King of Diamonds

King of Diamonds

Many of the great diamonds of the world have a history steeped in intrigue, treachery, and death. At present the best—known diamonds owe their fame to the stories surrounding them. Several now rest like tamed giants in velvet—lined cases in museums: the Kohinoor in the Tower of London, the Hope in the Smithsonian, the Regent in the Louvre, the Orloff in the Kremlin. Each of the diamonds is on display behind a façade of bullet—proof glass, its beauty exposed to the world, but its secret power is hidden within silent crystals.

Happily, the largest diamond ever discovered has been deprived of an ignoble past of subterfuge, deceit, and very bad luck to everyone who owned or wore it. The events that surround this fabulous find are infused instead with merriment and good—natured levity. This is the story of the great Cullinan Diamond.

In December 1902, just seven months after the Boer War had finally brought the South African republics under British sovereignty, a one—time bricklayer named Thomas Cullinan discovered diamonds on a small ground rise near Pretoria, the capital of the Transvaal. This little hill was found to be the cap of a new diamond pipe. It became known as the Premier Mine, and within a few years it was yielding more diamonds than all the mines controlled by the fabulous DeBeers enterprise.

That such a competitor was permitted to exist represented a humiliating shortsightedness on the part of the DeBeers chairman Francis Oats. Convinced that Thomas Cullinan had salted his hill with diamonds from elsewhere, Oats concluded that he could safely sit back and await the inevitable embarrassment of those who had invested in the mine. At the very beginning he might have been able to acquire the Premier for a song. He soon came to regret his decision not to buy, for the mine continued to yield more and more diamonds. To add to the disgrace of the DeBeers operation, the directors of the Premier refused to cooperate with the diamond syndicate set up by DeBeers to control the world's diamond trade. They sold their diamonds directly to world markets. But the greatest blow to DeBeers was the discovery in the Premier Mine of the largest diamond the world had ever seen.

Late one afternoon in January 1905, the mine superintendent, Frederick Wells, was conducting an inspection tour. He could scarcely believe his eyes when he caught sight of the largest raw diamond he had ever seen protruding from one of the side walls and reflecting in the setting South African sun. He scrambled down into the thirty—foot pits and, using his penknife, dislodged the gemstone. It fill his hand!

The stone had three natural crystal faces and one large cleavage. The nature and shape of the cleavage has led many scientists to believe the stone was probably part of a large lump of diamond that had broken loose during earth movements. Indeed some authorities recognize the remarkable possibility that the total raw diamond lump may have been twice the size of the fragment found by Wells. The stone, in the rough form in which it was discovered, measured four and a half by two and a half by two and a quarter inches and weighted 1.4 pounds—an incredible 3,106 carats! It was named the Cullinan Diamond after the chairman of the Premier Mine. As discoverer of the gemstone Wells was given a bonus of $10,000, a considerable sum in those days.

From the moment of its discovery the Cullinan was treated as a stone beyond compare. The Premier Mine sold the diamond to the government of the Transvaal for 150,000 pounds. In 1907 they presented the stone to King Edward VII of Great Britain on his sixty—sixth birthday. Such a token as the Cullinan was conspicuous evidence of colonial allegiance to Great Britain.

The lighthearted adventures of the Cullinan continued as it was sent to the new owner. The government of the Transvaal, being extremely concerned about the possible theft of so precious a cargo, employed very elaborate security measures in shipping a box, supposedly carrying the stone, to London. However, this was all subterfuge. While a grand display was made of transporting the diamond by means of a highly protected operation, it had actually been mailed by parcel post bearing a three—shilling stamp.

In London the comedy continued. After much consultation, King Edward appointed the Asscher Brothers firm in Amsterdam to cut the stone. Another ruse was employed in transporting the stone from London to Amsterdam. With appropriate fanfare, the Royal Navy transported an empty box across the North Sea. Even the captain of the actual transporting vessel was not aware that the closely guarded box in his cabin was empty. Meanwhile, Abraham Asscher traveled home with the Cullinan Diamond in his pocket.

Abraham's brother, Joseph, undertook the task of cutting the diamond. Awed by the possibility that the great stone could be ruined, Joseph studied it for several months before attempting the first cut. It was on February 10, 1908, that he finally placed a steel blade in a newly made incision and rapped it firmly with his mallet. The diamond did not cleave; instead the steel blade broke. Joseph made three more attempts before the diamond finally split. To the amazement and relief of all concerned it divided perfectly into two parts.

Associated with the cleaving of the Cullinan is a persistent melodramatic legend. It is said that when the stone cleaved successfully Asscher swooned into the arms of his doctor.

Asscher subsequently fashioned the Cullinan into nine large and ninety—six small stones, as well as 9.5 carats of polished fragments. At present two of the major gems are the largest cut diamonds in the world. The Great Star of Africa, weighing 530.2 carats, is the largest. It is mounted on the British Imperial Sceptre and is on permanent display in the tower of London. All nine of the largest stones fashioned from the raw diamond have remained in the possession of the British Crown.

It seems refreshing that the largest diamond of all time has no history of tragedy or intrigue but one of good humor and majestic poise. One can only hope that the inner fire of the Cullinan diamonds will remain undefiled by greed and treachery for many centuries to come.

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth