Ever since human beings first laid their eyes on diamonds in approximately 2000 years BC, they instantly fell in love with these precious gems. Things haven’t changed for roughly 2500 years, and diamonds remain one of humanity’s greatest obsessions.
That’s pretty weird since, for a thing so precious, an average Joe knows very few things about these small shiny stones. Sure, we know they are beautiful – hence the appeal. We also know they are wildly valuable. Girls loved them.
And if you ever watched the James Bond movie of the same name, you know that “Diamonds are Forever.”
But, if we take a look at all these things, we can all agree they are pretty superfluous. There have been wars raged and empires destroyed to obtain these precious stones. Knowing so few things about them is not enough.
So, let’s take a deep dive into the history, properties, and other interesting facts of these beautiful oddities to right these wrongs. Welcome to “Diamond 101.”
What Does The Word Diamond Mean?
This is a good topic to kick things off. The word diamond might just be the most famous mispronounced word in history. Its origin can be traced back to the Greek word “Adamas,” which means invincible or, more accurately, incombustible.
Although it obviously refers to the properties of the diamonds we will discuss a bit further, originally, it was used to describe the properties of iron, gold, sapphire, and carbunculus.
The word was first used to describe what we today know as diamonds, probably by Romans probably during the 3rd century BC.
How Old Are Diamonds?
Most of the rock-hosted diamond deposits around the world (that would be most of the diamonds on the planet, period) are formed during the Precambrian Eon.
That would be one incredibly long geological period that occurred right between the Earth’s formation (approximately 4,600 million years ago) and the start of the Cambrian period (somewhere about 450 million years ago).
That makes diamonds pretty ancient, so we aren’t entirely wrong when we say they last “forever.”
For comparison, that is much older than any existing plant or animal life on Earth’s surface. Keep this in mind the next time you get an opportunity to lay your hand on one of them. You are holding something older than organic life – at least on this planet.
Learn More: How Long Does A Diamond Take To Form And Grow?
How Were Diamonds Formed?
The best thing about this question is that, for quite some time, people had no idea whatsoever about the accurate answer. Famous mining engineer and author Gardner F. Williams (1842 – 1922) had to say this about the whole issue:
“All that can be said is that in some unknown manner carbon, which existed down deep in the internal regions of the Earth, was changed from its black and uninviting appearance to the most beautiful gem which ever saw the light of day.”
These days, we have more accurate info about the matter, so we can fairly accurately theorize that the diamonds are simply a child of freakily odd circumstances.
Initially, they were formed on the depths of 150 to 200 kilometers under the surface:
Temperatures between 900 and 1,200 Celsius and monstrous pressure of 45 to 60 kilobar (50,000 times the Earth’s atmospheric pressure) caused deposits of carbon to melt, crystalized, and finally formed the structures we today know as diamonds.
If we are to be more precise, we would say this:
The fluids we can find in the upper part of the Earth’s mantle are very rich in methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2) which, under sufficient pressure and temperature, are very unstable and easily decay to pure carbon.
The free atoms that are left in the process are the building blocks of future diamonds.
Related Read: Who Was the First Person to Find Diamonds?
What Are Diamonds Made Of?
Mister G.F. Williams spoiled this one for us in the previous section, but that’s not some big secret anyway, so let’s move it off the table:
Diamonds are made of carbon. To be more precise, the carbon in question might just be the Earth’s mantle during the period of the planet’s formation, which is a pretty cool fact.
That makes diamonds somewhat of the long-distance cousins of humans, who are the most famous examples of the “carbon-based life-forms” in the universe.
But, contrary to some popular beliefs, diamonds are not 100% carbon.
Aside from this essential ingredient, these precious gemstones are also made of sulfur, nitrogen, boron, and few other substances. The presence of these substances in the formation process was what determined the color and the properties of the diamonds eons ago when they were formed.
This fact was scientifically proved in 1797 by the famous mineralogist Smithson Tennant.
Are Diamonds Made Of Coal?
This is yet another popular misconception about diamonds. In the previous section, we have established that diamonds are mostly made of carbon.
So, sorry to disappoint you, but diamonds are not made of coal or graphite, for that matter. As a matter of fact, coal is formed from terrestrial plant debris.
And as we all know by now, even the oldest plants on the planet are younger than diamonds. So, this theory is completely out of the question.
But, what about all those famous scenes where some tired prospector breaks apart a lump of coal and finally finds the treasure he’s been looking for his entire life? Where does the saying “a diamond is a chunk of coal that did well under pressure” come from?
Well, we can reliably say that the famous saying was first ushered by Henry Kissinger, a US diplomat and politician under the Nixon and Ford administration. A very nice point, but Kissinger wasn’t exactly an expert in the matter.
And he obviously wasn’t the first one to falsely believe coal has something to do with the formation of diamonds. The best answer we can get is that coal and diamonds share a lot of similar properties.
For instance, both coal and diamonds form in the depths of Earth under extreme temperature and pressure. Also, like its precious distant cousin, coal primarily consists of carbon (the rest is organic vegetable material).
And that’s where the similarities end.
Unlike diamonds, coal forms much closer to the Earth’s surface. Furthermore, since it consists primarily of carbon minerals, diamonds are considered to be pure phases or polymorphs of carbon.
Having so much organic material, coal doesn’t qualify for this flattery title.
So, it all probably boils down to the fact that the rocks in which we often find diamonds do somewhat resemble coal to an uneducated eye.
Read More: Does Coal Become Diamond?
Are There Any Other Theories About The Formation Of Diamonds?
The short answer would be “yes.”
And not only theories – these days, we have conclusive evidence that the depths of Earth are not the only place where diamonds are formed. Essentially, as we could see above, diamonds are formed by exposing carbon to extreme heat and extreme pressure.
These conditions can be found in places other than the Earth’s crust:
- Impact sites – This is one of the most well-known and well-publicized “alternative” diamond formation origin stories. In the ancient past, the Earth’s surface was bombarded by countless asteroids. Upon impact, these asteroids produced intense heat and pressure necessary for the diamond formation. This theory was supported by the discovery of diamonds on several asteroid impact sites.
- Subduction zones – The upper crust of the Earth is composed of gigantic plates we can divide into two groups – continental and oceanic – which from time to time tend to clash against each other. When they do, the oceanic plates, which are far heavier than the continental subduct downwards, forming a geological zone commonly referred to as a subduction zone. Previous research managed to discover tiny pieces of diamonds that were suspected to be subducted deep into the ocean during these cataclysmic tectonic plate processes.
- Formation in space – The most famous example of this formation pattern is probably Allan Hills 84001 – a Martian meteorite uncovered in Allan Hills in Antarctica back in 1984. When they were dissecting the meteorite, the Smithsonian researchers managed to uncover small diamond fragments. These microscopic diamond pieces were formed in a similar manner to diamonds found around meteorite impact sites – through high-speed collisions with other space objects.
How Do Diamonds Travel To The Earth’s Surface?
We have mentioned numerous times by now that diamonds are formed on the great depths that sometimes reach down to 200 kilometers underneath the Earth’s crust.
How then do we get them out? Do we really need to dig whole 200 kilometers into the depths of the planet to obtain these precious gemstones?
The answer is no, and we can, to a large extent, thank volcanoes for that.
We have already mentioned that conditions underneath the Earth’s crust are very extreme. They become even more so the further you travel to the Earth’s core.
Right in these hellish conditions, we can observe a rapid expansion of two materials known as molten lamproite and magma, also known as kimberlite.
As these violent deep-source eruptions continue, they push the lamproite and kimberlite closer to the surface, picking up the diamond deposits they encounter along the way.
This hot soup of molten rocks sometimes flies to the surface at speeds reaching numbers as high as 180 miles per hour. You can look at this like shaking up the bottle of champagne. All that contained power needs to find a way out one way or another.
What’s essential for this story is that the passage of these molten materials through trajectories where they encounter the least resistance (soft spots in the Earth’s mass) at such speed creates massive carrot-shaped pipes we tend to call “Volcanic pipes” or “Kimberlite pipes.”
The latter name comes from the city Kimberley in South Africa, where kimberlite rocks and pipes were first discovered in 1871.
That effectively creates a sort of “highway” through which the diamond deposits can find a much faster and easier way to the Earth’s surface.
All this results in a violent volcanic eruption when molten lamproite, magma, and other materials from the depths of Earth finally get the opportunity to relieve the built-up pressure and spill all over the Earth’s surface.
Somewhere in this shuffle, diamond-rich rocks also found a way closer or right to the Earth’s surface, thus coming within the rich of the ancient prospectors who first uncovered them.
But, if you are hoping that the next volcanic formation will instantly build the next Kimberlite pipe, tap into the uncovered diamond deposits and make you rich overnight, we have to break some bad news.
Namely, while volcanic eruptions are still fairly common around the globe, some estimation says that the last formation of a deeply-rooted Kimberlite pipe able to capture the hidden diamond deposits occurred approximately 40 million years ago.
Are All Volcanoes And Kimberlite Pipes Rich With Diamonds?
The answer to this question is no. As a matter of fact, the examples of magma running through the Kimberlite pipes picking up the diamond deposits is not that much of a rule as an oddity.
Namely, in order for diamonds to travel to the Earth’s surface intact, the magma needs to travel really fast – sometimes at speeds of 20 to 30 miles per hour. If the diamonds were traveling too long in these conditions, they would simply turn into graphite along the way.
The problem is that such violent eruptions are no longer possible, and they were rare even when the Earth was younger and far hotter.
Some scientists claim that, in order for magma to rise so quickly to bring diamonds above, the melt needs to be supercharged with some kind of gas. But, so far, no one knows what this gas might be or where it came from.
Furthermore, to bring out these untapped diamond deposits, the volcanoes need to have an origin very deep below the planet’s surface.
To be more precise, diamond-generating volcanoes need to be at least three times deeper than the ordinary active volcanoes we can find all across the globe. That leaves these rich diamond wells in a horrible minority.
According to some estimation, only one in 200 discovered Karbonite pipes contain gem-quality diamonds.
When People First Discovered Diamonds?
We briefly touched on this in the introduction, but the story is exciting, and it’s worth going over again in more detail.
According to some scientific estimation, diamonds were first uncovered by Dravidians (an indigenous South Asian ethnolinguistic group) in ancient India, during the Indus Valley civilization somewhere between 2500 and 1700 years BC.
Other scientists claim that diamonds were discovered in the same region (India) but much closer to 1000 years BC.
Be that as it may, we can all agree that the Indians were the first people who laid their eyes on these beautiful shining gems and left written accounts about them.
The first documented mention of them can be found in the ancient Sanskrit texts Ratnapariksha and Arthashastra, written in the period between 400 and 300 BC.
This geographic origin can be observed as nothing short of serendipitous since India sits right at the middle of the “Silk Road” – the ancient trading route that stretched all the way from China to western civilizations of Greece, Rome, and Parthia.
Being discovered right in the center of this ancient trading hub, diamonds quickly gained worldwide fame and became an incredibly valuable trading commodity.
And indeed, the first documented account of diamonds in Arthashastra mentions them as a popular commodity and valuable currency. Ratnapariksha goes one step further and describes various methods of grading diamonds and assigning them with numerous magical properties.
The documents state that whoever wears a diamond will never come into harm’s way regardless of the danger he or she is facing.
Another popular account can be found in the most popular, published, and read book in the history of humanity – The Bible:
“The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond: it is graven on the table of their heart, and on the horns of your altars.” — Jeremiah 17:1
By looking at these ancient accounts, we can see that peoples throughout history were very aware of just how powerful and useful diamonds can be. So much so they assigned them various mystical properties.
But, although they were used as objects of worship, tools, and currency, they still didn’t have the status of precious gemstones.
When Did Diamonds Become Gemstones?
The journey from their initial discovery (formation of the first civilizations in the Indus Valley) to the point when diamonds will be used as ornate objects was actually surprisingly long.
It was all the way up to 1074 when Kyiv princess and now queen of Hungary Anastasia used diamonds to decorate her crown. It was the first time in documented history that diamonds were used as jewelry without any ritual or mystical interpretations.
Well, it was a long time coming, but the trend definitely caught up since, besides their inherent value, diamonds now gained a new aura of power and prestige.
From this point on, diamonds were used all across Europe and later the world to showcase power, seal alliances, write love stories, and often bloody histories.
One of the best examples can be found in Koh-i-Noor (Mountain of Light), one of the first world-famous diamonds uncovered during the 13th century in the Golconda mines in India.
With the staggering weight of over 790 carats (more about that in a minute), the diamond soon became legendary and was widely believed to grant world dominance to whoever might own it.
Over the following centuries, the jewel became the focal point of countless wars, betrayals, and murders before finally becoming a part of the crown jewels of the English royal family and being locked in the Tower of London, where it still can be found today.
Where Were Diamonds First Discovered Outside Of India?
Ever since they were initially discovered in India, diamonds were long-time believed to exist only in this corner of the world. It shouldn’t really come off as a surprise that the history of India was painted with so many bloody conflicts and centuries of foreign occupation.
But as soon as the Age of Exploration kicked in and mankind started exploring other parts of the Earth, it was only a matter of time before they found new diamond deposits.
An additional reason for this sped-up exploration came in the form of the fact that after centuries of extraction, Indian diamond mines finally depleted. It just so happened that the next diamond deposits were discovered in 1725 in the opposite part of the world in Brazil.
Some scholars like Pero de Magalhães Gândavo suspected the existence of “certain mines of white stones such as diamonds” as early as 1576.
However, the first actual diamond mine in Brazil was uncovered by Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeven, while the discovery was finally made official by Portuguese king John V in 1729.
That generated a lot of hype in 18th century Europe, and in the following years, Portugal moved very aggressively to take control over the entire region. Very soon, the town of Arraial do Tijuco became the center of Portuguese diamond extraction and trading in Latin America.
However, the hopes of all involved were probably set too high.
Although Brazil became the central hub of diamond extraction after the depletion of Golconda mines in India, the local supply was simply not enough to meet the growing global demand.
Learn More: Diamond Statistics: Diamond By The Numbers
Where Are Diamonds Mined Today?
After this first discovery of diamonds in Brazil, people soon started finding new mines all across the globe.
Since the 1870s, most of the gem-quality diamonds have been mined in Africa, and this variety is, for better or for worse, the most famous in the world.
However, the rest of the world soon started catching up, and today, we have numerous countries that produce at least 50,000 carats of natural gem-quality diamonds per year (2019 data).
They can be seen in the image below:
However, in this bunch, seven countries stand out as the most superior in terms of diamond production.
Russia – This country is one of the biggest diamond producers in the world, while the most famous diamond is called Mirny (Peaceful). The diamond was discovered in 1955 and is today exploited by a group of mining companies called ALROSA, which currently accounts for 95% of the Russian national production.
South Africa – South Africa has a very long diamond mining tradition reaching all the way back to 1867 when the first diamond deposits were discovered in this country. South Africa’s biggest mine was the Kimberley mine which ran from 1897 to 1914 and in that period produced over 3,000 kg of diamonds. South Africa is also home to the biggest largest gem-quality diamond ever found – the legendary Cullinan diamond, which weighed approximately 3,106 carats.
Australia – Diamond mining in Australia started in 1908, and it soon became one of the country’s most powerful and most significant industries. What’s also interesting about the Land Down Under is that the country is almost an exclusive source of all red and pink diamonds in the world. Its biggest mine is the Argyle mine which accounts for 90% of the national diamond production. The mine has been active since 1985 and is currently owned by Rio Tinto.
Botswana – Today, Botswana is considered to be one of the richest African countries and this status can be largely attributed to the discovery of the first huge diamond mine in the country in 1968. Botswana’s biggest diamond mine is the Jwaneng diamond mine – discovered in 1982 and currently owned by Debswana. It is the richest diamond mine in the world, so it proudly carries the nickname “The Prince of Mines.”
Angola – The mining of diamonds in Angola started in 1912, while today, the county ranks as the third-largest diamond producer in Africa. Most of the national diamond resources are owned by ENDIAMA. The most established mine is the Catoca diamond mine (discovered in 1993) which produces an annual weight of 7 million carats.
Canada – It may sound unlikely to outsiders, but Canada is one of the most powerful diamond manufacturers in the world and home to the famous Davik mine – the largest open-pit diamond mine in the world (it produces 8 million carats per year). The history of diamond mining in Canada itself is very short – it started in 1998, while the first deposits were discovered by only two men in 1991.
Kongo – This vast African country is the world’s third-largest diamond manufacturer and Africa’s second. Unfortunately, Kongo is still largely underdeveloped, so the mining is often performed by hand in the form of artisanal craft rather than large-scale commercial production.
What Are “Blood Diamonds?”
Although the majority of the people have heard about this term when the famous movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio came out in 2006, the history of “Blood Diamonds” is unfortunately much longer.
The term refers to the diamonds that are mined in the various conflict zones around the world and sold to finance insurgencies, army campaigns, guerilla actions, or warlords.
Although the Blood Diamonds could be found on various battlefields in recent history (Liberia, Kongo, Ivory Coast, Angola, Guinea Bissau, etc.), one of the most notorious examples can be found in the African country, Sierra Leone.
So much so, that in the mainstream consciousness, the term became synonymous with the country.
What happened here?
Well, between 1991 and 2002, Sierra Leone experienced a bloody civil war fought by the local government and the rebel army going under the name RUF.
Without going too much into grim details during this conflict, RUF activities were mostly funded by illegal diamond mining, which often included forced labor and other atrocities. Some estimation says that RUF was mining up to $125 million annually.
Eventually, the United Nations imposed sanctions on these conflict diamonds.
However, up until today, we still don’t have a unified global response to these dark instances of diamond mining.
For instance, the United States elicited the Clean Diamond trade act back in 2003. And ever since the 80s, Canada was one of the most vocal supporters of the Diamond Development Initiative – a global with the aim of regulating and improving the global diamond industry.
However, the United Nations still doesn’t offer some uniform response to these situations.
What Are Carats?
Up until now, we have mentioned “carats” on numerous occasions. Now, it’s finally time to learn what this term means.
To put it simply, a carat is a unit that measures the mass of a diamond, gold, or some other precious material. One carat (ct) equals 200 milligrams or 0.00705 ounces, while each carat can be subdivided into one hundred smaller points.
These smaller units are also commonly referred to as “points,” so, for instance, you can hear that some diamond is a “twenty-five-pointer.”
Since most of the diamonds we can find in nature are very tiny, this classification allows very precise measurements, sometimes to the hundredth decimal place. The diamonds that weigh at least 100 carats (20 grams) are called “paragons” or paragon diamonds.
Diamond price per carat is currently estimated somewhere between $2,000 and $16,000.
So, you can often hear that the worth of one diamond is measured in carats. Carats are also the most famous diamond quality unit since it’s used for other precious materials.
But, you should know that they are not the only unit we use for this purpose.
The worth of one diamond is determined by using the four Cs:
We had enough opportunity to learn more about carats. Now let’s quickly go through the other three Cs.
Related Read: How Are Diamond Prices Calculated?
How Does The Color Of The Diamond Affect Its Price?
When we speak about the color of the diamond, we are, in fact, talking about its absence.
The diamond color is a physical property that is used as an indicator of its value and beauty. Keeping that in mind, only the structurally perfect and chemically pure diamonds have, like water, no hue whatsoever.
So, the colorless diamonds are the most valuable.
How about the other pieces?
Well, they are ranked on a small scale going from D to Z with (D, H, N, and Z), with D being the purest diamonds and Z having the most noticeable hue.
This grading is very tricky since diamond hues often can’t be noticed by the naked eye. Instead, diamond experts often need to perform a careful examination under a microscope facing down on a white surface under controlled lighting.
As an example, D and F diamonds still look perfect and completely absent of color even when they are viewed under the 20x microscope.
Why is this property so important, putting aside the structural properties?
Diamonds that feature some slight hue don’t “fire up” the light as much as the ones that are colorless.
What Is Diamond Clarity?
As we already mentioned above, diamonds are, essentially, the product of carbon being pressed under tremendous weight and in conditions of excessive heat.
Being a true force of nature, this process is far from fail-proof and can result in external characteristics called “blemishes.”
Of course, pure and the most valuable diamonds feature no blemishes whatsoever.
Today, the GIA Diamond Clarity Scale (GIA stands for the Gemological Institute of America – a nonprofit organization dedicated to research and standardization of measurements of diamonds) recognizes eleven different diamond clarity types:
- Flawless (FL)
- Internally Flawless (IF)
- Very, Very Slightly Included (VVS1 and VVS2)
- Very Slightly Included (VS1 and VS2)
- Slightly Included (SI1 and SI2)
- Included (I1, I2, and I3)
How Does A Diamond Cut Affect Its Value?
Out of all diamond properties, diamond cuts are probably the hardest to explain to newcomers. But, let’s say that throughout history, diamonds were renowned for their ability to sparkle and intensely transmit light.
Speaking in more professional terms, we would say that pure diamonds need to produce three desirable visual effects:
- Brightness – Diamond reflects bright internal and external light
- Scintillation – This is the amount of sparkle diamond produces as well as the pattern of light and dark areas created by the diamond reflection
- Fire – The instance when white light lit through the diamond disperses into all colors of the rainbow
We can see how the lack of clarity or slight color hue featured in the diamond can impede these beautiful effects.
Unlike them, diamond cuts are used to enhance these visual effects.
Of course, fashioning the stone to be able to disperse the light so effectively requires excellent craftsmanship, perfect proportion, symmetry, and polish. That is why diamonds with perfect cuts are considered the most valuable.
What about gradation? The GIA covered this topic as well. The GIA Diamond Cut Scale recognizes five different cut ranks ranging from Excellent to Poor.
What Are Brilliant Diamonds?
You have probably heard some precious gemstones are called “brilliants.” This term refers to the cut of the diamonds, but not so much to the three effects we have mentioned above.
Rather, it refers to the shape of the diamond.
As the name suggests, the shape of these diamonds was designed to produce maximal brilliance. In order to achieve that, the diamond needs to include numerous facets that were first formulated in 1919 by Belgian engineer Marcel Tolkowsky.
The shape of brilliant diamonds roughly resembles a cone and provides maximal light return from the top of the diamond. Cutting and polishing techniques necessary to achieve this form are particularly severe – the diamonds rarely lose less than 50% of their original weight.
What Are Diamonds’ Physical Properties?
As we could see from all things above, diamonds are incredibly beautiful gemstones that can disperse light like no other natural material in the world.
So, does all of its worth come from the stunning light-play these precious gemstones are able to produce? The short answer is NO.
Although they started their journey as objects of worship, trading goods, and, sometime later, gemstones, diamonds feature some truly unique physical properties that set them apart from all other gemstones on the face of Earth.
For instance, diamonds’ unusually strong type of chemical bond gives them extraordinary, almost unnatural durability. To this date, diamonds are, by far, the hardest known natural material.
What’s even more extraordinary is that they are entirely chemical resistant and have the highest thermal conductivity out of all existing natural materials.
All these properties make diamonds perfect industrial cutting tools that can be applied to virtually any other material in existence.
Also, diamonds (even when they are uncut) have extraordinarily high dispersion, as well as a high index of refraction which means they can be used as specialized lenses.
So, diamonds are not only stunningly beautiful – they also have a tremendous practical value modern industry and science couldn’t be imagined without.
Can Diamonds Be Artificially Produced?
Last but not least, we know that diamonds are made when you expose carbon to extreme temperature and extreme pressure.
Can this process be artificially reproduced? The answer is YES.
We have just mentioned that diamonds have extremely beneficial properties. Keeping in mind their scarcity, their industrial application would, otherwise, be impossible.
Fortunately, human ingenuity found a way to make the industrial production of diamonds possible.
The first artificial diamonds were created as early as 1893 by French chemist Henri Moissan when he managed to crystalize carbon under the pressure of molten iron at the temperature of 3,500 degrees Celsius (6,332 degrees Kelvin).
However, actual industrial production began in 1954 when we got the first high-quality artificially made diamond replicas. One would expect that this breakthrough would cause the price of diamonds to decline rapidly. However, that is not the case.
Today, artificial diamonds are used for industrial purposes only, while the small natural diamonds that have not that big of an industrial value are still sold as gemstones.
Learn More: What Are Diamonds Used For Other Than Jewelry?
We hope this journey through the history and the properties of diamonds gave you a brief insight into why these precious gemstones are so valuable and why they had such an enormous impact on the history of humankind.
Ever since the ancient civilizations first uncovered diamonds, these decorative gemstones instantly became one of the most sought-after objects on the planet. The following discovery of industrial properties only cemented their seminal place in our society.
No matter whether you are interested in trading diamonds or you are simply intrigued by history and geology, knowing as much as possible about them can do nothing but help you.