Diamonds have been a subject of fascination since long before they caught on in the West.
There’s a legend that shows up in a few different places, about a renowned explorer — the real Alexander the Great in some books, the fictional Sinbad the Sailor in others — who is faced with the challenge of collecting diamonds. The stones sit at the bottom of a shadowy and forbidding valley, guarded by serpents that, in one colorful version of the story, have the magical ability to look men in the eye and turn them to stone.
The hero has a plan to lower a mirror into the pit, and sure enough, when the snakes glance into it, their charm backfires: They petrify themselves. Still, even with the enemy vanquished, the men are hesitant to climb into the valley. Their leader, whom they’ve followed deep into the Hindu Kush, has another thought — he’ll consult the wise men of the region about how best to claim the treasure.
The elders offer strange advice. The hero returns and instructs the group to throw raw meat into the valley and wait at the top of the mountain. They do it, and sure enough, the odor attracts a pack of vultures that swoop down and pick up the meat. As the birds make their ascent, the hero tells his troops to follow them. The vultures fly overhead and escape, but as they rise further and further into the air, small pebbles rain down from the sky. The men scramble to pick them up.
To their delight, it’s the diamonds; they stuck to the raw flesh just long enough to be lifted out of the darkness.
A centuries-old appeal
This account appears everywhere, from the writings of 13th-century Persian scientist and storyteller Zakariya al-Qazwini, to the dispatches of Marco Polo, to the classic One Thousand and One Nights. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter whom it’s about or where it came from, because it’s an entertaining adventure that also reminds us just how long diamonds have been prized. The message is clear: It’s worth making a stop at a harrowing snake pit just to gather the crystalline gems.
Diamonds have meant money, prestige and power since at least the 1200s, when Marco Polo traveled to India and then published books in Europe about what he saw. They’ve meant plenty of other things, too.
Today, as the story of diamond marketing in the 20th century becomes increasingly well known, it’s worth looking back at how the stones were perceived before they were being advertised in the pages of Town & Country, The New Yorker and Vogue. Long before anyone understood the science behind diamonds or even where to find them, they were a subject of fascination.
From India to Syria to Rome to Greece, ancient cultures have ascribed miraculous, otherworldly powers to diamonds, using them in religious artifacts and, of course, jewelry. Indian maharajahs wore rough diamonds — the bigger the better — because they thought the stones gave them strength.
In the Middle Ages in Europe, diamonds were thought to have active medical properties, able to do all sorts of wonderful things: cure diseases, promote fertility and even end arguments between couples (well, maybe that last one is true). Even though we know better now, the heart of the deep, cross-cultural diamond tradition remains as clear — and as relevant — as ever.
A real diamond will always be a little bit mysterious, a little bit unknowable. Even with all of the resources we have at our fingertips, we’ll never fully understand the diamond’s astonishing journey. With many now debating the question of its value, this is a good time to recall the mystique and inherent beauty that have drawn people to this stone throughout history.
A brief history of diamonds
800 to 400 BCE
Diamonds are first discovered on the banks of rivers in India, where they are called vajra, the word for “thunderbolt”: a reference to their strength. The stones are used for both currency and ornament, and are often placed in the foreheads of religious idols (the legend of the notorious ocean-blue Hope Diamond holds that it was stolen from one such statue — hence the curse).
In Ancient Greece and Rome, diamonds are called adamas, which means “invincible.” Roman scholar Pliny the Elder writes, “The most valuable thing on earth is the diamond, known only to kings, and to them imperfectly.” Pliny explains the stone is so impossible to destroy that first, it must be weakened by soaking it in goat’s blood.
The long historical connection between Jews and diamonds begins in the Middle Ages, when people believe that diamond dust is deadly. Barred from working in other, more desirable trades due to religious persecution, Jewish men begin learning how to cut the stones.
The art of diamond cutting is now an art form, and one man, Jacques Coeur, sees an opportunity in Agnes Sorel (pictured), the young and fashionable mistress of King Charles VII of France.
Coeur, the king’s financial adviser and a successful merchant, meets Louis de Berquem in his travels, a Belgian who has been experimenting with the cut that will become the brilliant. Coeur thinks de Berquem’s stones are so stunning that women, not just men, will want to wear them. He convinces Sorel to try it, and she starts a trend.
The story of the Hope Diamond curse catches on in the American press, after Washington socialite Evalyn Walsh-McLean (pictured) buys the blue stone from renowned French jeweler Cartier. The way the legend tantalizes modern readers shows how mysterious diamonds remain to people, and how easy it is to believe that a jewel can have special powers.
Main image: 45.52-carat Hope Diamond. (Alamy Stock Photo); Inset images: Alamy Stock Photo; De Beers