Famous Stones: Cullinan – The Word’s Largest Diamond Ever

On January 26, 1905 the world’s largest diamond was found at the Premier Mine in South Africa. The uncut Cullinan weighted an amazing 3,106.75 carats (0.62135 kg)!

Replica of the original, uncut Cullinan Diamond

Replica of the original, uncut Cullinan Diamond

Late in the afternoon of January 26, Frederick Wells was making a routine inspection of the Premier Mine – part of his job as superintendent of the mine. Suddenly, something caught his attention: rays of the setting sun reflected off something shiny about 18 feet below the surface of the earth. Wells stopped to investigate.

After about half an hour of digging work, he managed to free the object and, after washing the stone, felt a bit annoyed at all the wasted time. For what he found looked like a diamond but it was so huge that he felt there was no way it could be real: surely it was made of glass and the workers were playing a trick on him! Nevertheless, Wells was a professional and automatically sent the stone to be analysed – and was astounded to find out that it was indeed a gem-quality diamond. And not just any diamond – the largest ever discovered.

The stone was named in honour of Sir Thomas Cullinan, the owner of the Premier Mine, who happened to visit the site on the day of the stone’s discovery. News of the amazing find quickly spread and the Transvaal Government purchased it from Wells for £150,000 (it was insured for ten times the amount); Wells received £3,500 as a reward.

Publicity photo of the Cullinan being handed from Fred Wells to McHardy, who then hands it to Sir Thomas Cullinan (left), and photograph of Mr Joseph Asscher and his colleagues seated at a table during the examination of the Cullinan diamond (right)

Publicity photo of the Cullinan being handed from Fred Wells to McHardy, who then hands it to Sir Thomas Cullinan (left), and photograph of Mr Joseph Asscher and his colleagues seated at a table during the examination of the Cullinan diamond (right)

For roughly a year, no one knew what to do with the stone until Transvaal’s Prime Minister decided that something that important would make a handsome present for Edward VII on his 66th birthday (on November 9, 1907). Recently defeated by the British in the bloody Boer War, the Government was eager to show its good intentions and so Prime Minister Botha asked the King to accept the gift as a ‘token of the loyalty and attachment of the people of Transvaal to his throne and person’. Transvaal’s Parliament voted 42 to 19 in favour of the presentation  oddly enough the Boers voted for and the English settlers voted against.

King Edward was at first uncertain whether he should accept such a momentous present, and Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (the British Prime Minister of the time) didn’t help much by suggesting it should be the King’s decision only. In the end, it was Winston Churchill (then Under-secretary of State for the Colonies) who persuaded Edward VII to accept the gift. As a token of gratitude  the Transvaal  Government presented Churchill with a model of the diamond, which he delighted in showing of to his friends, sometimes displaying it on a silver salver.

There was another obstacle: the Cullinan diamond excited the minds of every thief in the world, from petty swindlers to high-profile con artists. That meant the transfer from South Africa to Britain was a very risky and problematic business. A special panel was thus created to ensure the safe delivery of the diamond; apart from them no one knew the route or method of the transfer, not even Members of Transvaal’s Government. The panel devised a very simple and clever pan; as a decoy, a replica stone was taken aboard a steamer under police escort and locked in the Captain’s safe, where it was guarded by detectives for the duration of the voyage. The real stone, meanwhile, was mailed in a plain box via post. The only precaution was the fact it was sent registered mail. One can only imagine the sighs of relief members of the panel breathed upon learning the parcel had made it safe.

Mr Joseph Asscher making the initial incision on the Cullinan Diamond prior to the cleaving (left), and holding a hammer in his raised right hand about to strike the cutting tool (right)

Mr Joseph Asscher making the initial incision on the Cullinan Diamond prior to the cleaving (left), and holding a hammer in his raised right hand about to strike the cutting tool (right)

On November 9, 1907 – the King’s 66th birthday – Sir Frances Hopwood and Mr Richard Solomon (Agent-General for the Transvaal in London  travelled to Sandringham by train, with the priceless Cullinan with them. There had been rumours of an attempted robbery but the effective work of Scotland Yard prevented any unfortunate incident, and the two gentlemen safely made it to the Sandringham House. The King was formally presented with the stone in the presence of his family, as well as representatives of foreign Royal Families  including the Queen of Spain and the Queen of Norway. The King then announced to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Elgin, that he accepted the magnificent gift ‘for myself and successors’.

Once the gift was accepted, it had to be decided what use it should be put to. Polishing the diamond as one piece was impossible because there was a large stain the middle of it. A decision was thus made to cut the stone into several smaller parts. The honour (and responsibility) was bestowed upon I. J. Asscher and Company of Amsterdam.

Joseph Asscher and his colleagues studied the stone for three months before beginning the work. Finally, on 10 February 1908, at 2.45 pm, Asscher began the delicate and nerve-wrenching process. Watched by dozens of people, he placed his cleaving blade in the incision groove point (made three days in advance), and struck the blade with his hammer. The blade broke. Fortunately, the stone was unharmed so Asscher calmly got another blade and tried again. This time, the stone split exactly as he had planned. According to the book ‘Diamond: A Journey to the Heart of an Obsession’ by Matthew Hart: “The tale is told of Joseph Asscher, the greatest cleaver of the day, that when he prepared to cleave the largest diamond ever known, the 3,106 carats Cullinan, he had a doctor and nurse standing by and when he finally struck the diamond and it broke perfectly in two, he fainted dead away.” Some sources doubt the fainting did take place but it certainly makes for a nice story. Nine major stones were created, along with 96 smaller brilliants and nine and a half carats of unpolished pieces.

The nine numbered Cullinan Diamonds in their rough shapes (left) and after polishing (right)

The nine numbered Cullinan Diamonds in their rough shapes (left) and after polishing (right)

The two largest diamonds created were reserved for King Edward. The largest diamond is the Cullinan I, usually known as the Star of Africa. It’s 530.2 carats, and was placed in the Sceptre with the Cross, which was redesigned for its inclusion (it remained the largest cut diamond in existence until 1985, when it was eclipsed by the 545 carat Golden Jubilee Diamond, which was also discovered in the Premier Mine). The Sceptre with the Cross is one of the two sceptres used during British coronations. It represents the monarch’s temporal authority. The second largest stone is the Cullinan II, also known as the Lesser Star of Africa. It weighs 317.4 carats, and is set in the centre front band of the Imperial State Crown. These stones were made detachable and could also be used as a brooch; Queen Mary sometimes wore Cullinan I and II in this form.

Edward VII also bought Cullinan VI in a separate transaction as a gift to his wife, Queen Alexandra. The remaining Cullinans III to VI and VII to IX were retained by Asscher and Company as the fee for cutting and polishing the stone. All of these stones were later purchased by the Government of South Africa and presented by the Commissioner of the Union of South Africa to Queen Mary of Teck in 1910, on the occasion of her impending Coronation.

The numbered stones are usually used in this manner (click on the names to read articles on each diamond):

  • Cullinan I (The Star of Africa) – Set in the Sceptre with the Cross. It can also be used together with Cullinan II as a brooch.
  • Cullinan II (The Lesser Star of Africa) – Set in the band of the Imperial State Crown. It can also be used together with Cullinan I as a brooch.
  • Cullinan III – Originally set in the orb at the top of Queen Mary’s Crown, it now hangs from Cullinan IV in a brooch setting. Together, they are known as “Granny’s Chips”.
  • Cullinan IV – Originally set in the front of the circlet of Queen Mary’s Crown, it is now part of a brooch setting together with Cullinan III. Together, they are known as “Granny’s Chips”.
  • Cullinan V – It was designed both as a separate brooch and as the detachable centre of the stomacher in the Delhi Durbar parure.
  • Cullinan VI – Originally set by Queen Alexandra on her regal circlet, it is now suspended from Cullinan VIII in a brooch setting. Like Cullinan V, it was also designed to be used in the Delhi Durbar stomacher.
  • Cullinan VII – Queen Mary had the stone hand in a pendant form in the Delhi Durbar Emerald Necklace, as an alternative to Cullinan VI (which can also be used for the purpose).
  • Cullinan VIII – Worn as a pendant to Cullinan VI in a brooch setting, it can also be worn as part of the Delhi Durbar stomacher, or be linked to the Cullinan V Brooch.
  • Cullinan IX – Set in a platinum ring

The Cullinan Diamond had one remarkable feature that fascinates everyone who has ever searched for gems. It is suspected that the uncut Cullinan made up less than half of a much larger stone. That means that somewhere, most probably on the territory of the Premier Mine, the larger half may be waiting its turn to be found.

Sources and Photo credits: Royal Collection, “Diamond: A Journey to the Heart of an Obsession” by Matthew Hart, “The Queen’s Diamonds” by Hugh Roberts, “The Queen’s Jewels” by Leslie Field

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2 Comments

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