A magnificent diamond ring
Diamond mine

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 57, Winter 2018

Page 26

Everybody wants to own a diamond – so what is the secret of the stone's enduring allure? Nicholas Foulkes has a few suggestions

We live at the cutting edge of the sharpest blade of technological development. Our lives are enmeshed with technology that until a generation ago belonged between the covers of science-fiction novels. So sophisticated have we become, that we seem intent on making ourselves extinct: artificial intelligence can beat chess grand masters and will soon perform surgery better than human hands. Fortunately, intelligence is only part of what it is to be human. Only if we ever perfect artificial emotion will our demise be complete. To put it another way: as long as we have our emotional response to diamonds, we have our humanity.

Our fascination with, love of, and lust for diamonds is one of the splendid illogicalities that makes us human. After all, mere intelligence tells us that the 24.31-carat step-cut gem, set as a ring, offered at Bonhams New Bond Street is the product of geological forces. But to the human imagination there is something majestic about the elemental nature of those forces. Diamonds were crystallised from carbon under immense pressure and heat thousands of millions of years ago, at depths of 100 miles and more. Encased within younger, less noble rocks, they were then thrust through the earth's mantle during intense volcanic activity, until they arrived close to the surface of our planet. Some diamonds are almost as old as the earth itself. They have waited patiently through unimaginable aeons for the magic of evolution to create a species capable of unlocking and understanding the fire that blazed unseen within. Only mankind can understand the allure of a stone that seems to have been made of solid gleaming light, and only the human imagination can endow such accidents of geology with metaphysical significance.

William Blake, the poet who could see a world in a grain of sand, descried heaven in a diamond "which tho' cloth'd/In ragged covering in the mine, is open all within/And in his hallow'd centre holds the heavens of bright eternity". For any poet, the diamond is the Swiss Army knife of metaphors: brightness, hardness, unbreakability and eternity, all bound in the cubic crystal structure of the timeless stone.

It is in ancient Sanskrit texts that we find the first mention of diamonds. Almost 2,500 years ago, the diamond was already "the jewel above all others" and a talisman of supernatural power for the wearer. "He who wears a diamond will see dangers recede from him, whether he be threatened by serpents, fire, poison, sickness, thieves, flood or evil spirits." While diamonds no longer demonstrate those miraculous powers of protection, they still retain the power to enslave the emotions and imagination.

"As a protector and benefactor," wrote Ian Balfour, the great historian of these intoxicating gems, "the diamond had no equal and came at the very forefront of ancient Indian desire." If swallowed, powdered diamonds were believed to be a panacea and, of course, they were a connection to the higher power and divine wisdom of the heavens: "White octahedral diamonds were sacred to the god Indra, the deity of violent weather. Black diamonds were sacred to Yama, god of death, and all crystal shapes of an unknown 'kadali' colour were dedicated to Vishnu, god of the heavens."

It was little wonder that very few of these remarkable stones – hoarded by kings, consecrated to deities and blessed with magical life-prolonging powers – made their way as far as Europe, so it is only from the time of Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, the intrepid 17th-century French traveller and jeweller, that our modern relationship with diamonds dates. Since then, our history has been illuminated by the light from these stones, with diamonds held responsible – in part – for the fall of at least one president and the beginning of a revolution.

Just as they were once prized by the rulers of ancient India, they remain one of the most potent symbols of royalty. According to Balfour, "it has been said that whoever owned the Koh-i-Noor ruled the world". In a manner of speaking, he was right, as it was during the period of the highest prestige of the British Empire, the reign of Queen Victoria, that this most famous of gems became the most dazzling of the Crown Jewels. Its first facet was cut by no less a man than the Duke of Wellington. Even now the Empire is gone, geology's gift and the Duke's handiwork continue to dazzle at the centre of the Maltese cross at the front of the Queen Mother's Coronation Crown, which rested on her head in life and her coffin in death.

For those rulers shorn of their thrones and powers, betrayed and in mortal peril, diamonds remain loyal to the last. Such was the quantity of jewels sewn into the clothes of the Russian royal family that bullets ricocheted around the Yekaterinburg basement where they met their grisly end. When Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico went in front of the firing squad – the event that inspired Manet's famous painting – he had a diamond, bought in happier days in Brazil, tied around his neck.

While his empire may have crumbled, his name lives on – not least thanks to that diamond, now known as the Emperor Maximilian. Thus, even though they no longer protect against serpents and other dangers as they once did, diamonds do offer immortality of a kind. On their journey through history, these hypnotic stones acquire the names of those who might once, with all too human hubris, have considered themselves a diamond's 'owner'.

It is worth noting that the most enduring thing about some of the last century's most famous and tempestuous love affairs has often been the diamond, whether the Taylor–Burton, or the Niarchos – the stone bought by the shipping tycoon for his then wife Charlotte Ford, whose family sniffily referred to it as the Skating Rink.

Paradoxically, given its hardness, a diamond is a great softener, tapping unknown generosity of spirit and emotion. Diamonds really bring out the best in us. As that veteran of many marriages and amours Zsa Zsa Gabor, whose diamond necklace Bonhams sold last year for nearly $1.3 million, observed in 1957, "I never hated a man enough to give him his diamonds back."

Nicholas Foulkes is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and the author of more than 20 books, including Nardi, celebrating the eponymous Venetian jeweller.

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