The diamond occupies an astonishingly unique place in the story of civilisation. A dazzling fragment of eternity, it has shed its divine light through thousands of years, captivating mankind with its otherworldly beauty, engendering superstitions and supernatural beliefs, spinning layers of magic, myth and legend. From the earliest of times, the diamond was revered as a magical intermediary between man and the unseen forces of nature that governed his fate. The diamond's awe-inspiring strength and durability came to signify valour and virility, invincibility and good fortune. Its unearthly light symbolised a higher power and spiritual illumination. Through history, this mesmerising mystique has enthralled kings and cardinals, princes and potentates, moguls and movie stars. The diamond evolved into the ultimate possession, with a value that reached way beyond worldly wealth and territorial power.
The word diamond comes from the Greek adamas, meaning invincible, a term that was used for any particularly hard mineral or material in ancient Greece. But the story of diamonds starts even earlier, some three thousand years ago, in India, where it is thought the earliest diamonds known to man were discovered in the Golconda region of the Deccan, near Hyderabad, in alluvial deposits in the valley between the Godavari and Krishna Rivers. This fabled valley, with its deep, diamond-carpeted pits, was said to be guarded by vicious, poisonous snakes; miners threw sheep carcasses or lumps of meat onto the diamonds so they would stick to the grease; vultures then swooped down to pick up the meat, the birds were shot or returned to their nest, and the diamonds later retrieved.
From these early times, the diamond was embedded into the very soul of India, its myths and legends woven into the fabric of Hindu culture. Hindus believed that diamonds were created when lightning bolts struck rocks. The Indian deity Krishna gave his love Radha a great diamond – believed by some to be the Koh-i-Noor – to reflect her beauty as it shone in the moonlight, and diamonds were often placed in the eyes of statues.
Astrologically, diamonds were associated with sacred moonlight; they were worn in battle as a symbol of courage and virtue, to imbue the wearer with magical strength and also, more practically, to deflect weapon blows. A sixth-century A.D. Indian text, the Ratnapariksha, describes the protective powers of the diamond in detail, saying that the presence of a diamond means that dangers will recede, and the diamond will protect against serpents, fire, poison, sickness, thieves, floods and evil spirits.
Diamond crystals were first set into jewels around the second century B.C., becoming more widely used in rings in the Roman period, from the second to fourth century A.D., when they were prized for their supernatural powers of bravery and strength, and their ability to triumph over life’s tribulations. The ancients engendered their own beliefs: diamonds were slivers of the moon, splinters of falling stars or the tears of the gods. Linking diamonds to everlasting love, Eros’ (Cupid’s) arrows, unfailingly irresistible, were believed to be tipped with diamonds. Plato believed that diamonds were the purest, noblest part of gold, condensed into a transparent mass, while he also saw gems as living beings, celestial spirits, which led to later ideas that diamonds were capable of mating and breeding. In the first century A.D., the Roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder stated that the diamond was the rarest thing on earth, with a greater value than any other human possession.
In Western Europe, by the early Middle Ages, diamonds were so sought after for their rarity and supposed inherent powers that sumptuary laws decreed they were only to be worn by kings and royalty. Throughout the Middle Ages, the amuletic aspects of minerals and gems and the virtues ascribed to them were more important than their ornamental value, and the many lapidaries – accounts of mystical and medicinal properties of precious stones – strengthened long-held beliefs about the magical effects a diamond could have on the wearer. It was an antidote to poison, could avert bad dreams and strife, impart virtue and generosity, calm the mentally ill and heal the sick if taken into the sickbed to warm the body. A diamond touching each corner of a house or garden offered protection from lightning and storms.
The heyday of the Golconda mines and Indian diamonds came during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Diamond trading and commerce, centred on the fortress city of Golconda, brought great prosperity and fame to the region, and the name Golconda became a byword for fabulous wealth. Every diamond of over two carats automatically belonged to the ruler.
The Belle Époque (late nineteenth century until World War I), with its cult of femininity, its newly generated wealth and refined and leisured luxury, set the scene for another great age of the diamond. This was an era of great diamond transactions, when collectors, with a passion bordering on obsession, avidly pursued the greatest, most historic diamonds, especially those with royal provenance, embroidering their fantastic stories with their own tales of luxury, love or tragedy. It was an era too that opened onto a new century, and a new world, in which diamonds, through a process of evolving democratisation, continued to exert their aeons-old fascination as wondrous, mystifying treasures of the earth: indestructible, agelessly modern, rich in romance, filled with unearthly light, loaded with legend linking past, present, future and eternity.