African titbits: the Cullinan Diamond

To be honest, I only read about the Cullinan Diamond for a quiz I was setting. Jewellery’s pretty to look at, but it doesn’t really hold the same fascination as watching an elephant for half an hour.  When I started reading about the Diamond however, I was sucked in by Wikipedia, passed through numerous anonymous websites and spat out the other end by the Daily Mail. I was fascinated.

The Cullinan Diamond was discovered in South Africa in 1905, and (according to the Daily Mail, though no other sources I can reference) was so implausibly large, it was nearly thrown out with the rubbish. The superintendent rescued it and recognised the diamond for what it was:  3,106 carats and thought to be the largest diamond ever discovered. In fact, a smooth fracture down one side suggests this is only a small portion of an even larger diamond.  The diamond was named after Sir Thomas Cullinan the owner of the mine, and purchased by the Transvaal Government for £150,000. They voted to send it to King Edward VII as a token of their loyalty, and although this was shortly after the end of the Boer war, this was mainly driven by the Boer population and opposed by English settlers.

The Cullinan Diamond was so valuable it had to be sent to London from South Africa by roundabout means. A parcel was ceremonially placed on a steamer ship in the captain’s safe, and guarded by detectives all of the way to London. Meanwhile the real diamond was sent in an unmarked box by normal post. The Cullinan Diamond was presented to the king, but without modern precision cutting tools, cutting it was another challenge. Eventually, Asscher and Co, after many months of studying the diamond, faced up to the task. Legend holds that Mr Asscher had a doctor and nurse on standby, and after breaking one blade successfully cut the diamond straight through. He then fainted clean away.

Today the Cullinan Diamond has been cut into 9 large stones (amongst them the Star of Africa), and numerous smaller ones, which form a significant part of the British crown jewels. Their value is priceless, but one estimate puts the combined value at well over £100 million in today’s prices.