The diamond is the enduring muse for De Beers. Created billions of years ago, deep within the earth, the resilience and brilliance of diamonds enthralled ancient civilisations, just as they continue to enchant us today, their natural beauty and symbolism crossing cultures and continents.
In all etymologies, the word for diamond is linked to strength and power. From the Greek, it derives from adamas, meaning unconquerable and indestructible, relating to the notion that they couldn’t be truly possessed, destined to outlive all those who owned them.
For thousands of years, people were fascinated by the origin of diamonds, spinning their own potent and poetic stories. Early Hindus believed they were created when bolts of lightning struck rocks, the Greeks that they were splinters of stars that had fallen to Earth, while Roman philosophers considered them tears of the gods. Plato even believed that diamonds were living beings that embodied celestial spirits.
Seen as precious and powerful in equal measure, diamonds have long been full of meaning. In the times of the Egyptian pharaohs, a diamond was placed in the middle of the ankh, a cross with a loop at the top that was the hieroglyphic symbol for life itself. Hindu mythology exalted diamonds as talismans against fire, poison and evil spirits. To Romans, they were the giver of strength and courage and warriors wore leather breastplates studded with diamonds in battles.
It is thought diamonds were first discovered in India around 2,500 years ago in the Golconda region, between the Godavari and Krishna Rivers. Diamonds were prized as divine objects by Indian rulers. At this early stage, cutting and polishing had yet to be mastered, so diamonds retained their natural outer skin. Textural and touchable, rough diamonds were kept as talismans and only later incorporated into jewellery, which initially only men were allowed to wear.
From the 10th century onwards, the West began to have economic access to diamonds through the trade routes, and they soon became status symbols. Throughout the Middle Age, diamonds were sought after as amulets thanks to the belief they had mystical and medicinal properties. It was during this swathe of history that the diamond ring also became a symbol of marriage.
In 1286, Guillaume Durand recorded in his priest’s manual that ‘the diamond is unbreakable and love unquenchable and stronger than death, so it suits to be worn on the ring finger, the vein of which comes directly from the heart’. The idea of a diamond ring as a symbol of engagement continues for the following centuries. Charles V presented his wife with a diamond ring to signify their marriage. In 1475, aristocrat Constanzo Sforza gave Camila of Aragon a diamond ring on their wedding day, an event which is recorded in a Vatican manuscript: ‘Two torches in a ring of smoldering fire/Two wills, two hearts, two passions/Are joined in marriage by a diamond ring.’ In 1515, Mary of England returned to her homeland with the diamond ‘Mirror of Naples’, a gift from her late husband Louis XII of France. Marguerite of Angoulême and Henri d’Albret, King of Navarre, chose an engagement ring as their emblem, accompanied by the motto: SIMUL ET SEMPER (‘Forever the same’).
A pioneering diamond cutting technique was discovered in Italy in the late 14th century, allowing for new cuts to be progressively developed, including facetted and fancy cuts. In 1476, Lodewyk Berken invented the faceting ‘scaif’, a polishing wheel that enabled to quickly cut facets into diamonds with precision. The Belgian diamond cutter introduced absolute symmetry into the layout of the facets, which reflected light in new ways.
Diamonds became a symbol of power in the European courts, linked to the idea of divinity. In 1530, the first Crown Jewels were established by King François I of France and contained fourteen diamonds, eleven of which were set in Queen Claude’s necklace. In 1589, Elizabeth I of England acquired the famous ‘Mirror of Portugal’ for herself. In the 18th century, Peter the Great decided to establish the Russian Crown Jewels, including the ‘Great Imperial Crown’ and the ‘Orlov’, given to Catherine the Great by her lover, Count Orlov.
India dominated the diamond trade until the 18th century, when new sources were found in Brazil. During the Age of Enlightenment, diamonds became, in relative terms, more accessible, their mythological influences replaced by their decorative desirability and members of the aristocracy became eager to wear diamonds as a symbol of wealth.
The Belle Époque, with its emphasis on refinement and femininity, set the scene for another great age of the diamond. Pioneered by De Beers, new South African reserves were discovered. Diamonds became the focus for fashionable society, magnetising Maharajahs and American industrialists alike, and as Hollywood stars basked in their glamorous glow, the romantic allure of diamonds began to spread.
No longer the reserve of royalty, diamonds are less about legends and more about contemporary celebrations, commitments and promises. The giving and receiving of a diamond engagement ring became not just an aspiration but a real possibility and a rite of passage, exemplified in 1947 when De Beers declared its famous advertising slogan, ‘A diamond is forever’.
Today, the meanings that diamonds convey continue to evolve, each as individual as those who either gift a diamond or purchase it to enjoy themselves. This is, perhaps, the purest distillation of why the diamond, nature’s finest work of art, will always be our muse.