Brilliant Beginnings: A History of Diamonds

Today diamonds are the most ubiquitous of all the precious gemstones. They take center stage in the majority of the engagement rings that come on the market today, while also serving as dazzling accents to a multitude of colored gemstones. Marilyn Monroe reminded us that “Diamonds are a girl's best friend,” while a slew of marketing campaigns have convinced us that a diamond is the ultimate symbol of true love. However, these popular gems were not always so omnipresent in jewelry designs and pop culture. Read on the learn more about the history behind diamonds and how they came to reign supreme in the realm of precious stones.

Diamond Cluster Earrings Weighing an impressive 22.99 carats, the 22 marquise and pear-cut stones in these earrings have been certified by the GIA as having D through G color

Diamonds: A Natural History

Before we delve into a cultural history of diamonds, let's explore the origins of the stone itself. Most natural diamonds on the market today are actually between 1 billion and 3.5 billion years old. Formed deep within the earth under extreme heat and pressure, the stones are eventually ejected violently upward by underground volcanoes until they arrive near the earth’s surface. Because most diamonds follow the same magma tunnels, they are mostly found together in the same mining regions or alluvial deposits along shorelines - some have even been discovered in glacial deposits. Excavated through mining, a diamond is then cut and polished by a master jeweler until it attains the dazzling brilliance that we have come to associate with this rare stone.

Rough Diamond A "rough" diamond before it has been cut and polished

Diamonds in Ancient Culture

It was not until the 4th century BCE when accounts of diamonds first appear in human history. These first diamonds were discovered and traded in India, though they were limited to a very small market - India's wealthy class. Even in their earliest history, they were considered a luxury item thanks to their general scarcity.

Between 400 and 300 BC is when the first surviving written record of diamonds began to appear. An ancient Indian treatise on economic policy and military strategy, written in Sanskrit and known as the Arthashastra, contains mention of diamonds, as does the Ratna Pariksha, an ancient scientific text written about testing gemstones.

The first diamond export is believed to have taken place in 327 BC thanks to the King of Macedonia, Alexander the Great. Legend has it that Alexander discovered a great Valley of Diamonds guarded by vultures and snakes after invading India. After successfully eluding the creatures and claiming the treasures, he brought diamonds from the region back to Europe, reputedly exporting the stones for the first time.

Portrait of Mary of Burgundy Portrait of Mary of Burgundy wearing diamond engagement ring from Archduke Maximillian of Austria

Rising Popularity into the Modern Era

Diamond popularity began to rise as more and more applications for the stone emerged. While it was initially traded among monarchs as a symbol of power and wealth, it soon began to appear as a popular stone in jewelry designs. The first known instance of a diamond being set into jewelry occurred in 1074, when the Queen of Hungary ordered a royal crown inset with diamonds. Over the next thousand years, they would turn up time and time again in royal estate jewelry.

Another important first in diamond history took place in 1477, when the Archduke Maximillian of Austria ordered the first ever diamond engagement ring for Mary of Burgundy. Little did he know it, but the Archduke started a jewelry trend that persists to this day.

While diamonds quickly spread throughout Europe thanks to increasing trade into the modern era, India remained the primary source for the stones until the early 1700s. Only then did the region's rich stores of diamonds begin to decline, and diamond traders began to search for a new supply of the coveted stones. Luckily, in 1725 Brazil found their first diamond mines, and the country quickly supplanted India as the world's supplier.

Edwardian Diamond Ring A 1.25-carat diamond that is set between two Old European-cut diamonds totaling approximately 2.00 carats in this Edwardian ring

The Modern Market

Global culture began to change in the late 18th and early 19th centuries with the dissolution of many of the world's monarchies and the redistribution of wealth. As more and more middle class individuals rose in prosperity, so did the demand for diamonds. At the same time, new mines in South Africa were discovered, providing ample supply for the increased demand.

Perhaps one of the most significant developments in the modern diamond market took place in 1888 when the legendary entrepreneur Cecil Rhodes established De Beers Consolidated Mines Limited. Rhodes' nearly unlimited supply of diamonds from his South African mines (he was believed to control up to 90% of the world's diamonds) combined with a remarkably savvy marketing initiative changed the diamond industry forever. With their slogan “A diamond is forever,” De Beers successfully established the diamond as the stone of choice for the modern engagement ring, ensuring a steady string of lovestruck customers for decades to follow.

French Diamond Bracelet Alternating strands of diamonds totaling approximately 55.04 carats dazzle in this vintage French bracelet

Diamonds Today

The world diamond market continues to expand rapidly with the discovery of new mines across the globe from Australia to Russia to Canada. With that change came new competition, effectively ending De Beers' monopoly over the world's diamond supply. Still, the precious gemstones are as omnipresent in modern jewelry creations as ever before, and they remain the most popular stone of choice for engagement rings.

An increase in technology and scientific knowledge in the last few decades has been one of the most significant developments in the diamond business. Not only are diamonds cut into a myriad of shapes with more facets than seemed possible a mere century ago, but some companies are even creating their own diamonds in a lab. Though these lab creations boast the same intrinsic beauty as natural stones, they lack the remarkable history of the diamonds that have made their journey through the earth. It is this rich history of the stones that, in our opinion, makes them all the more romantic.

Shop M.S. Rau's collection of estate diamond jewelry.

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