Diamond History

Zulu miners in Africa

To start an endeavour like this it is best to start with an overview of what diamonds are. Diamonds are minerals that are composed of the element carbon: which is a key mineral in most living and non-living things; which includes us, humans. I reckon it is ironic that carbon, given its centrality to life here on Earth, as the key element that makes up the human body; and as a key factor that powers our energy requirements (despite the declining importance of fossil fuels) is also a key source of fascination. Hence the importance of carbon in another area that we value: precious jewels, should not come as a surprise. Diamonds, as hardened carbon atoms are valued for their rarity, hardness and glow. These factors in combination with other cultural and spiritual factors have contributed to the global prominence of these gemstones. That are, arguably the most sought after gemstone in the world. However the journey of a diamond from a hardened piece mineral set within rocks and other deposits deep underground: rough, dirty and out of shape, to become the luxurious, sought after jewellery item is a long journey. In the same way the development story of these carbon-based minerals, which are formed deep within the Earth’s surface over a long period of time. Our focus here is on the history of diamonds: notably its use and trade as a valuable mineral.

The Prehistory of Diamonds: Their Formation

Diamonds were formed billion years ago deep within the Earth’s surface under extreme conditions where heat and environmental pressure caused carbon atoms to crystallise. Their hardening over long periods resulting in changes to the atomic structure of the mineral, leading to the formation of diamonds. Diamonds are minerals that are found at depths that go hundreds of kilometres deep underground. Where temperatures go well above the 100 degrees Celsius mark. With environments characterized by very high pressure (measured in kilo-bars that measures atmospheric pressure). That in such diamond forming environments could measure thousands of times the pressure that is found on the Earth’s surface. Under these hostile conditions, molten lamproite and kimberlite (variants of magma) which are the key vehicles that contain, and later help transfer diamonds to the surface. The expansion of these within Earth’s upper mantle causes the magma to erupt. This is a rarer, smaller type of volcanic eruption, involving pipes or vents. Which force the diamond embedded rocks within the magma to rise up to the Earth’s surface, and taking the diamond bearing rocks along with them. These diamond rich ‘pipes’, as they are known, cool upon entry to the surface. The hardened magma that form these vertical structures, are known as kimberlite pipes, that stretch deep underground. And it is with the location of these kimberlite pipes that the search for diamond begins. A process, that depending on the diamond source in question, is one that takes the mining company deep into Earth.

Kimberley Diamond Mines in South Africa

Diamond Trading in Ancient Times

Diamonds have a long history of being the being subject of desire. In the Roman world, diamonds were thought to be the tears of the gods, and also, true to their warrior-like culture, were believed to provide protection to Roman soldiers. In ancient Egypt, in the time of the pharaohs, a diamond was placed at the centre of the ankh: a cross symbol and ornament, that contains a loop at the top. Which was understood as the hieroglyphic symbol of life itself. In Hindu mythology diamonds were considered as spiritual talismans that were believed to protect the wearer against harmful effects of poison and evil spirits.

India is an interesting entry in this list since it is not a country that presently has a reputation in the world of the diamond trade. But when one looks deeper into history, the South Asian nation is an important player in the story of diamonds. Whilst the accounts vary, diamonds, in terms of their use as precious gemstone were believed to have originated in India. These special gemstones being gathered from the country’s rich rivers and countless streams that characterize its geography. With India’s trading in diamonds going back early as the 4th century BC. But since this was before the discovery of large scale mining practices, the returns were low. Hence the country’s diamond resources yielded limited quantities, and only the wealthy and those of high social status gained access to them. Though limited in supply, Indian diamonds found their way into the international market, with the economies of Western Europe being the main destination.

Given their unmistakable allure and rarity, as the centuries wore on, diamonds were being recognized by the top tier of society. With the growing strength of Europe, notably their wealthy elites choosing them for jewellery, accessories or simply to hold as precious gemstones. With the decline in the supply of diamonds from India, the South American nation of Brazil emerged as a new player in the diamond market. In the 1700s diamond, deposits were discovered in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais: with rivers in and around the region becoming a source of alluvial diamond deposits. The discovery of diamonds was a by-product of the pursuit of gold in the region. Where the gold rush, in the then Portuguese colony, led to the discovery of diamond deposits in the gravels in the local rivers. With this source, Brazil came to dominate the diamond market for over a century, with trade routes of empire facilitating the diamond trade. And today Brazil still remains a player in the diamond industry; though the country, along with the other South American nation of Colombia, have gained more prominence in the trade of emeralds.

With the decline in the supply of diamonds from Brazil, matched by the rising global demand for diamonds, fuelled by the rising human populace, matched by socio-economic changes, with economic and political upheavals rising, the newer diamond sources were sought to meet the higher demand. Underling all of this change, however, and what is arguably the single most important factor in the history of the diamond trade, was: The British Empire. This brings us to the overview of the diamond trade in Africa: the single biggest diamond producer, and a key centre that would come to define the character and trajectory of the diamond trade. 

Kimberley Diamond Mines, South Africa

De Beers and the Transformation of the Diamonds Trade

The continent of Africa was a key source of imperial fascination for the then rising European powers. The role of empire in the Diamond trade is a vast subject. However, one particular player is worth engaging here. The 1800s was the period where European powers were accelerating their expansion of the world, with land and the potential of Africa firmly in their sights. Great Britain soon emerged as the main power in the exploration and conquest of the Dark continent. A central figure in the diamond trade and a notorious empire builder is Cecil Rhodes. A native of Hertfordshire, England, who began working with his brother in the British colonies, in diamond-rich parts of Southern Africa. With the region of Kimberley, today a part of Northern South Africa becoming a key source for diamonds. As a shrewd industrialist, Rhodes used the money he made from his smaller diamond mines to expand his holding, with newer regions in Southern Africa being acquired and placed under his control. A man of ambition, Rhodes smartly balanced his industrial ambition with his academic pursuits; even completing a degree in Oxford.

With larger and growing control of diamond mines in Africa and the profits that resulted from them, Rhodes was able to increase his wealth considerably, becoming one of the richest men in the world in his early thirties. However money was not his only driver, as an imperialist, he saw the trade of diamonds as a way to increase Britain's influence in the continent of Africa. By buying local mines, negotiating predominately one-sided land deals, and in some cases by instigating armed conflict with locals. His carefully planned efforts helped expand British holding in Africa, with him personally helping to establish the colonies of Northern and Southern Rhodesia.

A critical development in the trade of diamonds, one that will shape the trade for the next nearly two hundred years is the establishment of the De Beers Mining Company. Rhodes with his associate Charles Rudd would establish this entity in 1888-1889. Having gained controlled of the local diamond mining operations, and the strengthening of its trade in the global market with the formation of a partnership with the London Diamond Syndicate-a financial and trading organization, which Rhodes also had a hand in establishing. Given his close ties with the diamond industry, which was dominated by London, Rhodes effectively moved the company into a virtual monopoly. With much of the African diamond industry either owned or controlled by his companies, and with the support of the British Empire, his influence and that of De Beers only grew. Notable here is the 1889 Royal Charter that established the British South Africa Company, which gave Rhodes and De Beers, not just economic but also political and legal power over the lands they managed. De Beers market power and the legacy of Cecil Rhodes continues to this day. Though things are changing with the arrival of newer players, and new diamond sources found in places like Russia and Canada.