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Jewelry Guide - Diamonds

A Brief History of Diamonds

The diamond has a history as old and fascinating as any ever told -- it is filled with mystery, myths, and wondrous truths. The name "diamond" comes from the Greek word for "unconquerable," and its actual and symbolic strength was revered by ancient kings from China and India to Egypt and Rome.

Until the 18th century - with the discovery of diamond deposits in Brazil and South Africa - nearly all diamonds came from India. Historically, diamonds were traded along two routes that ended in Europe. Starting from India, traders followed a land route that led to Constantinople. From there, they were shipped to Italian cities like Venice. The other route imported diamonds by water through the Saudi Peninsula and then to Europe from Egypt.

Even during the 16th century, the biggest and best diamonds never arrived in Europe -- they were bought up by Arab princes who lived along the traders’ routes. In China, diamonds were long a popular stone, too. The Chinese honored the diamond as an unbeatable stone cutting and engraving tool, to be used by only the richest and most noble men.

The French Dukes of Burgundy made wearing diamond jewelry popular in the second half of the 15th century. Before then, the diamond was generally used as a talisman -- more revered for its curative and strengthening powers than loved for its beauty. During the Renaissance, the diamond’s reputed killing powers were almost as great as its curing ones. Rumors about "diamond poison" grew, linked to the likes of Catherine De Medici (1519-89), whose "powder of succession" (probably arsenic) eliminated many unlucky enough to have hopes of sitting on the French throne.

Fortunately, the diamond’s appeal outlasted the nasty rumors. The tradition of giving diamonds as tokens of love and commitment began at the end of the 15th century when Austrian Archduke Maximilian gave a diamond ring to his fiancé. They chose to place the ring on the fourth finger of the left hand because legend held that this finger provided a direct link between tokens of love and the heart.

As the diamond’s popularity grew, so too did the demands on the mines. At the beginning of the 18th century, when Indian mines were running dry, diamonds were discovered in Brazil. A Portuguese colonist named Sebastiano Leme do Prado realized that gold prospectors outside of Rio de Janeiro were using strangely transparent stones that they’d found on the ground as chips in their card games. Soon, the diamond rush was on in Brazil.

The Brazilian sources were remarkably productive, but they were overmined and started to run dry within a century. Fortunately, in 1867, diamonds were discovered on a South African farm in the Cape Province. Since then, mines in South Africa have been recovering diamonds at a remarkable rate and are only second to India for producing the world’s largest and most famous diamonds.

Currently, most diamonds are mined in the following countries: South Africa, Zaire, the former USSR, Australia, Botswana, Angola, Namibia, Brazil, Ghana, and China. The major cutting centers of the diamond world are in Antwerp, Bombay, Tel Aviv, and New York.

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