It’s January of 1905 in South Africa, and Sir Thomas Cullinan is paying a visit to the Premier diamond mine, which he founded. But little did Cullinan suspect that that same day the mine’s surface manager would spot a massive gem. That discovery would begin the stone’s journey from a few yards beneath his feet to the Tower of London in the U.K.
The gem, which would be named for Cullinan, was truly massive. Triple the size of the previous record holder, the Excelsior Diamond, it scaled four inches by two-and-a-half inches by a bit more than two. No wonder that thousands of people made the trip to have a look when it went on view at a Johannesburg bank.
Just a few months after being found, the diamond was transferred to Premier Mining Company’s London agent. There, the British king, Edward VII, viewed the gem, but neither he nor anyone else wanted to buy it. For two years, it languished in the U.K., until the Transvaal parliament decided on a use for the stone.
With the 1899-1902 Boer War, fought between South Africa and Britain, still fairly fresh in the mind, the Transvaal Colony’s leader, Louis Botha, felt it should make a gesture of loyalty to its British king. His suggestion was to buy the diamond for the monarch. And it was indeed a nice gesture. The diamond actually cost the Transvaal government a sum approaching $20 million in today’s money.
A diamond was an apt present from the South African province, since mining had been so important in the economy of the area. Since Erasmus Jacobs found a diamond in 1867 alongside the Orange River, the country’s Kimberley region had seen a headlong rush to mine the gems. Among those who sought fortune in the South African soil was Cullinan.
Previously a bricklayer, once Cullinan got the scent of diamonds in his nostrils, he headed off to prospect in the gem fields. In 1898 he was looking for the stones on a local farm belonging to the Prinsloo family. War got in the way, but in 1902 he convinced the family to sell up. He now owned an area that included a diamond pipe.
Late in 1902 Cullinan set up a mining company, which would become known as Premier. The mine of the same name started up in early 1903. The ground at the Premier Mine proved to have special qualities that allowed easy extraction of diamonds. Before long, the mine was doing very well, providing work for a couple of thousand employees.
Indeed, the mine still operates today. Over its long history, it has been the source of more than one in four diamonds bigger than 400 carats, or weighing just under three ounces, as well as hundreds of other large stones. On top of that, it’s one of the only locations on the planet that produces blue diamonds.
January 25, 1905, may well have been an ordinary working day for Frederick Wells, an experienced mine manager. He was making his rounds at Premier’s No. 2 Mine when a shaft of light coming from some rubble caught his eye. He investigated, and found a massive hunk of diamond. Wells then smartly slipped the stone into his coat pocket for transport to the mine office.
Given the diamond’s size, the the company realized the importance of Wells’ find. It immediately alerted the world to this monster gem, setting both cable and telegraph systems ablaze with the news. When the press heard about the stone, they decided to name it for Cullinan, the mine founder and chair of the Premier company.
Indeed, the diamond was a monster, weighing not far short of 3,107 carats uncut. A carat is a measure of mass that these days weighs exactly 200 milligrams, or about 1/140th of an ounce. But back in 1905 it weighed a little more. All in all, the rock came in at about 22 ounces. And to this day, no bigger diamond of suitable quality for gems has been discovered.
After a short spell on view at Johannesburg’s Standard Bank, Premier decided to send the diamond to its sales agent in London, S. Neuman & Co. But the stone was, of course, extremely valuable and an obvious target for thieves. As a result, elaborate preparations were made for its safe transportation to the U.K.
A team of detectives boarded the steamer that, word was, carried the diamond, set to form a guard for it. With due ceremony, a package found its way into the ship’s safe, and the steamboat set sail. However, all was not quite as it seemed. Indeed, had thieves broken into the safe, they would have had quite the surprise.
That’s because the Cullinan Diamond did not travel overseas on the steamboat as the company said it would. Instead, its owners had come up with an ingenious plan to keep it safe. And it was a trick that no would-be diamond thief would ever see through, so bold was it.
Yes, the diamond on the steamship was not the real Cullinan, but a decoy to fool anyone who meant to steal it. Instead, the Premier Mining Company simply packaged the real gem in a plain posting box. And then sent it off through the mail. Of course, it did go registered.
Upon the diamond’s arrival in Britain, it was taken to Buckingham Palace. The king, Edward VII, had a good look at it. And while in London, the gem attract plenty of interest, but none of it would prove strong enough to turn into a sale. The fate of the Cullinan Diamond may well have seemed uncertain, as two years after its arrival in the U.K., it was still on the shelf.
However, as we mentioned earlier, a buyer did turn up. The Transvaal government saw the diamond as a perfect gift for the British king – in those days the provinces of what is now South Africa still belonged to the U.K. Although the prime minister, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, at first counseled rejecting the offer, in the end the king accepted.
Indeed, Edward VII received the diamond for his birthday in November 1907. A big gathering, including the queens of Spain and Norway and other distinguished guests, watched the presentation. The king proclaimed that “this great and unique diamond [would] be kept and preserved among the historic jewels which form the heirlooms of the Crown.”
To that end, the king asked the Asschers of Amsterdam in the Netherlands to cut the stone into smaller gems. So Abraham Asscher came to London in January 1908 to collect it. And amazingly, he snuck the diamond back to Holland in his pocket. Meanwhile, a huge fuss was made of conveying a decoy – this time on a British naval ship – over to the continent.
The man entrusted with turning the Cullinan Diamond into gems was Abraham’s brother, Joseph Asscher. He was the third of that name in the Asscher dynasty. His grandfather had, in 1854, started the company, setting up the business in Amsterdam. By the early 19th century, the siblings had developed a strong reputation in the diamond-cutting world.
Among Joseph Asscher’s achievements, he created a very special cut for diamonds. The Asscher cut, as it is still known, involves a square, almost octagonal base that rises in steps. This shape allows amazing reflection from inside the stone. If done well, the outcome is an “endless hallway of reflective mirrors.”
Asscher didn’t just get straight down to work on the diamond, though. He spent months studying it first. Finally, it seemed best to split the stone into three, but there was one aim that the gem-cutter must meet. Out of the uncut rock must come the world’s biggest faceted diamond. However, to achieve this would need a precise first cut.
Asscher wasn’t one to miss a chance to publicize his firm, however, so he let it be known when he planned to split the diamond. Consequently, a decent crowd had assembled on the February 1908 day that he chose to do it. He swung his blade towards the stone. To the shock of both the gem-cutter and his audience, though, the diamond did not break.
In fact, Asscher’s blade snapped, and the diamond remained intact. He figured that the tool had not been big enough for the job. So he sent everyone off home and worked on creating something more suitable for a second try. This time, though, the gem-cutter would do the job without the pressure of an audience.
With only one witness present, Asscher smashed his new blade into the stone. This time, he achieved a successful cleavage. And it’s said that the release of stress that this brought was enough to make the gem-cutter fall into a faint. Whatever the truth of that, he now had smaller pieces to work on.
For months, Asscher’s firm beavered away at the diamonds. Three polishers put in 14 hours each day working on cutting, grinding and buffing up the gems, turning the raw stones into finished products. The end result of their efforts was more than a hundred separate diamonds. They ranged from the biggest in the world to much smaller stones.
The raw stone gave way to nine big diamonds, which all together weighed nearly half a pound. In addition, it also produced almost 100 smaller “brilliants” that totaled about half an ounce. In all, about a third of the original discovery became saleable gems. As it turns out, only the biggest two jewels belonged to the king. The rest of them went to the Asschers in payment for their work.
However, the remaining seven large diamonds did eventually make their way to the British Royal Family. Edward VII had already bought one from Asscher to give to his wife, Alexandra. The South African government bought the rest of the stones from the brothers and then gifted them the new queen, Mary, in 1910.
While Queen Elizabeth II owns seven of the nine diamonds privately, the larger two form part of the Crown Jewels. The biggest, Cullinan I, is known as the Great Star of Africa and sports 74 facets. It weighs in at a bit less than a quarter pound, which is enormous for a diamond.
The next largest of the diamonds, Cullinan II, has the moniker Second Star of Africa. It tips the scales at two-and-a-quarter ounces and has 66 facets. Neither of the two is perfectly clear, however, they have a few flaws, and number II even has a small chip. However, number I was valued when cut at the equivalent of more than $50 million.
However, you would not be able to buy either diamond even if you ponied up that kind of cash. Both form part of the Queen’s ceremonial jewelry. Cullinan I sits in the Sovereign’s Sceptre with Cross, which had to be remodeled to accommodate the stone. It can, though, be worn as part of a brooch and Queen Mary often wore it that way.
Cullinan II, meanwhile, sits in the Imperial State Crown, a glittering symbol of power that shows off nearly three thousand jewels. It, too, can be worn as part of a brooch. However, it’s really only ever seen as part of the crown the Queen wears when she attends the State Opening of Parliament each year.
The rest of the time, the two largest Cullinan diamonds live alongside the more than 100 pieces that comprise Crown Jewels. They are on show at the Jewel House in the Tower of London, under strict security. About two-and-a-half million people view the jewels every year. However, they haven’t always had quite as nice a home.
Indeed, during World War II, most of the Crown Jewels found a home in the cellars of Windsor Castle. But even that was too good for the Cullinan diamonds. Yes, they spent the war years shut in a cookie tin and hidden under an exit, allowing their quick recovery. Even once the war was over, they sat in a bank vault for a couple of years due to bomb damage at the Tower.
To see the other Cullinan diamonds, though, you’ll usually have to catch the Queen at a formal occasion. She often sports some of her 300-plus pieces of jewelry at those events. However, the gems do occasionally go on display at Buckingham Palace. In fact, they went on show together for the first time in 2016.
On one particular occasion when the Queen wore Cullinans III and IV, she shared a secret about them. On a 1958 state visit to the Netherlands, she revealed that her family calls them “Granny’s Chips.” One diamond that the Queen is somewhat less fond of, though, is Cullinan VIII, which she complains “gets in the soup.” Consequently, she doesn’t ever wear it.
Meanwhile, rumor has it that there may be more Cullinan diamonds somewhere out there. As we noted earlier, the original stone looked like it might have been even bigger at one time. And it’s alleged that mine manager Wells might somehow have broken off nearly a pound of diamond before handing the stone over.
Even without that extra weight, the Cullinan is the biggest rough diamond ever found. However, Cullinan I, the Great Star of Africa, is not the world’s largest cut diamond. That honor goes to the slightly heavier Golden Jubilee Diamond, discovered in 1985 at the same Premier Mine responsible for the Cullinan.
Although the Golden Jubilee became a larger cut gem, the famous brown diamond was actually fashioned from an uncut stone of just over five ounces. That’s much smaller than the rough Cullinan diamond. The stone now forms part of the Thai crown jewels, having been gifted to King Bhumibol to celebrate his 50 years as ruler of Thailand.
When Wells made his massive find, the mine manager gained a reward of £3,500, which works out at more than half a million dollars today. These days, though, the Cullinan diamonds are literally priceless – there’s no way that Queen Elizabeth would sell them. But what we really want to know is how much it cost to post the uncut stone to the U.K.