The Diamond Mines of South Africa II – Gardner Williams



IT has been shown in the opening chapter of this work that fancy has still, and probably must forever have, a free range for its surmise when and how the first diamond crystal was picked from the river-shore wash of the Indo-Gangetic plain. Equally vague and conjectural must be any effort to fix the period when a rough or natural diamond was first artificially ground or polished.

It is only certain that some rude polishing, at least, was essential to the revelation of any notable beauty in the diamonds of India; for the surface of these crystals is covered with a grayish white film or incrustation, veiling their refulgence so completely that the rough stones are scarcely more ornamental than common quartz pebbles.

It was in view of this obscuring that the apostle of deportment, the Earl of Chesterfield, wrote to his son: ” Manners must adorn knowledge and smooth its way through the world. Like a great rough diamond, it may do very well in a closet by way of curiosity and also for its intrinsic value.”  A contemporary of this high authority, Dr. Samuel Johnson, was able to controvert this dictum by demonstrating that knowledge can rise from obscurity without any adornment of manners, but polish is indispensable to the revelation of the latent beauties of the rough diamond.

Indian tradition runs back romantically five thousand years to the first gleam of the Koh-i-nur or “Mountain of Light”  in the serpench of a chief who fell in the great battle described in the epic poem ” Mahabharata” ; (1) but nothing more solid than tradition sustains this tale. If it were true, it would demonstrate incontestably a very ancient proficiency in the art of grinding and polishing a rough Indian diamond, as the figure of the Koh-i-nur on page 1 shows, illustrating the appearance of this famous gem before it was recut by modern lapidary art to hold the foremost place in the jewels of the British crown. (2)

The Italian, Augusto Costellani, is the mouthpiece of another tradition, little firmer than a floating pipe-bubble, that a certain King Carna of India, who lived some three thousand years before the Christian era, possessed a diamond whose natural planes or facets were polished; but what the good king did with his sparkling treasure, or where it has wandered, is unfortunately left to the drift of fancy.

(1) “Indian Epic Poetry,” Sir Monier-Monier, Williams, 1863.
(2 ) A Popular Treatise on Gems,” Dr. Lewis Feuchtwanger, 1867, Plate VIII, No. 1 5 and No. 15a.

It has been shown that the earliest known catalogues of gems do not include the diamond, and that the references to it in the Hebrew Scriptures and other writings before the Christian era are far from decisive, in view of the likelihood that the white sapphire was the ancient adamas. (1)

The failure to bring to light any diamond in the exhumation of ancient gems is further significant. (2) If it be true that a genuine diamond, bearing the engraved head of the philosopher Posidonius, exists in the collection of the Duke of Bedford, as reported by Streeter, (3) this is a solitary instance, so far as is known, of the application of engraving to this adamantine surface at a date probably prior to the birth of Christ, for Posidonius was a Tyrian Greek, living in the second and first centuries B.C. (4)

It is, however, highly probable that the genuine diamond crystals were discovered in India hundreds, if not thousands, of years before the Christian era, and partially polished, at least, in the primitive method of rubbing or striking the planes of one crystal against the other, or even by laborious friction with grit-stone by hand or a grinding wheel.

It is certain that revolving stones or metallic wheels for grinding gems were in use in remote antiquity, perhaps two thousand years or more before the Christian era. From the softer stones, carnelian, onyx, and jasper, the ancient workmen advanced to harder gems, preparing their face first chiefly by a smooth polish for the sculptors of cameos and intaglios. (5)

(1) “Precious Stones noted in the Sacred Scriptures,” R. Hindmarsh, 1851. “Precious Stones and Gems,” Edwin William Streeter, 1880.
(2) The Story of the Nations, ” Phoenicia,” George Rawlinson, M.A., 1894. “Ancient Mineralogy,” N. F. Moore, 1834.
(3) “Precious Stones and Gems,” Streeter, p. 46.
(4) The Story of the Nations, ” Phoenicia,” George Rawlinson, M.A., 1894. “Ancient Mineralogy,” N. F. Moore, 1834.
(5) ” A Treatise on the Ancient Method of Engraving Precious Stones,” Laurentius Natter, London, 1754. ” A Treatise on Diamonds and Precious Stones,” John Mawe, 1813.

Their mode of working was very simple, as Feuchtwanger notes. (1)