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A Brief History of Diamonds

Diamonds have a remarkable history that has been tied to our own as humans, with their origins beginning long before ours, forged in the depths of earth itself—the youngest of which were formed approximately 900 million years ago. The hardest material known to us, the word “diamond” has roots in the Greek word, “adamao,” which means, “I tame,” or “I subdue.” When used as an adjective, “adamas” described the hardest substance known (roughly translating to “unconquerable,” “indestructible,” or “invincible”), eventually becoming synonymous with diamonds. Similarly to coal, diamonds are composed of carbon—however, being formed in the earth’s lithosphere, around 100 to 250 miles below the surface of the earth, the immense amount of pressure and extremely high temperatures crystalizes the carbon atoms into diamonds. Today, diamonds are a lasting symbol of love and commitment, with their rarity, beauty, and strength, as well as their vibrant history and lustrous brilliance, ensuring that they are the sole gemstone fit to bestow its gifts on a lasting union.

Rough, Uncut DiamondRough, uncut diamond

While diamonds can be sourced all around the world at present—from Canada and the United States to Australia and Russia—our knowledge of the gemstones are believed to have originated in the India region more than 3,000 years ago. Buddhist and Sanskrit texts from the territory mention diamonds and recounts their qualities, dating as far back as the 3rd and 4th century BC—because of diamonds’ natural abilities to refract light, people of the region heralded diamonds as talismans and decorations, worn or hung to ward off evil. In these texts, the gemstones are referenced as having magical and powerful qualities, stating that those who wear diamonds will see “dangers recede from him,” and calling diamonds “the jewel above all others.” Before they became known as a modern symbol for love and a form of currency, diamonds had been surrounded by superstition, mystique, and divine belief.

Diamonds in various cuts and carat weights

Diamonds in various cuts and carat weights

For more than a millennium, diamonds largely were found solely in India, but in 327 BC, Alexander the Great was recorded as the first to transport these gemstones into Europe after his invasion of the Indian territories. As they made their way throughout the Western world, in the Dark Ages and Early Middle Ages, diamonds were largely thought to have medicinal properties, and it was said that if anyone who was suffering from great illness or affliction held a diamond while making the sign of the cross, they would be healed and shielded from unwanted toxins; some also believed that swallowing the diamonds while ill would similarly cure their sickness. Royal families and powerful leaders, on the other hand, exchanged diamonds to seal an alliance or to express their loyalty, and Romans believed that the gemstones would provide protection in battle, with warriors wearing them on armor into battle, hoping for invincibility and strength. In the 1st century AD, the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote, “Diamond is the most valuable, not only of precious stones, but of all things in this world.” Plato, by his own record, believed that diamonds embodied celestial spirits, and thus were themselves living beings. There is also an early reference to diamonds being utilized in The Bible, in the book of Jeremiah, reading, “The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond: it is graven on the table of their heart, and on the horns of your altars.” It is possible that, in the translation of these ancient texts that the authors were referring to other hard stones or materials known at the time, but these records seemingly also indicate, that, wherever they were found, diamonds continually captured the eyes and minds of many, recognized for their various uses.

Mary of Burgundy's Engagement Ring, dated 1477Mary of Burgundy's Engagement Ring, dated 1477

The first occurrence of diamonds being used in jewelry was in the form of a crown for a Hungarian queen from 1074 AD. Later, in the 13th century, French King Louis IX established a law to reserve diamonds for only the king to wear, and within 100 years, these gemstones would go on to appear in royal jewelry of both men and women, later to be found among the greater European aristocracy, with the wealthy merchant class not being able to purchase and wear them until the 17th century. It was during this time that the first known engagement ring featuring diamonds was recorded, in 1477, when the Archduke Maximilian of Austria gifted a diamond ring to Mary of Burgundy upon his proposal, thus beginning the longstanding tradition that’s still in practice today.

Man-powered diamond cutting mill, circa 18th centuryMan-powered diamond cutting mill, circa 18th century

Diamonds were largely left uncut until the mid 1300s to early 1400s, with early documentations of diamond cutting taking place in Europe—in Venice, Italy and Paris, France, specifically—with references to major guilds in both locations at the time. Definite proof of where diamond cutting initially originated hasn’t been found yet, and while it’s largely considered to be a European invention, it’s possible it could be traced back down the roads on which the diamonds traveled. It wasn’t until 1458 that a Belgian man discovered that diamonds could be cut and polished using their own dust, and proposed symmetrical facets when cutting the gemstones to enhance sparkle and catch the light, leading to Belgium becoming the largest hub for diamond trade and diamond cutting in the world.

Diamond worker at work in his studio, in Antwerp, BelgiumDiamond worker at work in his studio, in Antwerp, Belgium

By 1499, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, had discovered a new trade route around the Cape of Good Hope, which led to an explosion of diamonds coming into the Western world from India. As diamonds became more popular, the elite sought out new ways to make them their own through cutting them into differentiated shapes and sizes. Evolving from ancient times, when it was believed that cutting the gemstone would make it lose all its spiritual powers from its natural state, technology would aid with driving a new craft and era of stone cutting, moving from the earliest superficial polishing of the stone, then, with the introduction of continuous rotary motion in 15th and 16th century tools, gem cutters were able to grind facets with greater ease and a creative doorway to new innovations.

Vintage and Antique Stone Cuts, SketchedVintage and Antique Stone Cuts, Sketched

Because of this, artisans began to experiment with cutting the stone to produce less waste and capture the diamond’s internal beauty, with the year 1520 seeing the creation of the Rose Cut (developed to resemble a rose)—and many other cuts came soon after. In 1562, Mary Queen of Scots sent a heart-shaped diamond in a ring to Queen Elizabeth, as a symbol of friendship. Longer rectangular stones that predate the Baguette Cut were introduced around this time, as were Table Cuts and Mughal Cuts, leading to the eventual introduction of the Brilliant Cut. It wasn’t until the introduction of the motorized diamond saw in the early 1900s in the United States that changed the ancient craft into a more modern industry, introducing the Asscher Cut in 1902, the modern Baguette Cut (reintroduced in 1912), the Princess Cut (which was developed in the 1960s), and more. By the 20th century, gemologists had developed a number of methods for grading diamonds—and other gemstones—to determine pricing and desirability, based on their unique valuable characteristics. Now internationally known as the “Four C’s,” the basic descriptors of diamonds are carat, cut, color, and clarity, as developed by the Gemological Institute of America in 1953. Individual scales within each of these four “C” categories determine the market value of each gemstone, with various cuts, colors, and levels of clarity being more prized than others. 

The "Eureka" DiamondThe "Eureka" diamond, now on display at the Kimberley Mine Museum in South Africa

India had remained the sole source of diamonds for hundreds of years, until a small deposit was found in Brazil in 1725—and the quest for alternate sources began. It wasn’t until 1866, however, that the first diamond mines were located elsewhere, in South Africa—by a child playing in a river—with the discovery of the “Eureka” diamond (21.25 carats). Less than ten years later, in 1871, another, larger diamond (83.50 carats) was unearthed in South Africa at the Colesberg Kopje, starting a rush of prospectors to the region, and beginning the first large-scale mining operation known as the Kimberley Mine. Since then, South Africa has become one of the largest hubs for diamond mines in the world, along with with several other African countries, Siberian Russia (discovered in 1829 in the Ural mountains), Australia (discovered in 1851 in the Bathurst area of New South Wales), and Canada (where mining started at the Ekati mine in 1988). The common characteristic of where these sources are being found, we now know, depends on ancient terrain that hosts the kimberlite and lamproite pipes that bring these ancient gemstones up to the Earth’s surface.

Constellation Centaurus, home to white dwarf BPM 37093 (Image: NASA)The constellation Centaurus, home to white dwarf BPM 37093, the largest known diamond-like object in the galaxy

Diamonds are still widely considered one of the most valuable and sought-after materials on earth, both for their physical and sentimental value, as well as hosting a lustrous splendor that has been desired and appreciated for centuries. In a bizarre twist, in 2004, the largest diamond known to man was discovered in space by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center, located in the constellation Centaurus, which used to be a star and is now a white dwarf weighing 10 billion trillion trillion carats—larger than the diameter of our moon. No matter the source or mining method, here or in a distant galaxy, diamonds continue to captivate and enchant as symbols of hope and great expectations for the future. 


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