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The Cullinan Diamond

Jan 8th, 2013

The Cullinan Diamond

The CullinanLate one afternoon in 1905, Mr. Frederick Wells, the superintendent of the prolific Premier Mine in South Africa, was making a routine inspection trip through the mine when his attention was attracted by something reflecting the last slanting rays of the setting sun.

Curious, he stopped for a closer look.

He was eighteen feet below the surface of the earth, and the shiny object was on the steep wall of the mine a few feet above him. Mr. Wells quickly scaled the wall and extracted from the blue ground what appeared to be a large diamond crystal. At first, he thought he was being fooled by a large piece of glass, but tests proved it to be the largest gem-quality diamond ever discovered.

It weighed 3106 carat, or about 1⅓ pounds. It was named after Sir Thomas Cullinan, who opened the mine and was visiting on that eventful day. Many diamond experts believe that the huge stone was only a fragment, and that another piece, (possibly as large or even larger) either still exists and awaits discovery, or was crushed in the mining process. The latter is very unlikely.

The prospect of finding the portion of the Cullinan has added zest to the activities of numerous miners and prospectors. The Cullinan was sold to the Transvaal government, which presented it to King Edward VII on his 66th birthday on November 9th, 1907. It was insured for $1,250,000 when it was sent to England. The King entrusted the cutting of the stone to the famous Asscher’s Diamond Co. in Amsterdam, which had cut the Excelsior and other large gems.

The huge diamond was studied for months. On February 10th, 1908, Mr. Asscher placed the steel cleaver’s blade in a previously prepared V-shaped groove and tapped it once with a heavy steel rod. The blade broke, but the diamond remained intact! The second time, it fell apart exactly as planned, and an employee at the factory reported that Mr. Asscher had fainted.

A second cleavage in the same direction produced three principal sections; these in turn would produce nine major gems, 96 smaller brilliants, and 9.50 carats of unpolished pieces. The nine larger stones remain either in the British Crown Jewels or in the personal possession of the Royal Family.

These historically celebrated gems and their present mountings are as follows:

  • The Cullinan I, also known as the Star of Africa, weighs 530.20 carats. King Edward placed it in the Sovereign’s Royal Scepter as part of the Crown Jewels, and it is now on display in the tower of London.
  • The Cullinan II is a 317.40 carat cushion cut stone mounted in the band of the Imperial State Crown, it is also in the Tower of London as part of the Crown Jewels.
  • The Cullinan III is a pear-shaped diamond weighing 94.40 carats, and is in the finial of Queen Mary’s Crown and can be worn with the IV as a pendant-brooch. Many of Queen Mary’s portraits show her wearing these two stones, and Elizabeth II makes use of them the same way.
  • The Cullinan IV, a 63.60-carat cushion shape, was originally set in the band of Queen Mary’s crown, but can also be worn as jewelry, as described above.
  • The Cullinan V is a triangular-pear cut weighing 18.80 carats, was originally mounted in a brooch for Queen Mary, to be worn alternately in the circlet of her crown as a replacement for the Koh-i-Noor. This was after the Koh-i-Noor was removed to the new crown that was made for Elizabeth (now the Queen Mother) in 1937.
  • The Cullinan VI, an 11.50 carat marquise-cut stone, was originally presented by King Edward to his wife, Queen Alexandra, and is now worn by Elizabeth II as a drop on a diamond and emerald necklace. It was worn more frequently by the young Queen than any other section of the Cullinan.
  • The Cullinan VII is an 8.80 carat marquise-cut stone mounted in a pendant on a small all-diamond brooch, in the center of which is the 6.80-carat cushion cut Cullinan VIII, and lastly,
  • the Cullinan IX, a 4.39 carat pear shape, is mounted in a ring with a prong setting that was made for Queen Mary; it too is sometimes worn by Queen Elizabeth.


This following article, is taken from the London Evening News,  April 26, 1908  and highlights the process of cutting this incredible gemstone.


Cutting King’s Diamond.

The special correspondent of the Evening News at Amsterdam sends the first detailed and interesting story of the work of cutting the King’s diamond, which has now been begun in secret in that city.

The great work of cutting the Cullinan diamond and preparing it for its place among the crown jewels of England was begun (says our special correspondent) on Saturday.

All the members of the firm entrusted with the work–Messrs. I. J. Asscher, who have a gigantic “fabrick” in the Tolstraat, not far from the center of the town–are now in Amsterdam. The actual splitting operation is to take place this week in the presence of several experts and a small number of privileged persons in the trade, who have obtained special permission from the authorities in London.

Naturally, in such a case the greatest secrecy observed, but Ihave been fortunate enough to ascertain many interesting facts in connection with the remarkable work that is now being carried out.

It is now some time since the firm received the great diamond, but the intervening weeks have been spent in hard thinking and studying as to the best methods of cutting it.
The first problem that Mr. Joseph Asscher, the head of the firm, had to solve as how to cut the diamond so as to eliminate some very bad spots existing in it. For this purpose a special model of the diamond in clay was made. On this model has been concentrated the attention of the firm.

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, but exactly how many pieces the diamond will be cut into, and the precise size of the stone when it has been cut, it is impossible to learn, as Messrs. Asscher are not at liberty to divulge this information to anybody.

A special table, fixed to the floor, has been manufactured for the cleaving operation, as has also a special “bak” or box. When a stone has to be split, diamond cutters use a small box with broad projecting nails on each side on which to steady both arms and hands, while the incision which precedes the splitting is being made. In this case, however, a special box, four times the ordinary size, with sliding sides, has been erected. Special wooden sticks have also been manufactured for the cutting process.

The diamond is to be embedded in cement, placed on the top of a stick, not unlike the stick of a big drum. Then it will be held firmly in the left hand over the box against the projecting nail while the right hand will hold a thin wooden stick also with cement on top, on which is embedded a sharp cutting diamond, edge upward. The sharpest diamonds available have been sought for this purpose. The process of cutting into the diamond is necessarily a very slow one, as it is not an ordinary stone, and the greatest care is being observed.
No Saw to Be Used.
The incision is to be a certain depth–probably from one-half to three-quarters of an inch–and it will be some two or three days before the desired depth has been reached. It is interesting to note that a diamond, like wood, has its grains, and each stone has only four grains by which it can be cloven. In the cases of small diamonds, when the imperfections cannot be erased by cutting through the grain at any point the saw is brought into use to make the division. The saw had been thought of in this case, but this idea was abandoned owing to the length of time such a procedure would occupy, and, above all because of the danger there would be of the saw going in the wrong direction after having reached a certain point.

Once the incision on the King’s diamond is deep enough, this is what will happen:

  • Mr. Joseph Asscher will fix firmly the stick on which it is placed to a thick square piece of lead, insert in the slit a specially-constructed knife blade made of the finest steel, and with a thick steel stick give it a terrible blow. This cuts the stone in twain.
  • The other necessary divisions will be made in a similar manner. In case the diamond should fall, thick carpets have been lain around the table, while the apron which Mr. Asscher wears has its extremities attached to the table as a further precaution.

Once the above has been achieved, the jewel will be handed over to Herr Henri Koe, a strong, keen-looking young man with wrists of iron, who has been in the firm some twenty years.
He it was who polished the famous Excelsior diamond, weighing 971 carats, on behalf of his firm. He will, while at work, be locked inside a specially-built room, together with three assistants and an old member of the firm.

For a whole year–the time which it is expected the operation will take–his hours will be from 7 in the morning until 9 o’clock at night. The workmen have 1½ hours for luncheon, but Koe will not leave the room throughout the day. This room is nearly opposite that of the head of the firm, who will retain the key of it, so that he will be able to look in at will and see how the work is going on.

The cleaving of a diamond is followed ordinarily by the rubbing of it against a diamond to give it shape, but in the case of the Cullinan this will not be done in case some mishap in the form of a scratch or a splinter in the stone might occur. The polishing of the facets will, therefore, be the next detail. The various instruments required for polishing have been, of course, made much larger in the case of the Cullinan. For instance, a special dop (a sort of big drumstick, with pewter on top, into which, while soft, two thirds of the diamond will be buried) has been manufactured, weighing about twenty pounds, and measuring 5½ inches across.

The mill, which is made of cast iron and steel, and is 16½ inches straight across (ordinary ones measure about 12 inches, and that used for the Excelsior only 13,) makes 2400 revolutions per minute. The diamond has to be applied to the revolving plate gently and carefully, or otherwise there is a good chance of the stone crumbling to pieces. To insure himself against accidents, Herr Koe has had a device specially constructed for himself, which will help his wrist. The mill is oiled with a preparation consisting of crushed diamond powder and oil, and a larger quantity than ususaly of this expensive liquid will be utilized.

There is a strong room on the ground floor of Messrs. Asscher’s premises, which is probably unique. The walls are three-quarters of a yard thick, and made of iron and cement. It would probably take a fortnight to bore a hole through them.
Where the Diamond Lies at Night.
The door can only be opened by a combination of numbers, which is only known to the three heads of the firm. This done, a strong iron-barred door is displayed to view, which has to be unlocked before the strong room can be lit by electric light. The illumination is obtained by joining the electric wire to a switch on the outside of the room, this being done in order to prevent any opening inside.

One sees several unpretentious-looking movable desks containing hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of diamonds. On the left near the wall there is a mahogany cupboard of ordinary appearance, with two handles, but with no locks visible. Locks there are, however, nine in all–behind a sliding panel. The door of the safe, for such it is, is of steel 8 inches thick, and conceals two ingenioiusly-hidden safes, in one of which the Cullinan diamond reposes at nights.

The head of the firm, armed with a revolver, takes the diamond down every evening accompanied by ten members of his staff, who leave him a moment while he secretly locks the outer door. They also accompany him in the morning when he takes it out again. There is a small patent recording clock outside the strong room, and it is the duty of the night watchman to make a certain mark on it every half hour throughout the night. If he is only a second late, he will be called upon to give an explanation. Throughout the night, also, and armed policeman walks up and down the building.

I learn from merchants in this diamond center of the world that the intrinsic value of the stone is almost £500,000, but, of course, it is worth more–probably £1,000,000–on account of its historic value. The diamond, which now weighs about 1½ pounds, will, when complete, weigh about 1 pound. It will have fifty-eight facets, the usual number of every diamond, and will be a beautiful glassy white.



Famous Diamonds

London Evening News

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