Diamonds are forever

This appeared in the North Clare Local in July.

Diamonds (via Beat 102-103)

Diamonds (via Beat 102-103)

Diamonds are forever they say, and they have been among mankind’s most sought-after objects since the dawn of time.

Many female readers will wear a diamond on their left hand, and this may be the only one they own. Diamond engagement and wedding rings are so ingrained in culture that many of us would be very surprised to learn they originated relatively recently.

The first recorded diamond engagement ring was given by Archduke Maximillian of Hamburg to his fiancée Mary of Burgundy in 1477. Between then and the early 20th century, there’s not much record of diamond rings. The fact that the couple were aristocrats was important; King Louis IX enacted a law that stated only royals could wear diamonds, a belief that held in France and beyond until the 14th century. Anyway, no-one else could afford them.

Prior to the 20th century, these stones largely came from India and Brazil, until the first diamond (the Eureka) was pulled from the banks of the Orange River near Kimberley, South Africa in 1866. The De Beers company emerged from the subsequent rush and, in 1947, coined the slogan “A Diamond is Forever” which cemented the association between diamonds and true love.

Diamonds were believed to be a symbol of purity, and important in Hinduism. Many devotional statues in Hindu temples had the jewels for eyes, and there are 14 names for diamond in Hindu texts.

Not only are diamonds beautiful, they are among the toughest and strongest minerals on earth, and are still used in industrial manufacture. This strength made the stone a potent symbol in ancient Chinese Buddhism. A text called the Diamond Sutra refers to the “diamond blade which will cut through worldly illusion to illuminate what is real and everlasting”. Diamonds were believed to provide victory to those who wore them in battle; and they were thought to ward off illness, mental turmoil and evil spells.

A De Beers ad from 1957 (via vintage ads)

A De Beers ad from 1957 (via vintage ads)

Perhaps understandably, the ancient Greeks saw them as fragments of falling stars. Others believed they were the tears of the gods themselves. The very word diamond comes from Greek “adamas” which means invincible (it’s also the same root as the word adamant). The adamas were youths on the island of Crete who annoyed Zeus, and he had them transformed into diamonds as punishment.

The Romans thought Cupid’s arrows were tipped with diamonds, making the romantic connection far older than De Beers.

Ancient Jewish high priests believed that diamonds could discern guilt and innocence. A diamond held in front of a criminal was believed to darken and lose its gleam. Diamonds were also believed to calm arguments and ensure fidelity in Renaissance Italy. Worn on the left hand and set in gold, they were thought to ward off storms and ghosts. A garden touched with a diamond at each corner was thought to be protected from lightning and blight. The only way to strip a diamond of its power was the smear it with the more mundane goat’s blood.

Diamonds do have a darker side. Outside of the folkloric realm, they have caused endless heartache in Africa, including how hazardous mining (although conditions in South Africa have improved in recent times). More sinister is the trade in blood diamonds; gems which originated in war zones and have been used to fund wars and illegal activities.

Back in the olden days, the ancient Persians regarded all gemstones with suspicion. The logic was that God had already made the surface world perfect. He had no need for diamonds or gold or other trinkets. Satan, however, noticing how easily led Eve was by the colourful fruit in Eden, decided to try to tempt mortals with similarly shiny things.

Tough as diamonds are, it’s still possible to grind them into a fine powder. This powder has been used as poison. Pope Clement VII was reportedly poisoned by a concoction of powdered gemstones, including diamonds.

A favourite trope in fiction is that of the cursed diamond; the contrast between the sought-after jewel and the havoc it wreaks is irresistible for fans of a good tale.

The Hope Diamond (CSvBibra via Flickr)

The Hope Diamond (CSvBibra via Flickr)

The most famous diamond in the world, the gloriously blue Hope Diamond, is believed to be cursed. The story goes that it once formed an eye of the goddess Sita in a Hindu temple. Removed from its rightful home, it brought misfortune to all who have owned it since.

Suicides and bankruptcy followed; a Russian prince who had the gem in his possession was killed the socialist revolution of 1917. There’s one problem with this narrative; none of it is true, or at least independently verified (one owner who was apparently horrifically murdered actually died at 84 of natural causes). It seems the Hope Diamond is just an ordinary diamond after all; or at least an ordinary as these remarkable jewels can be.

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