February 2, 2023

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Do you know the history of diamonds?

The purest and most coveted mineral in the world, the diamond reveals, beyond prestige and glamorous appearances, a thousand-year-old history with not very glorious springs which is (finally) taking the path of rehabilitation.

Summary

  • The diamond, a mysterious talisman
  • The jewel of royalty, the stone of lovers
  • Colonialism, slavery and blood diamonds
  • Future-oriented diamonds

Debris of stars stranded on the planet for the Greeks, tears of the Gods for the Roman philosophers, talisman protecting against fire, poison and evil spirits in Hindu mythology: since the dawn of time (or almost), the diamond does not cease to nourish a mythified imagination in which the coveted precious stone is set up as a Grail with supernatural powers.

Moreover, the very term diamond inherited from the Greek “adamas” – meaning the unbreakable, the invincible – immediately sets the tone.

Symbol of immortality and eternal love, the one who was unilaterally proclaimed “woman’s best friend” by Marilyn Monroe remains a statutory attribute with elitist overtones, synonymous with wealth and success, from which exploitation and democratization draw however, their origins in a less than rosy story.

The diamond, a mysterious talisman

Although there is no official history of the diamond, experts commonly agree to date its origin between 2500 and 1700 BC, the date on which it would have been discovered for the first time in India, in the region of Golconda, between the Godavari and Krishna rivers.

Considered then as a talisman of divine ancestry, it is then worn in its raw state by men in their most natural state, without cutting or polishing.

In some Sanskrit texts dating from 400-300 BC, it is described as a currency of exchange, but also a source of income and an object of merchandise whose value is established through precise methods of evaluation.

And when Alexander the Great, then King of Macedonia invades India, he will not fail to bring back to Europe with the precious stone already transformed into an ultra-coveted object of desire.

A Greek navigator will note as early as 120 BC the existence of extraction sites on the banks of rivers, certainly mentioning without knowing it the first diamond mines.

But it will be necessary to wait until the beginning of the following millennium for the diamond to turn into a sumptuous ornament. European crowned heads seizing the precious mineral from 1074 to adorn their jewelry and other ostentatious signs of wealth, indirectly launching a race for whoever can boast of owning the most beautiful jewel.

The jewel of royalty, the stone of lovers

From the Queen of Hungary who adorned her crown with it in 1074 to the “first” diamond engagement ring ordered by Archduke Maximilian of Austria in 1477, the diamond is coveted by all, including the most romantic.

King Charles V will present it to his (future) wife in favor of their union, the aristocrat Constanzo Sforza will give Camilla of Aragon a diamond ring on their wedding day and, in 1515, Mary of England returned to her kingdom with the Mirror of Naples diamond , a gift from her late husband Louis XII of France.

A pledge of elegance, the precious stone then becomes the object of aesthetic considerations which the craftsmen seize upon to shape it as they wish.

In Italy, an avant-garde diamond cut was developed in the 14th century to give it new sizes, new facets and new fantasies.

In 1476, it was the Belgian diamond cutter Lodewyk Berkin who developed the “scaif”, a polishing wheel which allowed cutters to be cut with precision and speed, while introducing the concept of absolute symmetry into the art of working. The diamond.

A singular way of reflecting the light beyond all the facets of the diamond which will be accompanied by other innovations such as the “rose” cut in 1520 or the heart-shaped one in 1562, tested for a gift from the Queen of Scotland to Queen Elizabeth as a symbol of their friendship.

The following centuries will be marked by the discovery of diamonds as spectacular as they are bewildering, the 116-carat Hope Diamond discovered in 1638 by the explorer Jean Baptiste Tavernier which will adorn, among other things, the crown of Louis XIV, to that of the scepter of Empress Catherine who would rule all of Russia in the late 1700s.

Colonialism, slavery and blood diamonds

Faced with this growing popularization of the diamond through the royal courts of the Old World, a whole industry is being set up, the mines multiplying not only in India, the historic cradle of the diamond, but also throughout the world. Whole, against a backdrop of colonialism and slavery oppression.

In addition to a diamond route opened in the 1500s by the explorer Vasco da Gama, which will boost the trade in precious stones between Indian mines and Europe, other adventurers are rushing to find other deposits in Brazil (1725), in Russia (1829) or in Australia (1851) exacerbating competition between diamond merchants now subject to one of the first globalized markets.

But it was with the discovery of mines in South Africa in 1870 that the exploitation and polishing of diamonds took a resolutely industrial turn, with all the socio-economic implications that such a change tends to bring about.

And for good reason, in addition to the abundance of resources controlled with an iron fist by a minority of specialized companies, the existence of cheap labor and know-how will contribute to the democratization of diamonds.

As Karin Hofmeester recalls in detail in Diamonds, from the mine to the ring, in the majority of extraction sites, miners were generally subjected to slavery or difficult working conditions, such as low wages. , high debt or forced labor, not to mention the massive forced migrations driven by the various European colonial empires with the complicity of monopolistic companies.

Democratized from the first half of the 20th century under the influence of Hollywood and savvy advertisers, the diamond nevertheless remains an ultra-coveted luxury good whose lucrative business is the subject of numerous traffics, a fortiori in the within regions with unstable new nations, plagued by a corrupt political class and neo-colonialist practices.

Made artificially rare by the De Beers conglomerate, which monopolized the supply of African diamonds, diamonds were the subject of a fierce race on the eve of independence, as the socio-anthropologist Sylvie Bredeloup very rightly describes.

This is how many scandals were born at the end of the 80s and 90s, including that of Blood Diamonds , these diamonds extracted and sold illegally in conflict zones allowing rebel groups to buy weapons and contribute to the financing to civil wars against a backdrop of human abuse.

According to Amnesty International, this lucrative business – in particular depicted by the feature film by Edward Zwick with Léonardo Dicaprio (Warner Bros), would have caused the death of 3.7 million people in Angola, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), in Liberia and in Sierra Leone.

Future-oriented diamonds

Faced with the human devastation caused by diamonds at ever more democratized prices, the United Nations began the Kimberley process in 2000, named after the eponymous South African city.

His calling? Put an end to “violent diamonds” through international legislation that ethically regulates the rules for mining, trading and certifying rough diamonds.

At the same time, the jewelry industry has seen the development of the creation of synthetic diamonds, which, in addition to a production that respects human rights, ensures a production that is more concerned with the environment and natural resources.

This is how new generation designers, but also renowned jewellers, such as Pandora, no longer hesitate to imagine lines of jewelry made exclusively from diamonds produced in laboratories , in the face of a clientele who, in the light of the climate emergency, contribute to redefining the codes of chic.

Or when the diamond acquires a new promise of eternity.