Why Diamonds?

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Garry H (Cut Nut)

Aug 15, 2000
''Why Diamonds'' is a transcript of Ewen Tylers opening presentation at last years Australian Diamond mining Conference.
I thought some of you may like to read it (even though it is quite long). Ewen is an amazing man, and the story is beautifully written.

"In some strange way, we are programmed to lust after things which are rare, shiny and beautiful. We have an innate and intuitive sense of economics and reciprocal exchange. This is something greater than ourselves.

Because we must look back to perhaps 70 million years, before there was any world wide web we could access, we are wedded to evolution as a prime source of data, moving into the world of geologists, archaeologists, historians, and even later, neuroscience. What I will describe is, therefore, necessarily speculative.

The world of birds started to specialise about 70 million years ago, and we only need to look at the Bower Bird, and indeed the Jackdaw of Reims, to see that life forms, long pre-dating Homo Sapiens arrival, are attracted to things bright and shiny – which reflect the sun. I can report placing Alfoil around a bowerbird’s court, and next day finding all the pieces placed in his bower. He does all this, and dances, carrying one of his decorations, to demonstrate his sexual prowess to the local girls. The bowerbirds are often considered the most advanced of all birds.

In the Omo Valley in Ethiopia, early humans, Homo Habilis, at about 2 million years ago, carried over long distances, white shiny translucent quartz to their camp by the riverbank. It was by no means the best tool making material in the area, but they had fashioned it because, no doubt, they were attracted to it.

As an add on to human decoration, there appears in Iraq, dated 60,000 years ago, a burial practice where the dead body was lain in a bower with a woven mattress of flower stalks, and the mortal remains of the person, were covered with great bunches of wild flowers. Was there a death and aesthetic decoration connection, long before the well documented gold burial hoards of more recent times? What is the fascination with death?

Around Kimberley in South Africa, rock engravings, dated possibly earlier than 10,000 years ago, of roan antelope, zebra and ostrich are so fine lined in detail, that it is suggested that a diamond could have cut these petroglyphs. Perhaps its first recorded industrial use of diamond.

Looking back so far in time, the key words to emerge are shiny, decorative, mysterious and sexy – diamond fits the bill.

The discovery of diamond in South Africa is well documented. In 1866, a Boer boy, Erasmus Jacobs, picked up a 21carat stone by a riverbank. In 1869, a Griqua farm boy, Booi, picked up an 83 carat stone on land near the Orange River. How visible are such stones in situ? Well, a 100-carat stone is the size of a 20-cent piece; about 29mm across. A 20-carat stone a little smaller than a 5 cent piece; a 2.5-carat stone is around 6mm.

I want now to look at where such large stones as Booi found in South Africa, might also have come from in antiquity, to see the where and why of our diamond history. I look at large diamonds, of say up to 100 carats, polished, and only use those stones with known provenance. Out of 35 that are well documented, 20 can be sourced in South Africa, and 15 in India. South Africa has only been in the diamond business since 1870, and Indian mining died 200 years ago. That South Africa, with over 130 years of modern commercial production, should have beaten India is not surprising, but it does show the importance of India as a source of big, visible stones. You may ask, if diamonds were being used industrially over 10,000 years ago in South Africa, why was their modern discovery delayed so long? Perhaps because of human migration in the Ice ages – Kimberley would have been very cold, and India much warmer. Early humans were moving north.

It is believed that diamond mining began in India about 1000 BC, Before the Common Era, and we know that diamonds were being actively traded in India by the 4th century BC. For 1000 years, between 400BC and 600 CE, there is a well-documented diamond trade with taxation and customs duties. There exist technical manuals giving instructions as to how to assess the worth of a diamond. The octahedral form was considered ideal, but very rare in nature; transparency, colour, fire and iridescence were important descriptors. Certainly, early diamond price lists existed.

Of all belief systems, Hinduism, through its progenitor the Vedanta Scriptures, is the oldest. The Vedanta texts date from around 2500BC. Hindus believed that diamond, because of its optical qualities, contained the effect of a “Mystical Force”. Its hardness was well known, and utilised, but this property seemed not to be a feature of its magic or religious attributes. Of course, its natural crystal form, the octahedron, with six sharp points, and eight very flat sides, showed the stone at its very best. It is not surprising that diamonds were dedicated to the Hindu deities. The white octahedron was dedicated to Indra, the God of storms, thunder and lightning. All crystals, including diamonds, were dedicated to Vishnu, one of the Hindu trinity of Creator, Preserver and Destroyer. He was the preserver of life and visited the earth from time to time in various incarnations. One, well known in the diamond business, was as Ganesh, with his elephant head, the god of wisdom and prosperity. Vishnu’s mission on earth, was to save the good and destroy evildoers: these properties were associated with the diamond, hence the dedication to him.

In the Hindu caste system, historically, diamonds also played their part. Only the priestly caste, the Brahmin, could have white stones of the best crystal shapes. The landowners were permitted yellow goods, and so it went down. The magic power attributed to diamonds, no doubt came from the priesthood, as always, the controllers of society, but the story later spread to Greek and Roman society. Platok the Greek philosopher in the 4th century BC described precious stones as “living beings – the embodiment of celestial beings – diamond, a transparent distillate of the noblest part of gold”. One of Aristotles pupils, himself a pupil of Plato, described male and female diamonds!

Pliny, the Roman historian 23-79 CE, wrote – “that of all the goods of the earth, and not only of precious stones, it is the diamond to which we attribute the highest value”. The pragmatic Romans, like the Hindus, gave it a magical and metaphysical significance. It was a talisman; it was worn to fend off evil spirits, to protect in war, and to attract in love. It had all the virtues of Vishnu, and the human concern with protection from death.

One could say very much about the mysticism and the fables, like the Valley of the Diamonds, protected by Serpents – a fable from the time of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, to the time of Marco Polo in 1298. This story travelled from, the Hellenic east in the first century BC, to China, the Arab Countries, Persia, then India, and finally to Europe with Marco Polo. However, in medieval times, right to the 16th Century, all sorts of nonsense were talked. If we think male and female diamonds were absurd, there are notions that they are subject to illness, old age, and death: that two diamonds actually produced offspring; one of the diamonds owned by the Duchess of Luxemburg was pregnant. At one stage the diamond mines in India were closed for 30 years to allow the diamonds to breed!

Until early in the 14th Century, the trade in diamonds was almost entirely in their rough form. It had been so since ancient times. Cleaving, that is cutting the top off an octahedron, was known in India, because it was recorded that “an iron blade, immersed in the blood of a He-Goat” could cut a diamond. It was not common practise in Europe until the later part of the 14th century. (Perhaps not enough sacrificial goats were available?) Point cutting probably began early in the 15th century, and this really started the process of adding value. From this time, with the Divine Right of Kings, the decoration of Kings, Princes, Maharajahs, Moguls, Emperors and their women, became a major issue. All who saw themselves as aristocrats now chose to decorate themselves with these beautiful fiery products. From then until today, they represent the ultimate in human decoration.

What I am trying to show is that all this quasi-religious attention to diamonds, the mumbo jumbo, and later this grand scale of decorations, goes back a very long time, and for that reason, may have become etched in the human psyche.

We must look also to the industrial use of diamonds from ancient times to the present day, because they now make up a very important part of the diamond story. Leaving behind petroglyphs, perhaps carved by diamond in Neolithic times, we know that Glyptic Art, the practice of engraving on precious stones, was very popular in Rome from 2nd century BC. In Pliny’s time, a diamond tipped engraving tool was known to be in use. Such tools were exported to china for cutting jade and drilling pearls.

Industrial use in the west began with commercial mining, and what to do with the diamonds that were not usable for making jewellery; stocks were building up. The obvious thing to use was its hardness, and the business developed into machine tools, abrasives, cutting concrete and so on. With the discovery in the Belgian Congo of huge diamond deposits, in the 1930’s, which were perhaps more than 90% of industrial quality, there was adequate supply, even over supply, for immediate usage. DeBeers, until then the world’s principal supplier of diamond, now saw this new mega-producer with some apprehension. They did a dial. The Second World War and the loss of Belgian sovereignty, coupled with wartime industrial demand, presented problems.

For many years since the experiments of James Hannay in 1878, produced a hard substance, but not a diamond, people had been trying to synthesise a diamond. The wartime demand in the 1940’s, led to more serious experiments being conducted by General Electric and the Swedish firm ASEA. De Beers, with stocks of Congo Boort, were slower off the mark, but by 1953 ASEA had formed a synthetic diamond, and by 1955, General Electric had done the same. It was not until 1958 that De Beers succeeded in their own Diamond Research Laboratory in South Africa.

The turmoil caused by the chaotic granting of independence to the Belgian Congo in 1960, precipitated a crisis in the supply of Congo Boort. De Beers and General Electric went into synthetic mode, and the outcome was the development of a new industry in synthetic diamonds. De Beers built, not only a manufacturing centre in South Africa, but also in Shannon in Ireland, and entered into a joint venture with ASEA in Sweden because they had the best hydraulic presses.

By 1975, synthetic diamond production overtook natural diamonds, and by 1990 about 85% of industrial diamond was being met by synthetics. I would guess that by today, something like a billion carats of synthetic diamonds are being produced annually. Industrial diamonds are big time.

Today, the magic of diamond is also being used in yet another way. We have seen its decorative function and its industrial application, but now it is enabling us to look inside planet earth and understand something of its inner and most mysterious workings. Diamonds brought up by kimberlites from deep in the earth’s mantle are like time capsules. The diamond brings to the surface enclosed minerals, whose composition and history can describe clearly some of the internal processes of our planet

How does the planet work – how do the continents move; what is the reality of plate tectonics? A diamond may come from 660kms. below the earth’s surface, what is going on down there? A diamond will not form above a depth of 150 kms, but, thanks to the travelling diamond, we can now log happenings over a depth range of 150-660 kms. The stories that these stones can tell will be of inestimable value to the world of pure science, to say nothing of their value to the geologist.

Why are diamonds so sought after? Why diamonds? Certainly scarcity is an element. This contributes to its high value, and some lust after such things. It has been used as “escape money” with even more potential than gold, because of its high value to weight ratio. Russian Jews escaping from the pogroms of Tsarist Russia were able to escape with their diamonds, and establish themselves with capital where they settled. Many who escaped from the Holocaust will talk of the value of their diamonds to both assist their escape, and restart their lives. It is, however, my opinion that there is a core fascination – which you can observe even when a tiny diamond is discovered by a prospecting geologist in a laboratory, and everyone wants to look – which goes much deeper. It is something which we have inherited in our gene pool. I believe, along with many of the neuroscientists who research these things, that Homo Sapiens Sapiens has inherited, from perhaps millions of years of evolution, certain core intuitions. We are attracted to things, which are shiny, things of beauty, and things mysterious.

We have, in our cells, an intuitive understanding of physics, and the fact that things fall down – not up. Similarly the understanding of engineering, which we use to make tools – is a skill we have had for 2.5 million years. A sense of numbers – an ability to count small numbers of objects and estimate larger ones. We have an intuitive economics which we use to exchange goods and favours – this is a concept of reciprocal exchange, in which one party confers a benefit on another, and is entitled to an equivalent benefit in return. Then there is a mental database of logic, and language, which we use to share that logic. There are several more core intuitions that have been identified by neuroscientists, and researched.

It is this reciprocal exchange, in our intuitive economics, that is relevant to why diamonds. This exchange is, I believe, the basis of all procreative competition, mysticism and religion. It starts from things that are shiny that reflect and resemble the sun. The sun will always be the source of all power, the perceived source of life, and darkness is always associated with death. Even our distant relations, the baboons, line up every morning to watch the sun rise. A diamond shines like the sun. We deal and exchange in decorations for two reasons, to flaunt our sexual importance, like the Bowerbird, or to frighten the enemy, to ward off death. A diamond, this stone of mystery, does it well.

The principle of reciprocal exchange is the foundation of all religious systems, and this evolved with us in so many forms. The principle is always the same – we will do this for you God – perhaps kill you a goat, build you a house or temple, spread your word, try to be good, and so on, and in return you will give us rain, a ripe harvest, victory in battle, and perhaps protect us from death. The flowers in the grave 60,000 years ago, Pharonic tombs and the diamonds dedicated to the Hindu Gods, must indicate something of belief in a life after death, going back a long way. This basic human core intuition of economics, no matter how misguided, gave us a diamond as a gift, to and from the Gods.

Even today, the diamond engagement ring uses such a reciprocal exchange; he says “I will give you an engagement ring if you will marry me”. She says “ I have selected you for procreation, my partner, and the father of my children”. A diamond, for that most mysterious of all life forms – a baby.

Why diamonds – because from the birds to the present time, we have been genetically programmed to satisfy our needs by reciprocal exchange.

EwenTyler AM
Ewen Tyler has been called the ‘Father of Australian diamonds’. His vision and tenacious persistence from 1969 lead to the discovery of the Argyle Diamond Mine; the world''s largest by carat weight. Under his direction both of Australia’s other two producing diamond mines were discovered. He was awarded an Order of Australia in 1991 and the Clunies Ross National Science & Technology Award in 1992. His foresight, persistence and commitment have made an outstanding contribution to the wealth of the nation.


Feb 22, 2003
Thank You, Gary, for that posting!

All animal life forms do seem attracted shiny things. Even squirrels carry marbles and shiny metal pieces back to their burrows.

Interesting how diamonds are intertwined in human history and religions.

Very insightful! Thanks for taking time to post this wonderful presetation, a "diamond" work of prose.


Feb 22, 2003
We "practiced" for over 6 years getting it right to have babies and not a day goes by that we haven't wondered, "What were we thinking?"!!! Why would 2, seemingly intelligent people do that to themselves? LOLOL

Who wants to live with the worst of themselves day in and day out? The curse works! You know the one your Momma said when you were a kid??!! "I hope someday you have a child just like you!"

All kidding aside,... Kids are great! We luv em all. Wouldn't take a million bucks for any one of them!!!
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