To many people, diamonds symbolize lofty concepts like wealth, status, love and even eternity. Over the centuries that people have known about them, diamonds have represented invulnerability, healing, and protection. The word diamond originates from the Greek word adamao, meaning I subdue. Later on, the word adamas signified the hardest substance known on earth; eventually becoming synonymous with the diamond crystal.
Diamond crystals first appeared in Europe during the 13th century as accent stones used in highlighting known gems of the day like pearl, ruby, and sapphire. But by the 16th century diamonds began to appear as larger central stones in jewelry when stone cutters developed faceting techniques. This newfound process released the fire and brilliance within the diamond.
The first ever established diamond-cutting center was created in the early 14th century in Venice, Italy. Later in the 14th century, diamond trading moved to Brussels and Paris, and then to Antwerp. When Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to the Orient around the Cape of Good Hope, it provided Europeans with a direct route for trading diamonds coming from India, the only known source of diamonds at the time. Goa, on India’s Malabar Coast, facilitated diamond trading from Goa to Lisbon to Antwerp.
Around 1600, gemstones become highly coveted in jewelry styles, rather than the metalwork of the past. This preference came during the peak of Indian diamond production. But two events in late 19th century changed the role of diamonds forever. The discovery in the 1870s of rich diamond deposits in South Africa changed diamond’s availably so that most anyone who could afford them now. Also, the French crown jewels, were sold in 1887 to the newly-rich, particularly in the United States, which was becoming a powerful nation.
By 1875, the global annual output of diamonds exceeded 1-million carats for the first time in history. The story of diamonds took a turn in South Africa at the end of 1866 when 15-year-old Erasmus Jacobs stumbled upon a clear rock on his father’s farm. This started the diamond rush in that continent. Over the next 15 years, South Africa produced more diamonds than India had in the past two centuries.
By the 1870s to 1880s, the Kimberley region of South Africa produced 95% of the world’s diamonds, turning it into a hub of enormous wealth and fierce rivalry, most notably that between entrepreneurs Cecil Rhodes and Barney Barnato. These English immigrants had transformed 31-square-foot diamond prospects into immense mining conglomerates. In 1888, Rhodes prevailed and merged the holdings of both men, thus creating De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd., a company that is still synonymous with diamonds today. At some point the monopoly had to be dissolved to allow other countries like Russia and elsewhere to gain entrée into the global pipeline. Today it’s called De Beers Group, overseeing about 35% of the world’s annual output of diamond rough.