. But the beauty and rareness of the diamonds that he brought back to Europe remain unsurpassed today: the Koh-i-Noor (Mountain of Light) and the Hope (Large Blue Diamond) are only two examples of the magnificent and invaluable stones with which he returned
At the beginning of the XVIIIth Century, when supply originating from India was regular and perfectly met demand, commerce with the Sub-Asian continent suddenly declined. The main cause for this was the discovery, in 1725, of new mines in what is now the Minas Gerais province of Brazil. Between 1730 and 1735, the Brazilian diamond market grew so much that its prices dropped by 75%. The Brazilian mines seemed inexhaustible, to such a point that the fall in the Brazilian diamond price pushed the Portuguese to transfer part of the South American stones to India and to pass them off as coming from there.
Curiously however, while the price of rough fluctuated enormously with variations in supply - mine openings and closures - the price of cut stones remained stable and even tended to firm up. In 1771, in an attempt to seize control of these riches, Minister Pombal nationalized the mines, engendering a real economic and financial catastrophe. As soon as it gained independence from Portugal in 1822, Brazil reverted to the traditional system of concessions.
Very little is known about diamond production on the island of Borneo, which dates back to the Xth Century. The first written commentaries date from the middle of the XVIth Century and are attributed to the Portuguese Feran Mindez Pinto. Some say that a 367-carat diamond, called the Matan, was found there in 1789, but much points to the idea that it may have been a piece of quartz. The Dutch West Indies Company was given the monopoly of the diamond market on the island.
River deposits on Borneo were little exploited and are today only a marginal part of the global diamond offer. Some say that this economic stagnation is partly due to the fact that the majority of river deposits (and in particular Kalimantan, the most important mine) are situated on the territory of the Dayak, a people better known as the "head hunters". However, a few companies have recently formed a consortium in order to industrialize the process of alluvial deposit treatment, so a significant growth in supply from Borneo cannot be excluded in the medium term.
Production on this island mainly consists of diamonds tinted with yellow and brown, but the red, blue and green diamonds that can also be found there are among the most exceptional in the world
South Africa: the birth of big business
For almost a century and a half, diamonds were transported from India to Europe by navigating around the Southern tip of Africa. In the middle of the XVIIth Century, the Dutch East India Company established a supply base in South Africa. Cape Town was founded and the natives were submitted to the rule of the Dutch farmers, called "Boers". The British, which at the time were at war against Napoleon and understood the importance of the sea route to India for their naval supremacy, captured Cape Town in 1806 and abolished slavery.
In 1866, Daniël Jacobs, a Boer, discovered the first South African diamond. This diamond was named Eureka when it was presented at the 1868 World Expo in Paris. Shortly thereafter, another Boer discovered an 83.50-carat stone, the Star of South Africa (which was recently sold by Christie's for US$522,000). This is all that was needed to start the first diamond rush in 1870. Thousands of diamond prospectors arrived, among which a Mr. Jackson who, in May 1871, proposed to the De Beers brothers that he would dig their land in exchange for 25% of what he found. Hearing wind of this, the diamond rushers invaded these farmers' land and chased them away. As a result, the De Beers brothers never had the smallest parcel of the priceless crater that would later become the Kimberley Mine.
In 1874, there were 430 concessions in the Kimberley mine. Little by little, the companies joined forces in order to finance more powerful machinery, which gave rise to a boom in South African diamond production. This resulted in a serious crisis, between 1873 and 1894, which sent diamond prices tumbling by 60%. It would have been nice to be able to control production!
Cecil Rhodes, an Englishman, landed in South Africa in 1871. He first rented part of a concession from the mine that formerly belonged to the De Beers brothers. At the same time, he made a fortune selling water pumps to diggers, and from the beginning of the crisis, set out to purchase the lands of all those who were leaving the area. In 1881, he established De Beers Mining Co. From purchase to purchase, with the birth of De Beers Consolidated Mines, Rhodes saw his dream become reality: he controlled South African production. But other mines were being opened and it wasn't until 1926, when Ernest Oppenheimer joined the Board of De Beers, that the foundations were laid for the production and quasi-monopolistic distribution of diamonds that we know today