Blesq Diamonds
10 January 2019

The Cullinan Diamond

From the Earth’s crust to the Crown Jewels

We’d like to share our passion and expertise for diamonds with you, which is why we’ve created the Blesq diamonds blog – read on for gripping tales and exciting news about the most precious gemstone on Earth.

The story of the Cullinan Diamond

The 26th of January 1905 started out like any other day at the British Premier Mine, located 38 kilometres to the east of the South African capital of Pretoria. In those days, the mine fell under the ownership of the Transvaal Colony (1902–1910), which was subject to British rule.
Frederick Wells was the British production manager on the site, and one of his jobs was to make a daily inspection of the site. While checking the various nooks and crannies, he found a raw diamond nestling just nine metres under the surface of the mine – a chance discovery that would go on to create a lasting legacy. According to scientific studies, a stone of this size would have had to travel to the surface from up to 750 kilometres below ground, making it a real rarity. Its purity and weight of 3106.75 carats (621.35 grams) makes it the largest diamond ever found in human history. The diamond was named after the mine’s owner,Thomas Cullinan – as was the small mining town where the mine is located.

The town still exists and the Cullinan mine is still in operation today. As might be expected, though, it bears little resemblance to the mine from a century ago. Today, experts use cutting-edge technology to reach depths of almost 800 metres, digging through the earth in the hope of finding a diamond that might just outshine the Cullinan. Once a harsh place to carve out a living, the mine is now one of the most important and in-demand employers in the region. It even puts on tours for visitors eager to take a peek below the Earth’s surface.

Shipped, split and refined.

The discovery of the Cullinan was only the first stage of its journey. When a policy of self-rule was passed in the Transvaal Colony at the end of 1906, Prime Minister Louis Botha proposed to his parliament members in August 1907 that the Colony should buy the raw diamond and present it to King Edward VII, the reigning British monarch, as a gesture of gratitude and loyalty. The Transvaal Colony government presented it to the King on 9 November 1907 in honour of his 66th birthday. It is worth pointing out that transporting the stone from South Africa to England put the safety of the ship’s crew at huge risk. As there was a need to protect the stone from theft and from being damaged while in transit, a detail of detectives was assigned to protect the steamboat – even though it was actually carrying a fake the entire time. The real diamond was sent by Royal Mail in an unmarked box.

With the diamond now in England, the next step was the most delicate one: splitting the diamond. This needed to be done for two reasons: first, to counteract the Cullinan’s high internal stresses; and second, because less material would be lost during polishing if the stones were smaller. The best gemcutter in the world was commissioned for this tremendous, one-of-a-kind task: I.J. Asscher and Company in Amsterdam. After three months of intensive preparations, master cleaver Joseph Asscher was ready to cut the diamond. Even so, his steel knife broke the first time around. It is said that during the second attempt, a doctor and a nurse were on hand in case anything went wrong. Legend has it that Asscher did indeed faint the moment he managed to split the Cullinan. The two parts weighed a hefty 1977.5 carats and 1040 carats, and were split again into nine large diamonds and 96 minor brilliants for a total of 105 precious stones.

A royal finish for the Cullinan

The nine major stones were given the names Cullinan I through IX, and the two largest diamonds subsequently found their way into the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom.

Cullinan I

Called ‘The Great Star of Africa’, this 530.3 carat (106.4 gram) diamond certainly lives up to its name and continues to captivate visitors to the Jewel House to this day. As a pear-shaped brilliant, it is mounted in the head of the Sovereign’s Sceptre and can be removed as desired. Measuring 53 × 44 × 29 millimetres, a total of 79 perfectly polished facets turn the diamond into a breathtaking work of art.

Cullinan II

Christened the ‘Lesser Star of Africa’, this diamond is a cushion-cut brilliant weighing 317.4 carats (63.48 grams). Its charming appearance earned it pride of place on what has to be the most distinguished piece of headgear in the world: the Imperial State Crown. The Cullinan II continues to grace the regal head of Queen Elizabeth II today.

The other 103 stones can be found in collections all over the world, captivating owners and onlookers alike with their dazzling appearance – and even more brilliant history.

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