India and Diamonds: A Love Story

Diamond has fascinated humankind for millennia, and the first diamonds ever found were in India.  In fact due to the lack of written documents concerning the diamond trade, experts believe that diamonds may not have left India before the 10th century.  One of the first known texts showing that people knew about diamonds dates to the fourth century BC.  It is the Artha-Castra, an Indian tax code concerning gemstones.  The first deposits were mined in India in the eighth century before the common era (before Christ), and the trade of these precious stones predates the Roman period.  Diamonds have been found in the Golconda region for some 4000 years.

In order to set tax rates on diamonds, the Artha-Castra refers to a number of practices and rules put in place by specialists which show a profound understanding of diamond for that era.  This tax code would become a collection of information known as the “Ratnapariska.”  Over a period of 1000 years this doctrine would give birth to technical manuals called “Ratna-Castra” which any respectable cultivated man would have in his possession, from poets to nobles to merchants.

In each of these manuscripts, diamond was described as a jewel par excellence.  Several of the characteristics of diamond were described.  The shape of the stone, the octahedron, was considered the ideal shape.  The clarity, the color, and the shine were all described in these ancient documents.  The extreme rarity of the stones was also stressed.  Beyond being clear, transparent, and an octahedron shape, to be perfect a diamond also needed to be “laghu” meaning that it had to have a weak specific weight.  Diamond price estimations were dependent almost solely on their specific weight.  Stones with a higher specific weight were worth less than lighter density stones.  In reality the density of diamond does not vary much, so this was likely a method of differentiating between diamond and other minerals.  

India would remain the world’s largest rough diamond producer until the 1730. Early on, rough stones were mounted directly.  As they were not cut, they did not have the fire that cut and polished stones do today. Rough stones were brought from Kalinga and Bombay (Mumbai) to the Persian Gulf, Egypt, and Rome.  All of the historically famous diamonds come from India (The Hope, Koh-i-Nour, Regent, etc.).  This country also remained the world’s only source of diamonds until deposits were discovered in South Africa and Brazil.  Indians poetically saw these precious stones as the fruit of the stars with sacred or magical origins.   Diamonds were thought to have powers of protection and therefore were stones meant for royalty.

The color of diamonds was attached to the caste system.  Only the brahmans were allowed to have white, or colorless, diamonds; red stones were for knights; yellows were reserved for property owners and businessmen; laborers and artisans were allowed gray and black stones.  Logically, gray and black stones were in much more abundant supply than yellow stones, which were more common than red stones, etc.  However, given the average salary of a laborer or artisan, it is unlikely that many of them would have been able to afford even the dark colored stones that they were allowed to own.

Alexander the Great brought diamonds to the Western world in 327 BC.  Legend has it that they came from the valley of diamonds, guarded by vultures and snakes.  Alexander’s men had to throw meat into the valley for the stones to stick to it and for the vultures to bring back in their talons, leaving the diamonds for the men to collect.  This is, however, like many stories concerning diamonds, mere legend.  Elements that would make up the story did not appear until centuries later in texts by Epiphane, the bishop of Constantia in Cyprus.  In any case, only small stones would make their way to Europe as the Indian princes kept the best stones for themselves.

In India diamonds were not cut until the 17th century, but n more modern times, India has taken up an important role in the diamond cutting business.  K.M. Mehta was the first Indian diamantaire to establish himself in Antwerp in 1953.  Today the Indian diamond industry is managed from Bombay where a few families, including the Mehta group play a crucial role.  Several of them have offices and even workshops in Antwerp, Tel Aviv, New York, Bangkok, and China.

Imports of rough and cut diamonds were prohibited from the India’s independence in 1947 until 1962.  Today India is the main polishing center with about 800,000 diamond workers, notably in Sourate and Bombay.  Indian workshops provide 70-80% of the world’s cut and polished diamonds in number (less in weight and in value as many of the stones cut and polished there are small).

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