History of Diamonds in Jewelry

by Kat Paulick

Humans first discovered diamonds in India in the 4th century BC. Found in river basins and fields after storms, diamonds were initially discovered by chance but immediately recognized for their rare and captivating qualities. So hard as to be nearly indestructible and with a unique ability to refract light, these precious stones have been treasured by humans since their discovery.

Golconda, India

For thousands of years, India was the only source of diamonds. Mines were established sometime between 700 and 500 BCE in the Golconda region, and diamonds became a significant part of the Indian economy and culture. They were first brought to Europe after Alexander the Great’s invasion of India in 327 BC but remained incredibly rare for centuries. The first documented use of a diamond in jewelry was in the crown of a Hungarian queen in 1074 AD. Humanity had yet to develop an effective way to cut the gems, so the earliest diamond jewelry was made only from exceptionally well-formed stones.

Diamond Cutting Evolution c/o Wikipedia

The original method of refining a rough diamond was known as the point cut, which involved grinding and polishing the stone’s natural faces into a symmetrical shape. In the 15th century, the revelation that diamonds could be cut using diamond dust led to the creation of continuous-motion rotary cutting tools. As tools and techniques evolved, diamonds could be cut into a greater variety of shapes while preserving more and more of the natural stone. Beauty and versatility made them popular for jewelers, but they were still exceedingly rare before the 1860s discovery of diamonds in South Africa.

Erasmus Jacobs and the Eureka diamond he discovered at 15. c/o Wikipedia

In the preceding centuries, only royalty and nobility could afford the stones – a 13th-century law made by Louis IX of France went so far as to reserve the gems for the king. After a teenage boy found the first South African diamond on his father’s farm in 1867, diamond production exploded. Mines were dug, and South Africa produced more diamonds in two years than India had in thousands of years. Global supply grew, and diamond jewelry became more and more accessible.

Maximilian I and Mary of Burgundy, stained glass, Basilica of the Holy Blood in Bruges

The first recorded use of a diamond ring as an engagement gift was in Archduke Maximilian of Austria’s proposal to Mary of Burgundy in 1477. The idea became popular among European aristocracy, but the trend didn’t explode until the famous 1930s De Beers “A Diamond Is Forever” campaign. In potentially the most successful marketing campaign of all time, De Beers inextricably linked the concept of an indestructible diamond with the idea of undying love. Nearly a century later, a diamond ring is still one of the most popular ways to propose marriage – though alternatives have gained traction.

In recent decades, concern over unethical mining practices has contributed to the growing popularity of lab-grown diamonds. The first lab-grown diamonds were created in the 1950s, using a high-pressure/high-temperature process to produce a diamond the same way it occurs in nature. This method was far from cost-effective and didn’t produce gem-quality stones. Chemical vapor deposition, the method most used today, allows scientists to create stunning diamonds almost indistinguishable from mined stones.

Whether lab-grown or mined, diamonds are captivating, timeless stones that make any piece of jewelry sparkle.