21 April 2012

The Queen's Top 10 Diamonds: #1. The Cullinan Diamond

We know the Cullinan Diamond today best as the nine different gems it created, which are scattered throughout the British royal collection. But once upon a time, it was one giant diamond – which means I'm counting the whole lot as Queen Elizabeth’s number one diamond.

The Cullinan in its rough state
Frederick Wells was the superintendent of the Premier Mine near Pretoria, in what we know today as South Africa. On January 26, 1905, he was making his standard afternoon inspection of the mine when he was distracted by a shiny object embedded in the mine just 18 feet underneath the Earth’s surface. He pried it out and was certain he was being tricked; there was no way such a large object could be a diamond. Surely, he thought, the miners had planted some glass as a joke. Cullinan lore has it that the stone was even thrown out the window at one point, so certain was the management that it could not be real. But Mr. Wells did not find a trick piece of glass. What Mr. Wells found was the largest diamond ever discovered.

The Cullinan Diamond – named for the owner of the mine, Thomas Cullinan – was a massive 3,106 carats in its uncut state. It weighed about 1 1/3 pounds and measured just under 4 inches long, over 2 inches wide, and more than 2.5 inches high. And if that’s not enough, many experts believe that it’s actually only a portion of a larger diamond which has never been found, indicated by the stone having one flat side.

A diamond this large was destined for an important home, and the government had an idea where it ought to go. The Transvaal government was fairly new and keen to make a good impression on their sovereign, so they bought the stone for £150,000. They intended to give it as a gift to King Edward VII as a “token of the loyalty of the people of Transvaal to his throne and person”. (Mr. Wells, in case you’re wondering, was given £3,500 for finding the gem, while Thomas Cullinan was knighted in 1910 for his contributions to South African industrial development.)
Frederick Wells (right) hands the diamond to Thomas McHardy, the mine's manager (center), who hands it to Thomas Cullinan (left)
Initially, the king wasn’t sure he should accept the diamond. The government voted in favor of the gift, but not entirely (it hadn’t been that long since the Boer Wars, and not everybody was feeling so charitable, I guess). He was convinced by future prime minister Winston Churchill – and Churchill was given a model of the stone by the Transvaal government as a thank you. Hefty security was put in place for the diamond’s boat journey to England, but it was all a ruse. The actual diamond was mailed in a plain box.
Replicas: the rough stone, and the nine numbered polished gems
The diamond, still rough and uncut, was presented to King Edward on his 66th birthday in 1907. (What did you get for your last birthday?) He announced that he had accepted the stone “for myself and [my] successors”, and that “this great and unique diamond [would] be kept and preserved among the historic jewels which form the heirlooms of the Crown”.
 Joseph Asscher cuts the Cullinan
To cut the stone, the king turned to Asscher's of Amsterdam. It was an honor and a burden, with such a high probability that the stone could be ruined, and the firm studied the stone in depth before doing anything. On February 10, 1908, Joseph Asscher finally started cutting. The first cut, according to many accounts, broke the blade instead of the diamond; the second cut cleaved the diamond in two, and Asscher promptly fainted.
A diamond expert talks about the process and difficulty of cutting and polishing the Cullinan
It was cut first into three large sections and then further into nine large stones, numbered I through IX, plus 96 smaller brilliants and around 10 carats of unpolished bits and pieces. The nine gem stones have a combined weight of a little more than 1,050 carats.
The 9 Cullinan stones, in rough form
The largest two diamonds were reserved for King Edward and the rest were initially left with Asscher's as the fee for cutting and polishing the stones, but they all made their way back to the British royal family eventually. Edward purchased Cullinan VI as a personal gift for his wife Queen Alexandra. In 1910, the new government of the Union of South Africa bought back all the rest of the pieces and gave them to Queen Mary as a gift.
The nine numbered stones
No other stone, or group of stones, in the royal collection cover the same ground as the Cullinan chippings do: they are everything from landmark additions to the Crown Jewels to small items worn for everyday use. For that depth, for the history, for being another important gift, and for sheer notoriety, the Cullinans take the top spot on my list of Queen Elizabeth’s best diamonds.

Click below for a detailed look at each of the nine numbered Cullinan pieces:

Photos: The Royal Collection/Queen Elizabeth II