Sunday, 26 May 2013

The Wonderous Worth of the Gigantic Gemstone

                  On the evening of January 27th 1905, Mr Frederick Wells, a mine manager, was making his rounds of the new No 2 Premier Mine, near Pretoria, South Africa, when he saw something gleaming the rays of the dying sun, at the brink of the open workings. He picked up a large stone, put it into the pocket of his sack coat, and went back to the company office to examine his find. At first, it was thought that Wells had picked up a piece of rock crystal and it was almost thrown aside, but on closer examination, the stone was found to be a diamond of unprecedented size, weighing over 1.3 pounds, or 3253 ¾ carats. 

The Last Open Workings at Kimberley - 1889

As the stone had a distinct fracture line on one face, it was thought to be a fragment of a larger octahedral crystal, although the corresponding piece has not (yet) been unearthed. The stone was named after the chairman of the Premier (Transvaal) Mining Company, (later Sir) Thomas Cullinan, and purchased by the Transvaal Government for £200,000, although it was insured for £1,500,000. It was decided that this huge gemstone should be presented to King Edward VII as a gift for his 66th birthday, as a suitable token of the entry of South Africa into the British Empire, but there was the problem of transporting it from the Cape to England. 

The Cullinan Diamond in its rough state

A facsimile stone was sent by steamboat, and accompanied by detectives, as a diversionary tactic to attract potential thieves, whilst the real stone was packed into a plain box and sent by normal parcel post (although it was sent by registered mail). To the dismay of London jewellers, when the rough diamond was examined, the Crown authorities decided to ship the stone to Amsterdam for cutting and polishing. 

Cullinan I in its cut state

The stone was not perfect, and it would have been impossible to form it into one enormous brilliant cut gem; there was a small, black spot in the centre, and although the stone was remarkably clear, there were other graphitic spots close to the surface, and other discolouration on the outside. At one point, there was an internal crack, and at another, there was an opaque, milky mass, of a brown colour, with what looked like iron oxide stains. 

The Fragments of the Cullinan after cleaving

Therefore, the decision was made to break up the rough stone into smaller parts, with the work to be carried out by the house of J Asscher and Co, of Amsterdam and Paris. At the beginning of 1908, the Cullinan Diamond was moved, under escort, to the Asscher fabriek on Tulp Straat, where it was kept in a vault with concrete and steel walls two feet thick, with Dutch secret servicemen and Scotland Yard detectives guarding the establishment. 

The Cutting Room at Asscher's where the Cullinan was cut

The experts examined the stone for weeks, deciding how best to cut it before, on February 10th 1908, Mr Joseph Asscher, the finest diamond cleaver in the world, made ready to make the first cut, under the supervision of Messrs M J Levy and Nephews, the precious stone experts. Models had been made in crystal, to give Asscher a guide to the desired effect, and a cut, three quarters of an inch deep was made with a diamond saw along the line of cleavage. A special steel, comb-shaped knife, without a handle, was made and inserted into the cut on the stone and with a steel bar, Asscher struck the back of the knife. The steel knife broke and the stone remained intact. 

Joseph Asscher prepares to cleave the Cullinan Diamond

A replacement knife was placed in the cut and Asscher struck again – this time the Cullinan diamond split into two parts, exactly as planned. (There is a story that Asscher insisted on having a doctor and nurse present, and when the stone broke, he fainted on the spot. This is almost certainly apocryphal). 

The Nine larger Cullinan cut stones

Later in February, the larger portion was again divided, and over the months until November, the rough diamond was divided again and cut and polished to produce nine large gemstones, 96 smaller stones and nine carats of uncut bort. Cullinan I was, then, by far the largest cut diamond in the world, at 516 ½ carats, (the previous largest brilliant, the Jubilee, weighs 239 carats, and the Koh-i-noor pales into an insignificant 102 ¾ carats), with Cullinan II weighing 309 3/18 carats. 

Queen Elizabeth II - Cullinan I is in the head of the Sceptre

The pear-shaped, brilliant Cullinan I was placed in the Sovereign’s Sceptre, and the brilliant-cushion Cullinan II was put into the Imperial State Crown, below the Black Prince’s ruby. The other, smaller Cullinan diamonds were mounted in other pieces of royal regalia, and it is interesting to note that the four largest pieces amount to 986 carats of cut and polished jewels, taken from a rough diamond of over 3,000 carats. 

The Imperial State Crown - with Cullinan II in the front

Above a certain size, there is almost no commercial market for large gemstones, for there are few people wealthy enough to buy them, and fewer still prepared to wear something that looks like it might have been purloined from a crystal chandelier, and they can only be displayed in the context of royal regalia worn on state occasions, supplemented with hundreds, or thousands, of smaller gems. Cullinan I and II are, effectively, beyond price, as there is nothing close to matching them and certainly nothing to replace them, and they are set in the Crown Jewels, which are, again, simply priceless, but just for the sake of argument, the bidding for either stone would not open at a penny less than £200,000,000. 

Cullinan II

Not bad for something that almost got thrown out of a mine-manager’s estate-office window.

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