Diamond History and Symbolism

Diamond History and Symbolism | Cape Town Diamond Museum

Let’s Take a Look at Diamond Symbolism Through the Years

Diamonds are so central to any piece of jewellery that it seems hard or even absurd to think of jewellery that pre-dates the inclusion of one of the oldest gemstones to have formed on the planet. Looking back at how diamonds came to play a role so central to jewellery is a fascinating one. Equally so, is the evolution of what diamonds symbolised then and now.

Diamonds in the Rough: Ancient Beliefs

Remarkably, there was a time before diamonds denoted true and lasting love.

The Ancient Greeks

Diamond History and Symbolism | Cape Town Diamond Museum

Ancient Greeks Had a Complex Relationship With Diamonds

The Ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, who is widely believed to have been born in 429 BC, is often heralded as the founder of Western philosophical thought and spirituality. Because of his approach to and way of reasoning, he is still studied by scholars today, with his influence on ‘modern’ thought still very much tangible. Luckily, one of Plato’s philosophies that did not survive was his take on diamonds: according to him, diamonds were not dead stones, but very much alive. Encased in diamonds were heavenly spirits with ethereal powers. One of the powers he assigned to these ‘alive’ stones was the strange ability to reproduce.

Later on, the ancient Greeks believed that diamonds were the teardrops of these heavenly spirits or gods. Consequently, the Ancient Greeks had a complex relationship with diamonds – they were either revered, feared or tremendously treasured.

The Ancient Romans

Diamond History and Symbolism | Cape Town Diamond Museum

The Romans Believed that Diamonds were Invincible

Moving on from the Greeks to the Romans, who believed that diamonds were invincible and couldn’t be pierced by a sword or splintered by merely being trodden upon, they would use them in a way that would be considered sacrilege today. Unbelievably, they wore a diamond as part of their armour, believing that it made them invincible. In particular, the leader of an army such as a king would wear a breastplate studded with diamonds. This tradition was then adopted by medieval knights who believed the same myth.

The Ancient Far East

Diamond History and Symbolism | Cape Town Diamond Museum

 Diamonds were Able to Ward Off A Variety of Unwanted ‘Things’ 

Meanwhile in the ancient Far East, different diamond theories were brewing. Because of a diamond’s brilliant, mirror-like reflective effect and hardness, diamonds were thought of as being able to ward off a range of unwanted ‘things’ or circumstances. These included ill health, poverty, bad spirits, fire, snakes, rats, poison and more.

The Ancient Egyptians

Diamond History and Symbolism | Cape Town Diamond Museum

Egyptians Buried Their Deceased with Diamonds and Gold

No overview of ancient anything could possibly bypass the Egyptian customs of old, seeing as though they did only leave the world with their legacies of pharaohs and pyramids. The Egyptians were famous for sending off their deceased loved ones with food and finery so they’d be fine on the next leg of their journey. And it was the same with gold and diamonds.

Moving on to more modern times

Fortunately for the fate of diamonds – and for women in particular – diamonds became synonymous as being the benchmark for exquisite jewellery.

The Jewel in the Crown

Diamond History and Symbolism | Cape Town Diamond Museum

The Hungarian’s Queens  Crown Was The First Known Example of Diamonds in Jewellery 

Following the belief of diamonds as talismans, protective spirits or magical medicinal healing stones, they gradually became ‘respected’ as an aspect of wealth and as a stone to be desired in its own right. It is widely believed that the first known example of diamonds in jewellery was in the form of a Hungarian queen’s crown in 1074. This was significant because the diamond was not chosen for merely any form of jewellery but was literally set as the crown jewel, denoting dominion, influence, superiority, power and status.

Conquering the World Stage

Diamond History and Symbolism | Cape Town Diamond Museum

World Leaders Would Wear Diamond Jewellery as a Show of Power

The scene was set for what the diamond would go on to represent for centuries: a gemstone befitting royalty. Aristocrats and world leaders would also exchange diamond gifts as signs of allegiance, or wear diamond jewellery as a show of power once a new territory had been conquered.

This inevitably meant a surge in demand and diamond mines on many continents, notably as far as India, which multiplied in number.

All Loved Up

Diamond History and Symbolism | Cape Town Diamond Museum

Diamonds then Became a Symbol of Love

From denoting power, status and loyalty, the diamond’s beauty could not be denied and in what now seems inevitable, it also became a symbol of love. Bestowing your loved one with wearable diamond creations came to symbolise an unbreakable bond.

The 790-carat diamond that was discovered in India in the thirteenth century and now still forms part of the British Crown Jewels, changed the trajectory of diamond perception globally. Many know that Mary of Burgundy was the very first woman to receive a diamond engagement ring from Archduke Maximillian of Austria in 1477, a trend that persists to this day and is likely to last for centuries to come. More significantly though is the more than solid speculation that at seeing the crown jewels containing their massive diamonds, he knew that no other diamond would be befitting of her, or symbolic enough to convey his stoic intention to be by her side for life.

All Shapes and Sizes Welcome

Diamond History and Symbolism | Cape Town Diamond Museum

It Now Became the Time to Experiment with Cutting in Different Shapes and Sizes

By this time in the 15th century, the sea route to India was plotted and traversed by Vasco da Gama. While diamonds were already being mass-mined in the region, it now opened the possibility of increasing diamond exports to Europe from India, putting it within reach of classes just below the aristocracy until eventually, almost anyone who had a serious intent to own a diamond could work towards the goal of having one.

What fueled this ability of more and more people to own diamond jewellery  was that it was now safe to experiment with cutting it in different shapes and sizes. In 1520, for example, the ‘Rose Cut’ was invented. The diamond was literally cut to resemble a rose.

Following hot on the heels of priceless diamonds being mined in India, came new diamond mines in more far-flung places from Europe, including mines in Brazil, Australia, Russia, and, of course, South Africa, where some of the biggest diamonds ever were yet to be mined.

The Cullinan Diamond – A Cut Above the Rest

Diamond History and Symbolism | Cape Town Diamond Museum

More than Double the Carat of Any Other Diamond Discovered at That Time

The Cullinan Diamond was one such discovery. At more than 3000 carats, it was more than double the carat weight of any diamond known to man. Once again, the diamond came to grace the United Kingdom’s crown jewels.

Improving Your Grades

Diamond History and Symbolism | Cape Town Diamond Museum

In the Early 20th Century the International Grading System was Born

By the early 20th century it was evident that no one was ever going to be happy with a piece of ‘serious’ jewellery minus a diamond, and diamonds were now also recognised for their outward signs of wealth displayed, as well as being an important investment ‘class’. This meant that a uniform standard was required for trading diamonds, evaluating and pricing them. The international grading system was born resting on the four Cs – cut, clarity, carat and colour.

Thanks to this grading system, women around the world have become more specific about inspecting what they receive, and crucially playing a bigger role in what they desire as an engagement ring in the first place.

With so much going for it and its undiminished appeal, it’s safe to say the status of the iconic diamond as the symbol of dedicated love will be well and truly preserved for millennia to come.

Learn more about the fascinating history of diamonds when you visit the Cape Town Diamond Museum. We’re open daily from 9am to 9pm at the V&A Waterfront Clock Tower. Book your tour here.