More than just aesthetics, the diamond is an eternal symbol of love, romance and commitment. The name diamond comes from the Greek word adamas, which translates to “unconquerable”. This symbolism is fitting for the diamond’s historical tribute to eternal love.

The History of Diamonds

The earliest diamonds were discovered in India in the 4th century B.C., although the youngest of these deposits were formed 900 million years ago. Most of these early stones were transported along the network of trade routes connecting India and China, often referred to as the Silk Road. At the time they were discovered, diamonds were valued for their strength and brilliance, as well as for their ability to refract light and sculpt metal. Diamonds were worn as ornaments, used as cutting tools, used as amulets to ward off evil, and thought to provide protection in battle. In the Dark Ages, diamonds were also used as medical aids and were believed to cure diseases and heal wounds when ingested.

Surprisingly, diamonds share some characteristics with coal. Both are made up of the most common substance on earth: carbon. What makes diamonds different from coal is the way the carbon atoms are arranged and how the carbon is formed. Diamonds are created when carbon is placed under extremely high pressure and temperature in the Earth’s lithosphere, which lies about 90-240 miles below the surface.

Until the 18th century, India was thought to be the only source of diamonds. When the diamond mines in India were depleted, other sources were sought. Although a small deposit was discovered in Brazil in 1725, the supply was not sufficient to meet world demand.

In 1866, while exploring the banks of the Orange River, 15-year-old Erasmus Jacobs discovered what he thought was an ordinary pebble, but it turned out to be a 21.25-carat diamond, and in 1871, a huge 83.50-carat deposit was unearthed on a shallow mound called Colesberg Kopje. These discoveries sparked an influx of thousands of diamond prospectors into the area and led to the start of the first large-scale mining operation, which became known as the Kimberley Mine. This newfound source of diamonds greatly increased the world’s supply of diamonds, causing their value to plummet. The elite no longer considered diamonds to be rare and began to replace this “common” stone with colored gemstones. Emeralds, rubies and sapphires became the more popular choice of engagement ring stones among the upper classes.

In 1880, Englishman Cecil John Rhodes founded De Beers Consolidated Mines Limited in an effort to control the diamond supply. Despite De Beers’ success in controlling the diamond supply, demand for diamonds was weak. By 1919, diamonds had depreciated in value by nearly 50%.

The History of Diamond Engagement Rings

The use of rings as a symbol of commitment dates back to ancient history, specifically to the Roman engagement (truth) rings. These early rings, usually formed from twisted copper or woven hair, were worn on the third finger of the left hand. The placement of the ring was important because the Romans believed that the vein (vena amorous) on the third finger led directly to the heart. For the Romans, the engagement ring was used as a symbol of affection or friendship and did not always represent the ceremony of marriage.

The history of the engagement ring began in 1215 when Pope Innocent III, one of the most powerful popes of the Middle Ages, declared a waiting period between the engagement and marriage ceremonies. Rings were used to signify the couple’s commitment during this period. It was during this same period that the ring was introduced as a major component of the wedding ceremony, and the Roman government mandated that all marriage ceremonies take place in a church. In addition to being a symbol of intent to marry, these early rings also represented social rank; only the elite were allowed to wear ornate rings or rings with jewels.

The first recorded diamond engagement ring was made in 1477, when Archduke Maximilian of Austria proposed to Mary of Burgundy. While engagement rings were common at this time, diamonds were rare and reserved for royalty and the upper elite.

A modern revival

In 1947, De Beers commissioned the services of leading advertising agency N.W. Ayer with the slogan “Diamonds are Forever”. The premise of this massive marketing campaign was to suggest the diamond as the only choice for an engagement ring. The tremendous success of the De Beers advertising campaign is a factor in the widespread acceptance of the diamond engagement ring tradition today. In today’s fine jewelry market, over 78% of engagement rings sold contain diamonds.

With the popularity of precious stones, many companies and organizations have begun campaigns to educate jewelers and consumers alike on what to look for when choosing a diamond. As jewelers experimented with ways to improve the visual appeal and presentation of diamonds, new cutting techniques were adopted to help enhance the brilliance of the stones. Over time, several prominent shapes became the most popular varieties, including round, oval, marquise, square (princess) and rectangular (emerald).

Today, the world’s diamond deposits are slowly being depleted. Less than 20% of the diamonds mined are of gem quality; less than 2% are considered “investment diamonds”. 75-80% of mined diamonds are used for industrial applications such as grinding, sawing and drilling. Typically, more than 250 tons of ore must be mined to produce one carat of gem-quality diamonds.

The rarity, beauty and strength of the diamond make it a fitting symbol of the resilience and longevity of marriage. In addition to engagement rings, diamonds are traditionally given as gifts for milestone 60th anniversaries. With its rich history, timeless feel and brilliance, the diamond is a natural choice to symbolize a lasting union.

The History of Diamond Mining and Diamonds in South Africa

The discovery of diamonds in 1867 in the Cape Colony of South Africa fundamentally changed not only the world’s supply of diamonds, but also the concept of what a diamond could be. Over the next decade, annual world diamond production increased more than tenfold, and a once extremely rare material became readily available as the wealth of Western societies increased. Today, South Africa maintains its position as a major diamond producer.

1,174 Diamond Carbon Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free Images - iStock

The story of South Africa’s diamonds begins between December 1866 and February 1867, when 15-year-old Erasmus Jacobs discovered a clear rock on his father’s farm, located on the south bank of the Orange River. Over the next few years, South Africa produced more diamonds than India had produced in over 2,000 years.

The first diamonds found in South Africa were alluvial. By 1869, diamonds were being found far from any stream or river. First in loess, then in the hard rock known as blue clay, later known as kimberlite, named after the mining town of Kimberley.

In the 1870s and 1880s, the Kimberley, which encompassed the mines that produced 95 percent of the world’s diamonds, was the site of great wealth and fierce competition, most notably between Cecil John Rhodes and Barney Barnato, the British immigrants who consolidated the early 31-foot prospects into increasingly large holdings and mining companies. 1888, Rhodes Unlike the legendary cat, one might expect the Premier Mine to enjoy only four lives. The first was the discovery of the diamond pipe prior to 1902 and the establishment of the Premier (Transvaal) Diamond Mining Company until the outbreak of World War I, when the mine was closed and operated on a caretaker basis. By January 1916, it was working again and production continued until 1932, when diamond mining operations ceased due to a downturn in the diamond industry.

Work resumed in 1945, but its fourth life really began in 1979, when the mine opened up under the Gabrol Ridge, a 70-meter-long geological intrusion of barren rock that runs directly through a pipe some 400 meters below the surface. Production from this new source has not only given the mine its longest life, but should allow production to continue for another 15 years.

In the early years of its existence, the Premier mine produced many large diamonds, including, of course, the 1905 Cullinan diamond, and since work recommenced in 1945, the mine has continued to produce some exceptional stones.

One of the most exciting moments came early on Sunday, May 22, 1954, when a diamond just under 51 millimeters long, over 25 millimeters wide and 19 millimeters thick unexpectedly appeared on the grease table at the recovery plant. The officials present immediately recognized that the diamond, which became known as the Nyax Diamond (426.5ct), was an exceptional find.

Visit the South African Museum dedicated to the diamond industry. You will discover more about the history of South African diamonds and diamonds when you visit our museum in the Clock Tower on the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town.