Diamond – April’s Birthstone

diamond

Diamonds get their name from the Greek word Adamao, ‘I tame’ or ‘I subdue’, which as language does became Adamas, ‘hardest steel’ or ‘hardest substance’, one literally true, the other figuratively prescient.

But when discussing April’s birthstone I believe it is favourable to start with the scientific facts.

Like; the chemical formula for diamond is an uncomplicated keyboard entry ‘C’. They are composed of carbon, but unlike your junior school science teacher perhaps erroneously informed you, one cannot make it from coal. However, there are several processes that have been developed since the 1940’s to synthetically grow diamonds, as are many other gemstones.

Hardness

Diamonds form when carbon atoms arrange in a cubic lattice, a property of carbon that enables it to bond with with four neighbouring carbon atoms repeatedly, resulting in what is called a diamond cubic. Sounds complicated, but it results in the hardest naturally formed substance on earth.

On the ordinal Moh’s Hardness Scale diamonds at the hardest hardness of 10 are in fact nearly five times harder than corundum (rubies and sapphires) at 9. This may tick the durability box of what it takes to be a gemstone (the other two being beauty and scarcity), but surprisingly about 80% of diamond production is used industrially.

Their exceptional hardness has diamonds used in cutting tools, drilling (as in oil, mineral and gas exploration), and many grinding and polishing machines you may have thought did the trick by spinning fast. One can only cut a diamond with another diamond – the corundum you may find on the emery board for your nails just won’t do.

Add to their hardness a low coefficient of friction, high thermal conductivity, high electrical resistivity, a low thermal expansion coefficient and, of course, broad optical transparency, and one can quickly deduce their use in thermal management, semi-conductor devices and optical components. Suffice to say diamonds are pretty impressive things.

Beauty

As for gemstone diamonds, their high refractive index and moderately high dispersion properties combined with refined cutting practices gives diamonds a unique fiery luster, with flashes of prismatic colours produced by transparent stones. Although they come in various colours (black, brown, yellow, grey, orange, purple and pink) owing to impurities, it is the transparent pure carbon diamond that is the most sought after.

Scarcity

As for the scarcity we need to move away from the scientific to the human practicality. While industrial diamonds are in short supply, this shortfall is made up with synthetic diamonds. Not so much with gemstone grade diamonds. Diamonds are the most aggressively mined gemstones in the world. They have been linked to war, slavery and corporate price-fixing. While top quality gemstone diamonds of a bigger size are quite rare, there is a theory that corporate monopolies have regulated the supply of diamonds, and together with expensive and aggressive advertising campaigns have skewed their price.

Diamonds are probably also one of the oldest substances in our world, having formed deep in the earth’s crust more than 3 billion years ago. Volcanic eruptions bought them to the surface, and diamonds were first traded around 4B.C. At first diamonds came from India, where they were found in rivers and other waterways. By the 1700’s India’s diamond supply was on the decline, and discoveries in Brazil allowed that country to dominate the market for the next 150 years.

Sifting through sea gravel for diamonds on a field trip to the Richtersveld

But it was the discovery of diamonds in South Africa in the 1860’s that marked the inception of the modern diamond market, along with the behemoth De Beers under the guidance of that notorious imperialist Cecil John Rhodes. It is estimated that around the turn of the 20th century De Beers controlled around 90% of the market share in diamonds, a handy pole position for the consumerism that followed with the establishment of the middle-classes.

Today South Africa ranks only 7th as a diamond producing nation. Russia leads the pack both in volume and value of diamonds yielded. Here in Africa Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola are higher on the rung. Yet De Beers is still one of the greatest influencers in the diamond trade, and by the turn of the 21st century was still mired in controversy relating to blood or conflict diamonds.

Today in South Africa, as around the world, it is still illegal to be in possession of an unpolished diamond, unless you are a certified miner or trader, or have a certificate to carry a specific diamond. If you were to stumble across a rough diamond walking along the beach the law states you are to immediately take it to the nearest police station.

It is for many of the aforementioned reasons that we do not trade in, or stock diamonds. But we do know very reputable dealers, and could accommodate enquiries. It is clear diamonds are wonderful things with a myriad of uses, and of course is a ‘girl’s best friend’. One would think that phrase was invented by a De Beers advertising executive, but is in fact from a song first sung on stage in the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Carol Channing in 1949. And on that note I will play out with my favourite song with diamonds in the title, although it has been floated the song was not about diamonds at all.

So, picture yourself in a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies…

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