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Wednesday, March 28, 2012


I bet the hero of this story was not Frederick Wells. He is the man credited with finding a legendary jewel, but to me it seems unlikely that in the South Africa of 1905 a white man would have been at the dig’s face, where the danger was greatest, and where, in fact, the huge crystal was found. Still, the legend has it that Frederick spotted the rock embedded in the wall just above his head, reached up and pried what he first thought was glass out of the stone with his pen knife. And if that seems as unlikely to you as it does to me, we should both remember that everything about this particular artifact is unlikely.
The nursery where this carbon crystal grew was an odd place. First, the surface above it had to have been stable for 1 to 3 billion years – maybe three fourths of the age of our planet. And for all of that time 90 to 120 miles below this stable surface the temperature had to be a constant 1,000 degrees centigrade, and the pressure about 653,000 pounds per square inch. The longer a carbon crystal remains under that pressure and temperature, the larger the crystal might grow. And this one grew to one and a half pounds. There are only a few spots in the earth where the temperature and pressure has remained consistent for so long; beneath the Canadian Shield, beneath Siberia, beneath the center of the Indian subcontinent, beneath northwest Australia, and beneath South Africa.
The heat allows the molecular bonds of carbon atoms to become plastic, but does not break them down completely, while the immense pressure squeezes them into an eight side crystalline shape. Over eons such carbon crystals grow slowly and they must be fairly common in these regions of the mantle. But then something unlikely happens. The earth burps.
If one of these carbon crystals rises to the surface slowly, over decades or even years, the atoms binding its carbon molecules together return to their fail-safe state, which is graphite – pencil lead. For carbon to remain a crystal, it must reach the surface in a burst, over no more than a minutes. To travel from the nursery to the surface, then, the stone must reach speeds of several hundred miles an hour. Such a speed can only be reached if the capping pressure is suddenly punctured through by a narrow fissure, at which point the temperature and pressure produces a massive volcanic explosion at the surface. For that to happen is unlikely. But over a billion years unlikely becomes inevitable.
The first European who “owned” the surface above this jewel was a Dutch farmer named Cornelis Minnaar. But this was not Holland. It was the southern part of Africa, north of the River Valaal, 25 miles east of the city of Pretoria (Tshwane). The Boers, as these Dutch transplants called them selves, had made the trek to this region to avoid the British, who had stolen their colony. In 1861 Cornelis sold a section of his land to his brother, Roelof , who in 1896, sold an even smaller part to Willem Prinsloo (above) who was just starting a family. The sale price was 570 English pounds, and it was William who owned the land when another Dutchman named Fabricus arrived looking for buried treasure.
Being experienced in this sort of thing, Fabricus first inquired as to where the Minnarrs and Prinsloo households had dug their “sanitary pits”. This was a euphemism for the holes used to bury the products of your outhouse, politely known as “night soil”. Why did a hole when a hole had already been dug? But since to date nothing unusual had been found in the sanitary pits, Fabricus assumed he would have to look elsewhere. Once he had located some “virgin dirt”, he scrapped away the thin red top soil, and then hacked his way through ten feet of yellow limestone gravel, the bi-product of primordial coral reefs, before reaching a blue slate gravel peppered with tiny red garnets, a rock called Kimberlite. Fabricus had struck pay dirt
Fabricius was working for an Englishman named Henry Ward, who had paid for the option so search on Prisloo’s land. But Ward didn’t have the money to make the buy, and besides Prisloo was not interested in selling at the moment, since it looked like war was about to break out between the Boers and the English. Which it did. By the time the war was finally settled in 1904 – The British won – Ward had sold out his options to Thomas Major Cullinan (above), and Willem Prinsloo was dead. So Cullinan made an offer to Wlliam’s widow, Maria Prisloo. Broke and defeated, she sold the farm for 52,000 pounds. Not a bad profit.
Cullinan and partners named their new venture "The Premier Mine". Production started at the end of April 1903, and in a year 2,000 people, mostly non-Europeans, were blasting, chopping, digging and hauling blue Kimberlite out of the open pit. They were looking for diamonds.
Most diamond mines start out as open pits. A Kimberlite Pipe is famously “carrot shaped”, wide at the top, narrow towards the bottom. And after less than a year of digging, on January 25th, 1905, this new mine is credited with producing the largest diamond ever found. Diamonds are not rare, but gem quality diamonds are. On average two hundred tons of ore must be culled for every 1 caret diamond, (there are 141.7 carets in every once) and only one out of every five million diamonds weighs two carets or above. The one and one half pound diamond Mr. Wells pulled out of the rock face that January afternoon, was rated at 3,106 carets. In the name of good publicity, it was named after Mr, Cullinan.
After a nondescript voyage to England via the royal mail in an unmarked plain brown box, The Cullinan, as it was now known, was presented to King Edward VII. He asked as many experts as he could find - geologists, gemologists and even the physicists Sir William Cookes (above) -  how to cut this hunk of rock.
Cookes noted that around a small black spot in the interior of the stone the colors were very vivid, changing and rotating round the spot as the analyser was turned. These observations indicated internal strain…there was a milky, opaque mass, of a brown color, with pieces of what looked like iron oxide. There were four cleavage planes of great smoothness and regularity.” At issue was how to turn this indescribably rare nondescript lump into something indescribably rare and beautiful.
Diamonds had been known since the tenth century, but it was not until the 17th century that they became popular amongst the aristocracy, not until the first “Brilliant Cut” by Italian jeweler Jules Mazarin, really showed the beauty that was hiding inside. His diamonds sparkled with 17 facets, each one reflecting light back out at the viewer. By 1900 the skill of the diamond cutter had increased the possible reflections to 57 facets.
The general consensuses was that the best cutter for this job was Joseph Asscher, ironically another Dutchman. He studied the Cullinan for six months in his shop in Amsterdam, surrounded by a small crowd of bankers, experts and royal representatives, laying out a plan of attack.
As the London Evening News reported in mid-January, of 1908, “…a special model of the diamond in clay was made…It was cut into pieces to give an idea of what would happen if the genuine stone were treated in the same way. After several experiments a definite plan was arrived at…”
Finally, on Monday, February 10th, 1908, at 2:45 pm, Joseph was ready. Surrounded by a small crowd of anxious interested third parties, Joseph poised his hammer over the chisel, the blade of which was lodged against the precise point which he had calculated the first strike had to be made. If he missed, or struck a glancing blow, the one-of-a-kind diamond worth a million pounds would be rendered damaged and worth a few thousand. Joseph drew a breath, and sharply struck the chisel….which cracked apart against the diamond.
Immediately Joseph ordered the room cleared, except for the notary republic for the bankers, who were financing this entire thing. Joseph checked the Cullinan and found it, thankfully, undamaged. He checked his tooks, re-examined his plans and announced a week's delay while he fashioned a new, larger, chisel.
So it was that on February 17, 1908, alone in the room with the diamond and the notary, Joseph lined his hammer up for a second time over The Cullinan, and struck the precise strong blow, directly above the dark inclusion...and the diamond fell apart into three perfectly clear pieces. Despite legends to the contrary, Joseph did not faint. He did, however, drink a glass of Champaign.
The Cullinen was cut into nine large stones and 96 smaller diamonds, so many that it took 8 months just to polish them all. And if you ever get to the Tower of London, you might make a note that the Crown Jewels of England on display there, might be literally billions of years old, but they have only in the royal families’ possession for about a hundred years. But they will always be a testament to the creation of timeless beauty under pressure.
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