Prior to the discovery of diamonds in Brazil in the 1700s, India was the only place where diamonds were mined. Early references to diamonds in India come from Sanskrit texts. The Arthashastra of Kautilya mentions the diamond trade in India. Buddhist works dating from the 4th century BC describe the diamond as a well-known and precious stone but don’t mention the details of diamond cutting.
Another Indian description written in the beginning of the 3rd century describes strength, regularity, brilliance, ability to scratch metals, and good refractive properties as the desirable qualities of a diamond. Golconda was an important trading center for diamonds in central India.
Diamonds were traded to both the east and west of India and were recognized by various cultures for their gemological or industrial uses. In his work Naturalis Historia, the Roman writer Pliny the Elder noted the diamond’s ornamental uses, as well as its usefulness to engravers because of its hardness. It is however highly doubtful that Pliny actually meant diamonds and it is assumed that in fact several different minerals such as corundum, spinel, or even a mixture with magnetite were all referred to by the word “adamas”.
Diamonds eventually spread throughout the world, even though India had remained the only major source of the gemstone until the discovery of diamonds in Brazil in 1725. A Chinese work from the 3rd century BC mentions: “Foreigners wear it [diamond] in the belief that it can ward off evil influences”. The Chinese, who did not find diamonds in their country, initially did not use diamond as a jewel but used it as a “jade cutting knife”.
Diamonds reached ancient Rome from India. Diamonds were also discovered in 700 in Borneo and were used by the traders of southeast Asia.
The modern era of diamond mining began in the 1860s in Kimberley, South Africa with the opening of the first large-scale diamond mine. The first diamond there was found in 1866 on the banks of the Orange River and became known as the Eureka Diamond.
In 1869, an even larger 83.50-carat (16.700 g; 0.5891 oz) diamond was found on the slopes of Colesberg Kopje, (The Kimberly mine, later dubbed the big hole) on the farm Vooruitzigt belonging to the De Beers brothers. This sparked off the famous “New Rush” and within a month, 800 claims were cut into the hillock which were worked frenetically by two to three thousand men. As the land was lowered so the hillock became a mine—in time, the world-renowned Kimberley Mine. Following the agreement by the British government on compensation to the Orange Free State (Dutch) for its competing land claims, Griqualand West was annexed to the Cape Colony in 1877.
From 1871 to 1914, 50,000 miners dug the Big Hole with picks and shovels, yielding 2,722 kg (6,001 lb) of diamonds, and by 1873 Kimberley was the second largest town in South Africa, having an approximate population of 40,000.
The various smaller mining companies were amalgamated by British imperialist Cecil Rhodes and Charles Rudd into De Beers, and The Kimberley under Barney Barnato. In 1888, the two companies merged to form De Beers Consolidated Mines, which once had a monopoly over the world’s diamond market. That monopoly had ended by 2005, following an antitrust lawsuit in the US (which De Beers settled without admitting wrongdoing, upon payment of a US$295 million settlement), and a voluntary agreement between De Beers and the European Commission. The latter agreement had been overturned upon appeal by the Russian mining company Alrosa, but the European Court of Justice then upheld the decision and the European Commission subsequently concluded its investigation with no more action being taken against De Beers.
Today, annual global rough diamond production is estimated to be about 130 million carats (26 tons; 29 short tons), of which 92% is cut and polished in India, mostly in the city of Surat. Some 85% of the world’s rough diamonds, 50% of cut diamonds, and 40% of industrial diamonds are traded in Antwerp, Belgium—the diamond center of the world.
The city of Antwerp also hosts the Antwerpsche Diamantkring, created in 1929 to become the first and biggest diamond bourse dedicated to rough diamonds. Antwerp’s association with diamonds began in the late 15th century when a new technique to polish and shape the gems evolved in this city. The diamond cutters of Antwerp are world-renowned for their skill. More than 12,000 expert cutters and polishers are at work in the Diamond District, at 380 workshops, serving 1,500 firms and 3,500 brokers and merchants.
In the 21st century, the technology to produce perfect diamonds synthetically was developed. Diamonds produced by the latest technologies are visually identical to mined naturally occurring diamonds. It is too early to assess the effect of future wide availability of gem-quality synthetic diamonds on the diamond market, although the traditional diamond industry has taken steps to try to create a distinction between diamonds dug from the ground and diamonds made in a factory, in part by downplaying the fact that diamonds from both sources are actually visually identical. Synthetics currently represent 2% of the gem-quality diamond supply used for jewelry, but 98% of industrial-quality supply used for abrasive applications.