The History of the Diamond as Stone and Symbol
Diamonds may not be forever, but as symbols, time has shown, they may well be.
No pressure, no diamonds.
- Thomas Carlyle
The strangest thing about a diamond is that they can disappear. Chemically it’s just a piece of coal. Unlike a ruby or other precious stones that never change their structures, even at high temperatures, a diamond will be consumed completely, changing to a carbonic acid gas. This fact is strange because, as everyone knows, a diamond is a symbol of the eternal. After all, “diamonds are forever,” as the diamond industry once had it.
Even notwithstanding their contingent liabilities, diamonds are spectacular. Like no other gemstone, rubbing them produces a vitreous electricity. Passing an electric spark above the stone brings it to a phosphorescence, and one that it will retain for some time. These are just a few of the techniques that jewelers will use to rule out false and synthetic diamonds. But already the fact that there are fakes says something of their symbolic and material value. The formation of a diamond happens deep within the bowels of the Earth, some 250 kilometers below the surface and at low temperatures of well over 1,500° C (2,732° F). It’s enough to recognize them as treasures of time, even before the long processes of cleaning, cutting and polishing them allows us to appreciate their special characteristics.
The origins of the fame of diamonds are actually much more than many of us imagine. The ancient Greeks festooned their gods with so-called adamas, “inconquerables.” Our word, “adamant” retains the same meaning. The sword of Cronos, the helmet of Heracles and the chains that bound Prometheus were all made of these adamas. Roman poets later copied the idea, building the gates of Hades from this same eternal material. Already by the Middle Ages they were called the “tears of the gods” and often relied upon as talismans on the battlefield. But this prestige among mortals began in the time of Charlemagne (768-814) and culminated, of course, with Louis XIV, when the famous Jean-Baptiste Tavernier visited the East to collect precious stones for the king. He returned with the largest diamond ever seen.
The Hope Diamond, today in the collection of the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, according to Tavernier, was found in Persia and weighed 900 carats, though there’s no remaining physical evidence to support this. The Louvre Museum in Paris also maintains in its collection the only slightly less famous Regent Diamond, by far the largest of the Louvre’s remaining collection of ostentatious minerals and stones from the French Court. Of its original weight of 410 carats, it was later cut to a still impressive 140.64 carats. It’s absolute purity and elegance retained for the Regent the highest status of known diamonds. “A diamond as big as the Ritz,” F. Scott Fitzgerald would later say of it.
Other cultures have seen the diamond as a symbol of the evolutionary process of human beings. One of the most famous is the Tibetan philosophy of Vajrayana, the “Diamond Way,” which uses the stone to illustrate how humankind begins as graphite and, with continual internal work, will end in this last luminous and pure expression.
The idea of giving a diamond ring as a symbol of commitment, its primary use today, also has much to do with its brightness (its unique refractive index). This accompanies, of course, the belief that it will last forever. Diamonds are not forever, though we’ve been told otherwise by those exploiting the mines in South Africa. “Only the truth hidden in the diamond is eternal and supreme,” the magician and alchemist, Madame Blavatsky once famously remarked.
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