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The History and Mystique of Diamonds

the history of diamonds

Perhaps no gemstone has captured our imaginations through the ages more than the diamond. It has been prized, revered and coveted by cultures around the world for centuries due to its unparalleled beauty, rarity, mystery and strength.

Diamonds were first mined in India more than 4,000 years ago.

The ancient Greeks and Romans believed they were tears of the gods and splinters from falling stars. The Hindus believed that diamonds were formed by lightning striking rock and attributed such power to these precious stones that they placed them in the eyes of their statues. Kings and queens throughout history have adorned themselves with diamonds and fought bitter battles to gain possession of these unique jewels.

To the ancients, diamonds were magical, mystical talismans.

It was believed they could do everything from bringing luck, wealth and success to their wearers to bestowing power, fearlessness, invincibility and even heightened sexual prowess. Roman soldiers wore diamonds in battle to protect them and give them courage. In the Middle Ages, diamonds were used to ward off the effects of poison and illness. The Jewish High Priests believed the stone could determine innocence or guilt.

Diamonds are the ultimate expression of love.

This regal stone, which derives its name from the ancient Greek word "adamao," translated as "I tame" or "I subdue," also represents the ultimate gift of love and romance. Its strength and durability have made it an enduring symbol of matrimony and eternal commitment. The first engagement ring on record was presented by Austria's Archduke Maximilian to his betrothed, Mary of Burgundy, in 1477. The ring was placed on the third finger of her left hand, based on an ancient Egyptian belief that this finger contained a "love vein" that ran directly to the heart. Ever since then, couples around the world have pledged their love and devotion with a diamond.

Diamonds come from the center of the earth.

Diamonds are incredibly old. They were formed deep in the earth - 100-200 miles below the surface - as much as thousands years ago. Diamonds are made of pure carbon, crystallized by intense heat and pressure in the earth's interior and forced to the surface by volcanic eruption.

Aside from their uniqueness and beauty, diamonds are extremely durable. In fact, they are the hardest known substance on earth - four times harder than rubies or sapphires, the next hardest materials. Due to their hardness, diamonds can only be scratched or polished by other diamonds.

Why diamonds are so rare.

Powerful volcanic activity formed what are known as "pipes" - openings in the earth - and forced the diamonds up through the pipes to the surface, along with other minerals such as kimberlite. Some of these diamonds made their way into streams, rivers and seas; however, these are only considered secondary deposits. Most of the diamonds forced up through the earth settled back into the kimberlite pipes, and it is these primary sources that have been the basis for the world's diamond mines. Only one in 200 kimberlite pipes will contain diamonds in economically viable quantities - one reason why diamonds are so rare.

Approximately 250 tons of ore must be mined and processed to produce a single one-carat, polished, gem quality diamond. This ore goes through many stages of blasting, crushing, processing and advanced x-ray techniques to release the diamonds. More than 100 million carats are mined each year, but only a quarter of these will be considered gem quality.

Where diamonds are found.

Diamonds are found all over the world, but 80% of all diamonds come from just seven sources: Angola, Australia, Botswana, Namibia, Russia, South Africa and Zaire. Modern mining - and the rise of the great De Beers diamond empire - began in South Africa in the mid 19th century. Legend has it that Erasmus Jacobs, an eight-year-old farm boy, found a 21-ct. yellow "pebble" in 1866 near the Orange River that turned out to be a diamond - the first of many discovered in South Africa.

How diamonds are classified.

Once the diamonds have been mined and processed, they are classified and valued according to their size, shape, quality and color. The Diamond Trading Company (DTC), the marketing and selling arm of De Beers, sorts some two-thirds of the world's diamond production, by value. DTC sorts rough diamonds into more than 16,000 categories. These diamonds are then sold 10 times per year at regular, invitation-only sales called "sights" to the world's leading diamond cutters, polishers and manufacturers. Sightholders may choose to cut the rough they purchase themselves or sell some of it to smaller manufacturers and wholesalers.

Cutting and polishing determine the value.

The next step for the rough diamond is cutting and polishing. This is a great skill, with meticulous techniques that have been practiced and perfected for generations. The main diamond cutting and trading centers are based in Antwerp, Belgium; Mumbai, India; Tel Aviv, Israel; New York; and Johannesburg, South Africa. China and Thailand have most recently developed their own centers.

Although some of the polishing process is computerized, most of the work is still performed by hand. First, the cutter uses cleaving, sawing or laser cutting to separate the original rough into smaller, more workable pieces. Then, the girdler uses a process called bruting that grinds away the stone's edges and provides its outline shape. Faceting follows, usually in two steps. The first 18 facets (table, culet, bezel and pavilion of a stone) are cut and polished by the blocker. The brillianteer cuts and polishes the final 40 facets, including the star, upper girdle and lower girdle. Finally, the cut gem is boiled in acids to remove dust and oil. Once polished, most diamonds are sold and traded in one of the 24 registered diamond bourses around the world.

At this point, the polished gems are ready to be set into finished pieces of jewelry, which is the manufacturer's job. They are then either sold to a wholesaler, who works as a middleman to sell the manufacturer's goods to the retailer, or sold directly to the retailer by the manufacturer."