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Natural diamond crystal nestled in kimberlite. Image: Shutterstock
Natural diamond crystal nestled in kimberlite. Image: Shutterstock

Why diamonds?: Exploring the history and future of the world’s most iconic gemstone

Australian geologist EWEN TYLER (AM) has been called the 'Father of Australian diamonds', having led the discovery of the country's three diamond mines. Here, he reflects on humanity’s captivation with these shimmering stones.
The world of birds started to specialise about 70 million years ago, and we only need to look at the bowerbird, and indeed the jackdaw of Rheims, to see that lifeforms long pre-dating Homo sapiens’ arrival were attracted to things bright and shiny

In some strange way, we, as humans, are ‘programmed’ to lust after things which are rare, shiny and beautiful. We also have an innate and intuitive sense of economics and reciprocal exchange; this is something greater than ourselves.

To understand why, we must look back perhaps 70 million years.

While what I will describe is necessarily speculative, it is wedded to evolution as a prime source of data, moving into the world of geologists, archaeologists, historians, and even later, neuroscience.

The world of birds started to specialise about 70 million years ago, and we only need to look at the bowerbird, and indeed the jackdaw of Rheims, to see that lifeforms long pre-dating Homo sapiens’ arrival were attracted to things bright and shiny; objects which reflect the sun.

I can report placing aluminium foil around a bowerbird’s court, and next day finding all the pieces placed in his bower. He does all this, and dances, carrying one of his decorations, to demonstrate his sexual prowess.

The bowerbirds are often considered the most advanced of all birds!

An intricate bowerbird
An intricate bowerbird's nest decorated with colourful objects to attract a mate. Image: BBC

In the Omo Valley in Ethiopia about 2 million years ago, early humans known as Homo habilis carried white, shiny, translucent quartz over long distances to their camp by a riverbank.

It was by no means the best tool-making material in the area, but they had fashioned it because, no doubt, they were attracted to it.

Around Kimberley in South Africa, rock engravings dated possibly earlier than 10,000 years ago of roan antelope, zebra and ostrich are so fine in detail, that it is suggested that a diamond could have cut these petroglyphs.

If true, this is perhaps the first recorded industrial use of diamond.

Looking back so far in time, the key words to emerge are shiny, decorative, and mysterious – diamond fits the bill.

A storied history
Erasmus Stephanus Jacobs was 15 years old when he found the Eureka Diamond near Hopetown in 1867.
Erasmus Stephanus Jacobs was 15 years old when he found the Eureka Diamond near Hopetown in 1867.

The modern discovery of diamonds in South Africa is well-documented. In 1867, 15-year-old Erasmus Jacobs picked up a 21-carat stone by a riverbank; three years later a Griqua farm boy, Booi, picked up an 83-carat stone on land near the Orange River.

I want now to look at where such large stones as Booi found in South Africa might also have come from in antiquity, to illustrate both the ‘where’ and ‘why’ of our diamond history.

Of the 35 well-documented diamonds above 100 carats, 20 were sourced in South Africa and the remaining 15 from India.

That South Africa, with the benefit of 130 years of modern commercial diamond production, should have beaten India – whose diamond industry dried up more than 200 years ago – is not surprising.

However, it does show the importance of India as a source of big, visible stones.

The Eureka Diamond was the first diamond discovered in South Africa and originally weighed 21.25 carats. It was later cut to a 10.73-carat cushion and is presently on display at the Mine Museum in Kimberley.
The Eureka Diamond was the first diamond discovered in South Africa and originally weighed 21.25 carats. It was later cut to a 10.73-carat cushion and is presently on display at the Mine Museum in Kimberley.

You may ask, if diamonds were being used ‘industrially’ over 10,000 years ago in South Africa, why was their modern discovery delayed so long? Perhaps because of human migration in the Ice Ages.

At this time, Kimberley would have been very cold, and India much warmer; early humans were moving north, rather than south.

It is believed that diamond mining began in India about 1000BCE, with a well-documented trade – complete with taxation and customs duties – between 400BCE and 600CE.

Indeed, there exist technical manuals from this period giving instructions as to how to assess the value of a diamond with the octahedral form considered ideal, but very rare in nature.

Transparency, colour, fire and iridescence were important descriptors. Certainly, early diamond price lists must have existed!

Of all belief systems, Hinduism is the oldest still extant, with its progenitor, the Vedanta Scriptures, dating to approximately 2500BCE.

Ancient Hindu culture held that diamond, because of its optical qualities, contained the effect of a mystical force. Its hardness was well known and utilised, but this property seemed not to be a feature of its magic or religious attributes.

Of course, an octahedral crystal with six sharp points and eight very flat sides showed the stone at its very best. It is therefore not surprising that diamonds were dedicated to the Hindu deities.

The white octahedron was dedicated to Indra, god of storms, thunder and lightning. All crystals, including diamonds, were dedicated to Vishnu; one of the Hindu trinity of Creator, Preserver and Destroyer.

Yet beyond scarcity, in my opinion, there is a core fascination which goes much deeper. It is evident when a tiny diamond is discovered by a prospecting geologist in a laboratory, and everyone else crowds around to look

Vishnu’s mission on Earth was to preserve the good and destroy evildoers and these properties were associated with the diamond, hence the dedication.

In the Hindu caste system, historically, diamonds also played their part. Only the priestly Brahmin could possess white crystals of the best shapes, landowners were permitted yellow stones, and so on.

The magic power attributed to diamonds no doubt came from the priesthood, but the story later spread to Greek and Roman society.

The Greek philosopher Plato, writing in the 4th Century CE, described precious stones as “living beings – the embodiment of celestial beings – diamond, a transparent distillate of the noblest part of gold”.

One of Aristotle’s pupils even described ‘male’ and ‘female’ diamonds!

Pliny, the Roman historian who lived between 23CE and 79CE, wrote, “That of all the goods of the Earth, and not only of precious stones, it is the diamond to which we attribute the highest value.”

The pragmatic Romans, like the Hindus, gave it a magical and metaphysical significance. It was a talisman worn to fend off evil spirits, to protect in war, and to attract in love.

It had all the virtues of Vishnu, and the human concern with protection from death.

Myths and legends

One could say very much about diamond mysticism and fables, like that of the valley of the diamonds protected by serpents which dates from the time of Alexander the Great in 323BCE.

This story travelled from the Hellenic East to China, the Arab world, Persia, India, and finally to Europe with Marco Polo in 1298CE.

From Medieval times right up to the 16th Century CE, all sorts of myths were propagated!

If the idea of ‘male’ and ‘female’ diamonds seems absurd, there were later notions that they could be subject to illness, old age, and death, and that two diamonds could produce offspring.

It is this intuitive reciprocal exchange that is relevant to the question of why diamonds remain so captivating to us

At one point, a diamond owned by the Duchess of Luxemburg was said to be pregnant, and the diamond mines in India were closed for 30 years to allow the stones to ‘breed’!

Until early in the 14th Century CE, the trade in diamonds was almost entirely in their rough form, as it had been since ancient times. Cleaving – that is, cutting the top off an octahedron – was known in India; it was recorded that “an iron blade, immersed in the blood of a he-goat” could cut a diamond.

Yet it was not common practise in Europe until the latter part of the 14th Century CE – perhaps due to a lack of sacrificial goats!

Point cutting probably began early in the 15th Century CE, and this started the process of adding value to the already prized stones.

From this time, the ornate decoration of kings, princes, maharajahs, moguls, and emperors – and their families – became a priority. All who saw themselves as aristocrats chose to bedeck themselves in bejewelled finery.

From that time to today, they have represented the pinnacle of human decoration.

What I am demonstrating is that the quasi-religious attention to diamonds, the mythological connotations, and the grand scale of decoration, dates back a very long time, and for that reason, may be permanently etched in the human psyche.

Art and industry

Beside adornment, we must look also to the industrial use of diamonds from ancient times to the present day, which makes up a very important part of the diamond story.

Leaving behind Neolithic petroglyph carvings, we know that glyptic art – the practice of engraving on precious stones – was very popular in Rome from 2nd Century BCE.

In Pliny’s time, a diamond-tipped engraving tool was known to be in use, and such tools were also exported to China for the cutting of jade and drilling of pearls.

Industrial use in the West began with commercial mining, and the excess stock unusable in jewellery. The obvious attribute to exploit was diamond’s hardness – ideal for machine tools, abrasives, concrete cutting, and more.

With the discovery of huge diamond deposits in the then-Belgian Congo in the 1930s – of more than 90 per cent was of industrial quality – there was a vast supply ready for immediate usage.

In Kimberley, De Beers –  the world’s principal supplier of diamond – viewed the new ‘mega-producer’ with some apprehension.

Diamonds are like time capsules, brought to the surface by kimberlites – ancient volcanic channels – from deep in the Earth’s mantle. Each diamond encloses minerals, whose composition and history can ‘describe’ the internal processes of the planet

World War II saw a spike in industrial demand and more serious experiments into diamond synthesis – a process that began with the research of James Hannay in 1878.

By 1953, Swedish firm ASEA had formed a synthetic diamond, followed by the US’ General Electric in 1955.

De Beers – with its stocks of Congo Boort – was slower off the mark, but successfully synthesised a stone at its Diamond Research Laboratory in South Africa in 1958.

In 1960, the turmoil-ridden independence to Congo precipitated a crisis in the supply of Congo Boort. De Beers and General Electric went into synthetic mode, and the outcome was the development of a new industry in synthetic diamonds.

De Beers built not only a manufacturing centre in South Africa, but also in Shannon, Ireland, and entered into a joint venture with ASEA, which operated high-quality hydraulic presses.

By 1975, synthetic diamond production had overtaken natural diamond mining, and by 1990 about 85 per cent of industrial diamond demand was being met by synthetics.

I would guess that by today, something like a billion carats of synthetic diamonds are being produced annually.

Today, the magic of diamond is being used in yet another way.

We have seen its decorative function and its industrial application, and now it enables us to look inside our planet and understand something of its inner and most mysterious workings.

Diamonds are like time capsules, brought to the surface by kimberlites – ancient volcanic channels – from deep in the Earth’s mantle. Each diamond encloses minerals, whose composition and history can ‘describe’ the internal processes of the planet.

Diamonds do not form above 150km in the Earth’s crust, and can originate from depths of 660km. Thanks to their travelling, they can tell us stories of what occurs below; these stories are of inestimable value to the world of science, to say nothing of their value to the geologist!

Now and forever

Why are diamonds so sought after? Certainly, scarcity is an element, and the high value-to-weight ratio has made diamonds ideal ‘escape money’ throughout history.

Jewish people fleeing the pogroms of Tsarist Russia were able to re-establish themselves in foreign lands through the capital provided by their diamonds.

Later, many who escaped from the Holocaust spoke of the value of their diamonds to both assist their escape and restart their lives.

Yet beyond scarcity, in my opinion, there is a core fascination which goes much deeper.

It is evident when a tiny diamond is discovered by a prospecting geologist in a laboratory, and everyone else crowds around to look.

Even today, the diamond engagement ring mirrors such a reciprocal exchange – a precious gift that is given to promise a life together, and perhaps even the creation of new life. So, why diamonds? The answer is in our very nature

It is something which we have perhaps inherited through millions of years of evolution – an attraction to all things shiny, beautiful and mysterious.

We have, in our cells, an intuitive understanding of physics, and the fact that things fall down, not up. Similarly, the understanding of engineering, which we use to make tools, is a skill we have had for millions of years.

We also have an intuitive sense of economics through the concept of reciprocal exchange, in which one party confers a benefit on another, and is entitled to an equivalent benefit in return.

There are several more core intuitions that have been identified by neuroscientists, and researched.

It is this intuitive reciprocal exchange that is relevant to the question of why diamonds remain so captivating to us.

The principle of reciprocal exchange is the foundation of all religious systems, and has evolved with us.

It is always the same; a gift is made to God – perhaps sacrificing a goat, building a temple, or spreading the Word – and in return God provides rain, a ripe harvest, victory in battle, and even protection from death.

Diamonds, with their shimmering shine, reflect and resemble the sun – the source of all power and life, a God-like symbol. Even our distant relations, the baboons, line up every morning to watch the sun rise.

Perhaps it is this intuition that made humans view diamonds as a gift to and from the Gods, and associate them with such mysticism and power.

Even today, the diamond engagement ring mirrors such a reciprocal exchange – a precious gift that is given to promise a life together, and perhaps even the creation of new life.

So, why diamonds? The answer is in our very nature.

 

This article is based on a presentation Ewen Tyler (AM) delivered to a mining conference in Australia in 2002.











ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ewen Tyler (AM)

Ewen Tyler (AM) completed his degree in geology at the University of Western Australia in 1949 and was instrumental in the searches that discovered the Argyle, Ellendale and Merlin diamond mines. He was awarded an Order of Australia in 1991 and the Clunies Ross National Science & Technology Award in 1992.

Peter W Beck
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