The down and dirty on diamonds, part 2

In Part 1 of this series, I covered some of the natural history of diamonds how they come to be, where they are found, the properties that make them unique and why, in turn, that makes them valuable to people. In this part, I’ll start to take a look at the human history of diamonds.

The first recorded human interaction with diamonds occured around the 2500 BCE in China, but these diamonds weren’t used for jewelry or to denote special status. It appears that these diamonds were used as tools. Remember — diamonds are the hardest mineral on earth. They can be used to cut where other substances would break. It’s not strange that diamonds would be used for industrial purposes, either. Even today, some 80 percent of all diamonds mined are put to industrial uses.

It would take about 2000 years for diamonds to be appreciated for their beauty alone. That happened around the 4th Century BCE in India, where until quite recently (relatively speaking), the only jewelry-worthy diamonds in the world were found. In those early times India, diamonds were used to denote personal status and to adorn religious objects. They were believed to have mystical properties, too, including the ability to protect their wearers from fire, poison, water snakes, evil spirits — even thieves (one wonders f that also applied to diamond thieves). Also, for the first time, people were using the high value and small size of diamonds as a way to easily transport wealth with them as they moved about.

diamond roman ring 4th century
A Roman ring from the 4th Century CE featuring a point-cut diamond.

Around the same time, a hothead upstart from the west named Alexander the Great was knocking on India’s door. He never made it back home to Macedon, having died in Babylon in 323 BCE. Diamonds, however, did go home with the Greeks, who named the strange, beautiful and hard things adamas, meaning “indestructible.” 

Trade in diamonds spread eastward, also, along the Silk Road. This means that diamonds have been a luxury commodity traded for more than 2000 years from the shores of the Mediterranean to the shores of China — quite a rare thing in its own right. 

But if you had a time machine and went back to see a diamond traded in the Dark Ages or early Middle Ages in Europe, you would probably be pretty disappointed. In fact, you might not recognize it as a diamond at all. It would likely appear inexpertly cut, and the stone would not shine and sparkle like the diamonds we are used to seeing today.

diamond uncut point
A rough diamond. Notice how closely its shape resembles the point cut.

That’s because the tools used to cut diamonds into the many shapes we’re familiar with, and the process of polishing diamonds until they sparkle, had yet to be developed. For centuries, diamonds were often kept in a “point cut,” which mimicked the crystalline structure diamonds naturally take. The point cut looks like two pyramids joined together. In this form, they could be mounted into rings or added to crowns, but they wouldn’t really look like the diamonds we know today.

Change came when the first diamond-shaping tools were developed in Asia in the 1200s and Europe in the 1300s. Probably not coincidentally, this corresponds to the establishment of the first diamond-cutting guild, which took place in 1375 in Nuremberg, Germany. This soon led to an explosion in the art and science of diamond crafting.

diamond point cut diamond ring
A ring from the Renaissance Period featuring a table-cut diamond.

The development of a new cut, the table cut diamond, arrived at the end of the 14th Century. This cut was made by cutting off one of the tops of the pyramids of the point cut, revealing a shape that resembles a table — the classic “diamond” shape you come across in clip art, cartoons or slot machines. One of the advantages of this cut is that the “table” showcases the clarity of diamonds, elevating them from the dark and murky diamonds of earlier periods. But without extra facets, they still lacked the brilliance of today’s diamonds.

Up to now, there’s been a theme: a lack of brilliance. But with the arrival of the 1400s and the centering of the diamond trade in Flanders, things were about to take a giant leap forward.

In particular, it was one Flemish guy, Lodewyk van Bercken of Bruges, who really got things going for the diamond trade. His advancement was the development of a spinning “scaif” wheel for diamond polishing that could precisely place facets on the gem to achieve symmetry and maximize brilliance. Finally, diamonds were starting to show the flashy characteristics we prize them for today.

diamond Lodewyk van Berken
A 18th-Century CE diamond workshop using equipment based on innovations from Lodewyk van Bercken. Notice the scaif spinning wheel to the left of the seated man. The wheel was apparently powered by hand – or foot.

How did Bercken’s device work? Well, remember how diamonds are the hardest mineral? It takes other diamonds to polish them. More precisely, it takes diamond dust. The dust is suspended in olive oil placed upon the wheel, which is spun while a diamond is held in place against it. It can take many hours just to cut a single facet, and there can be as many as eighty-eight facets on a single stone, in the case of a larger briolette-cut diamond.

In 1475, Bercken pioneered the world’s pear-cut diamond, which is still a cut in use today.

Word of Bercken’s skill spread to France, where Charles the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy, caught wind of it. He commissioned several pieces of jewelry from Bercken. By one account, he cut the now-lost Florentine Diamond for the Duke, which he was wearing when he fell at the Battle of Morat in 1476. He is also said to be the artist behind the Beau Sancy and the Sancy diamond.

If all that sounds a little too fantastical for one man, you just might be right. It didn’t take long for people to start questioning whether one man alone could have revolutionized how diamonds were cut and shaped, invented new cuts of his own and been commissioned to make three of the legendary diamonds of history.

There’s evidence to be found on either side of the argument.

What’s inarguable, though, is that the invention of the scaif, which appears to have been pioneered in Bruges, centered the European diamond trade in Flanders. And that is just a hop away from Amsterdam. And I’ll talk about how that happened in the next installment.

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