Last week Sotheby’s New York auctioned an internally flawless, D colour, 100.20 carat emerald-cut diamond. It sold for US$22 million. The seller was anonymous, as was the buyer.

In 2008, massive diamond deposits were discovered in the Marange fields of Zimbabwe, and from the outset illegal land acquisitions, forced labour, murder and complicity at the highest levels of government were instrumental in bringing its rough diamonds into the marketplace and avoiding scrutiny over the methods of their mining.

These so-called “conflict stones” or “blood diamonds” are commandeered by political, military and police-led syndicates and are channeled into the hands of middlemen who are indifferent to the bloodshed surrounding their arrival on the sorting table. From here, they are cast into the fast-running stream of legitimate stones, from which they will become indistinguishable.

In the late 1990s, Global Witness, the world Natural Resources monitor, revealed that countries such as Angola, the Congo, Liberia and the Ivory Coast were fuelling their civil wars (which had killed more than 4 million people) with the sale of diamonds.

In 2000, governments worldwide, representatives from the diamond industry and civic-minded groups came together to discuss the dilemma. Thus the Kimberley Process was established. This was an informal regulatory authority whose aim was to monitor and prevent the sale of diamonds that had been procured through corruption, coercion, brutality and murder, and were helping to prop up rogue regimes.

However, what has occurred in the last decade, shows how quickly a pragmatic initiative like this one can be unravelled and demonstrates the extraordinary leverage small sparkling objects can have in relation to whole countries and international relationships.

In 2010, 3 million to 5 million carats of rough diamond worth approximately US$150 million were tendered at auction at Harare airport in Zimbabwe, and many respected diamond companies from around the world took part, in spite of the anticipated strictures of the Kimberley Process.

What has the Kimberley Process achieved? Maintaining some unanimity among major trading countries has been crucial to the legitimacy of this project.

Australia, Canada, the United States and the European Union all support the ban on exports from Zimbabwe while China, Russia, southern African states, India, the United Arab Emirates and Brazil want to see it dismantled.

In 2011, World Diamond Council president Eli Izhakoff remarked: “The Kimberley Process is comprised of rules and regulations, certificates, statistics, sealed packages, monitoring groups and paper trails. But these are details. At its core, the Kimberley Process is about protecting the right of communities and individuals to derive properly deserved benefit from natural resources. This is about humanity not politics.”

But Humanity’s exploration and fascination with the diamond has been a long one, and its history has been marked by other “curses”, conflicts, politics and wars.

Man’s earliest encounters with the diamond began over 2000 years ago when the valuable diamond mines of the Golconda region of Hyderabad in India were exposed in the fourth century BC.

The Golconda mines produced many of the world’s finest and largest stones, such as the Koh-I-Noor and the Great Mogul. Queen Victoria’s British Empire, now firmly in India’s saddle, was quick to recognise and exploit this new source of wealth.

In past centuries, royal treasuries were routinely purged of diamonds and other gems to secure loans to fund wars and ransom notables. Louis XIV’s finance minister, Cardinal Mazarin, a diamond lover, struck a deal with the English Charles I’s widow, Henrietta Maria, and also with Oliver Cromwell to secure a group of remarkable stones in lieu of a debt Charles had defaulted on.

They came to be known as the “Mazarin 18”, and unhappily, they were stolen (along with the rest of the French Crown jewels) during a robbery at the Garde Meuble (Royal Storehouse) during the French Revolution.

In the 18th century diamonds ceased to be the plain Janes of the gem world and became the vamps they remain today. As the hardest of gems, its scintillating rainbow flashes were only revealed in full when technologies advanced sufficiently to cut and polish enough facets in mathematically calculated angles to each other to direct and reflect the light upwards and outwards from the table of the stone.

Then in 1867, the world’s greatest diamond rush was set in motion when a young child found a pebble on the banks of the Orange River in South Africa.

Englishman Cecil John Rhodes established the De Beers Mining Company, and by 1891 it controlled the lion’s share of diamond production in South Africa. The diamonds were sold to merchants through a cartel, known as “the Syndicate”.

After Rhodes died in 1902, Ernest Oppenheimer gained control of De Beers and made the cartel the dominant player throughout the 20th century. He knew the answer to controlling prices was to buy up diamonds, hold them and release them slowly. Thus after 1934, the Central Selling Organisation (CSO) was born as De Beers’ marketing mechanism.

In the late 20th century a new player entered the scene, when Australia’s Kimberley mines were found to have significant supplies of the much sought-after pink diamonds.

In 1947, Frances Gerety, an American female copywriter delivered “A diamond is forever”, a slogan entwining the notions of everlasting love and everlasting value. This strategy ensured that diamonds changed from accoutrements of royalty and nobility to a global accessory for the middle classes.

But if one story was to encapsulate diamonds’ history of royalty, conflict and curses, it would be the Hope diamond.

In 1668, the inveterate traveller and diamond dealer Jean Baptiste Tavernier sold the peripatetic Tavernier Blue diamond — said to have been plucked from the eye of a statue of the Hindu goddess Sita — to Louis XIV. It was re-cut and re-christened the Blue Diamond.

Its fate was to be cut down further to disguise it, and 20 years later it appeared in a London shop, where it was bought by George IV. It appeared in the market place again in 1851 where it was bought by a wealthy English banker, Henry Hope, and went on display as the Hope Diamond in Prince Albert’s inspired 1851 Great Exhibition in London.

Hope and his fortune parted ways and he was obliged to arrange for the firm of Cartier to find a buyer for it. Enter Evalyn Walsh McLean, the adventurous American wife of an industrialist who was intrigued and challenged by Louis Cartier’s tale of its sinister history.

It has been suggested that Cartier invented the curse to entice her to buy it. He had been given the idea by a Victorian novel by Wilkie Collins called The Moonstone.

McLean bought the diamond and depending on whether one believes in curses or not, had an entirely blighted life. Its next owner was the celebrated jeweller Harry Winston, who donated it to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington. Because of its cursed history, members of the public wrote in protest to  president Eisenhower vigorously protesting against its display. Today, it is one of the world’s most-viewed treasures.

But if any diamond can be considered cursed, the ‘out of Africa’ diamonds are leading candidates.

*This article was originally published at Daily Review

Peter Fray

Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.

Without subscribers, Crikey can’t do what it does. Fortunately, our support base is growing.

Every day, Crikey aims to bring new and challenging insights into politics, business, national affairs, media and society. We lift up the rocks that other news media largely ignore. Without your support, more of those rocks – and the secrets beneath them — will remain lodged in the dirt.

Join today and get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12.


Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey