The Finding of the Cullinan Diamond
- 26th January 1905 -
The fascinating programme on the BBC in which the Queen was talking about the coronations of her father, George VI, and her own, was not only a fascinating insight into both events but also the regalia involved.
The programme featured the St Edward’s Crown, the Imperial State crown as well as the Orb and Sceptre. These ‘Crown Jewels’ are housed in the Tower of London but have rarely been seen in such close up. One of the features of both the Imperial State Crown and the Sceptre is the Cullinan diamond – the largest rough diamond ever found.
It was late in the afternoon of January 26th 1905. Frederick Wells, manager of the Premier Mine in Gauteng, the Transvaal Colony, South Africa, was making an inspection. His eye was caught on something glinting in the wall just above his head, eighteen feet below the surface of the ground. To start with he thought it was a piece of glass but subsequent tests proved it to be the largest diamond ever discovered, weighing in at 3106 carats which is about one and half pounds. It was named after Sir Thomas Cullinan, who opened the mine and was visiting later that day. There is a train of thought that the diamond was only part of a larger piece that is still to be unearthed, due to the fact that it had four smooth surfaces, or had been crushed by the mining process – an unlikely scenario. It also contained a small pocket of air that produced a rainbow.
The diamond was to be transported to England into the care of the mine’s London agent – Mr Neumann. It was sent in an unmarked postal box while a replica was publicly accompanied by security on a steamer ship.
The Cullinan was purchased by the Transvaal Government for £150,000 and then, on November 9th 1907, presented to Edward VII as a 66th birthday present – the Transvaal Government having recently been reconciled with the British Government after the Anglo- Boer War. It was insured for over one and quarter million pounds and the King entrusted the cutting of the diamond to Asscher’s Diamond Company in Amsterdam. It was studied for months before Mr Asscher placed the blade in a V-shaped groove that had previously been made. He tapped it with a steel rod. The blade broke leaving the diamond uncut. The second attempt resulted in the diamond breaking as planned but this time leaving Mr Asscher in a faint on the floor. A further cut left three main sections which in turn would produce nine gems. These were, originally, called Cullinan I to Cullinan IX. Several of these were then incorporated into the Royal Regalia whilst the smaller fragments were bought by the South African Government and presented to Queen Mary, wife of George V, in 1910.
The Cullinan I, also known as the Great Star of Africa and weighing 530 carats, can now be seen in the Sovereign’s Sceptre with Cross. Initially made for the coronation of Charles II in 1661, it was redesigned to incorporate the largest of the cuts. The Cullinan II, the second largest, also known as the Lesser Star of Africa and 317 carats, is now situated in the front of the Imperial State Crown – one of the greatest symbols of Royal power. It is the St Edward’s Crown, weighing in around five pounds, that is placed on the head of the new sovereign during the coronation, the only time she will wear it. This crown is replaced with the diamond encrusted Imperial State Crown after the new Monarch has entered the St Edward’s the Confessor’s Chapel, just behind the altar. This is the crown that is worn on occasions such as the State opening of Parliament and is adorned with 2868 diamonds.
Cullinan III was originally in Queen Mary’s crown. This has been replaced with a rock crystal replica. Cullinan IV was a key part of Queen Mary’s Coronation Crown but has also been replaced by a replica. The two diamonds, Cullinan’s III and IV are now part of a brooch worn regularly by Queen Elizabeth II since her coronation in 1953. Cullinan V is also part of a brooch worn frequently by Queen Mary. Cullinans VI and VIII are also parts of brooches whilst number VII is part of diamond and emerald necklace worn by the same Queen. In this necklace the nine emeralds that are used were first owned by Queen Mary’s grandmother, the Duchess of Cambridge. The smallest diamond, Cullinan IX is part of a ring designed also for Queen Mary in 1911.
Thomas Browne, the seventeenth century British scientist, once said that, “Rough diamonds may sometimes be mistaken for worthless pebbles”. Fortunately, Frederick Wells did not and the diamonds are now probably the most famous in the world.