Book Review Gems & Gemology, Spring 2019, Vol. 55, No. 1

Book Review: Diamonds: An Early History of the King of Gems

Diamonds: An Early History of the King of Gems
By Jack Ogden, hardcover, 408 pp., illus., publ. by Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2018, US$40.00.

Diamonds: An Early History of the King of Gems is a well-researched and well-documented fact-packed history, from diamonds in ancient India to the discovery of diamonds in Brazil in the 1700s. Ogden explores diamond legends, diamond mining in India, the introduction of diamonds to Europe, the worldwide diamond trade in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, world events that altered availability and pricing, and early cutting techniques and the technologies that made diamonds as we know them today possible. The book consists of 15 chapters, an epilogue, an excellent bibliography and index, and an appendix: a 1675 description of Indian diamond mines believed to be written by diamond dealer Nathaniel Cholmley. The illustrations—old paintings and drawings, letters and bills, photos of pieces still extant—give the book a strong sense of place and history.

In India as early as 500 BCE, diamonds were broken into chips for drilling and engraving other gemstones. Europeans also valued them for this use. Occasionally, diamond crystals showed up in Roman jewelry and in jewelry made in Syria, the end of the overland route to India. But trade was challenging in the beginning. The stones were not only of relatively poor quality, but they were also difficult to get, and Indian authorities prohibited their export until the 13th century.

Once trade with the East began, diamonds began to show up in written records—and in jewelry that survives to this day. Small, poor-quality stones were even available to merchants and tradesmen. Ogden mentions a London tavern owner who owned two diamonds in 1317; their value was “just six shillings and eight pence.”

European diamond trading blossomed in the 1500s with the opening of a sea route to India, but diamonds had been traded worldwide for centuries before that. Arabic, Armenian, and Jewish traders traveled overland to India and sold them in China and Russia, and they reportedly sold diamonds to Chinese buyers living as far away as the Philippines. And, of course, there was a diamond trade within India.

With the growing European diamond market came an interest in improving the stones through cutting. Although Indians drilled and engraved large diamonds, they seemed to use the resulting diamond powder solely to polish other gemstones. Any cutting or polishing was probably done by rubbing a diamond on a flat surface loaded with diamond powder. The equipment, too, was less than ideal. The bow-driven wheels used to cut colored stones rotated back and forth, producing a jerky movement that could not give diamonds the flat surface necessary to bring out their brilliance. It is likely that more sophisticated cutting methods reached India only when Europeans introduced diamond cutting mills there in the 1500s.

Europeans had been able to develop cutting mills by combining a rotary iron skeif with the crank and flywheel technology, reportedly adapted in Italy in the 13th century from the silk-spinning industry of China. Cutting mills became widespread as the European diamond trade grew in the 1500s. The technology worked so well for diamond cutting that the equipment remained virtually unchanged into modernity, except that the wheels are now driven by electricity rather than human, horse, or water power. The skeif, the angle gauge, the dop, and the diamond saw allowed the development of first the table cut—essentially an octahedron with the point removed—followed by the rose cut and finally the brilliant. Cutting added value to the stones, and many thick, old cut stones from India—called lasques—were bought at relatively reasonable prices and then recut into rose cuts in Europe for a profit. As cutting became more sophisticated, European cutters moved closer to the diamond source in India. Ogden writes that the “Mughal cuts,” which resembled large multifaceted rose cuts, were probably produced by these European cutters.

Until the development of the brilliant cut, most diamond cuts—point cuts, table cuts, rose cuts—were not only set in closed-back settings, but also backed with a black material such as soot mixed with resin. The backing was said to improve the color and create stones that were “most gracious to the eye.” But sparkle was in demand with the arrival of the brilliant cut. “The word sparkle sums up the change that had revolutionized the diamond trade,” writes Ogden. Brilliants were in such demand that rose cuts were refashioned as brilliant cuts regardless of the loss of weight.

Throughout the book, Ogden mentions the variety of terms devised to describe the cutting process and the parts of the resulting stones. Facets were “lozenges,” and a faceted stone was said to be “lozenged.” There were also fanciful cut descriptions. A cut akin to a step cut, but with a twin-sided peak in place of a table, was a “kirk riggin” (Scottish for “church roof”), hogback, or dos d’ane—“donkey back.” A three-cornered diamond was described as “thre nuikit,” or nooked, nook meaning “corner.” The French term carré (“square”) was used variously to describe an octahedron that had been “squared” to improve its beauty, a facet, the act of faceting, or a square diamond shape. A “harte” was a pear shape. A spark, a tiny accent diamond, was used much in the way “chips” have been in the more recent past.

Diamond cutting is most often associated with Amsterdam or Antwerp, but a cutting industry began in London in the 1500s with Queen Elizabeth’s encouragement. It was made possible by the unsanctioned diamond trade perpetuated by England’s renowned pirates, or privateers. Ogden writes that Sir Walter Raleigh intercepted the Portuguese ship Madre de Deus as it returned from the Indies, “carrying perhaps the largest single treasure of gems ever taken.”

The establishment of the East India Company in 1600 meant that diamonds began to flow into London more reliably, and cutting became a major industry. By the 1660s, more than £200,000 worth of diamonds arrived in London every year. However, a duty levied on diamond imports, falling support for the East India Company, and growing cutting operations in Amsterdam and Antwerp—where cutting costs were much cheaper—led to a declining industry. By 1852, when the Koh-i-Noor diamond was recut by Garrard’s, the British Crown Jewelers, the firm had to obtain advice on the cutting from cutters in Amsterdam, “perhaps to national shame.”

Quality has never been separate from the pricing of diamonds, and Ogden touches on this issue related to clarity, color, size, and cut. He describes the “square rule” used for pricing. A base price would be multiplied by the weight of the stone squared, so at £25 (~US$33 in 2019) per carat, a 4 ct stone would be priced by multiplying £25 by (4 x 4). Invoices often broke down the ancillary costs paid by the customer, including taxes and commissions to various people, and also items like “coach hyre” for necessary trips during the cutting process. The cutting cost was borne by the seller.

White diamonds, of course, were considered highest quality; yellows, browns, and greens were valued lower. In Europe, writes Ogden, “colored diamonds do not seem to have attracted much serious attention…until Jean-Baptiste Tavernier brought back from his sixth voyage to the east the large blue diamond that he sold to king Louis XIV of France in 1668….” This would eventually become the Hope Diamond.

As is also the case today, exceptionally large stones were priced individually. In one report, the Florentine diamond was valued at “a hundred thousand crownes between marchant and marchant, and a hundred and fifty thousand crownes between Prince and Prince.” This is a reminder, writes Ogden, that “value depends on whether one is buying or selling and to whom….”

Although Diamonds is packed with information, it’s not all dry facts. Ogden includes a delightful story: in the early 1200s, the Emperor of Nicaea presented a crown of pearls and diamonds to his empress, which he had paid for with “eggs of his innumerable poultry.” Ogden also reminds us of the incredible dangers of transporting these stones across thousands of miles. Marco Polo is said to have carried diamonds sewn into his clothing back to Venice after his travels along the Silk Road; gold of comparable value would have been impossible to carry on such a journey.

Ogden also reminds us that diamonds have always been involved in scandals and very public romances. He includes a photo of a hair ornament given by King Charles II to his mistress (and mother of two of his children), actress Nell Gwynn, in 1680. He also mentions Elihu Yale, founder of Yale University and governor of Madras, who had as mistresses not only the wife of Jacques de Paiva, a diamond dealer from Amsterdam and London, but also the wife of John Nicks, a member of the East India Company.

The above barely touches on the book’s topics. Ogden has examined numerous museum collections and delved deep into correspondence and invoices from the periods he covers. Diamonds: An Early History of the King of Gems is a fascinating book for anyone interested in the deep background of jewelry and will prove useful to future writers about gemstones as well as to anyone dealing with old jewelry. The minute detail that Ogden goes into is not for casual readers; however, as a reference, it is superb.

Sharon Elaine Thompson is a Graduate Gemologist (GG) and Fellow of the Gemmological Association of Great Britain (FGA). She has been an instructor at the Gemological Institute of America and has written extensively on jewelry and jewelry manufacturing for more than 25 years.