Diamonds in History: the Cullinan - Gunderson's Jewelers

Gunderson’s Jewelers has always been passionate about diamonds. Big, small, or fancy colored—no matter the diamond you are after, Gunderson’s is proud to be your trusted source. That’s the reason we’re close partners with both the Gemological Institute of America and the Natural Color Diamond Association. We’re passionate about quality diamonds that will become your next family heirloom.

This week, we’re looking at the largest colorless diamond ever found—the Cullinan Diamond. Now made up of nine finished gems, the Cullinan was once a whole pound-and-a-third of pure, flawless diamond that took the world by storm after its discovery.

The Star of Africa

Cullinan DiamondOne bright morning in 1905, Captain Frederick Wells was surveying the progress of the newly opened Premier Mine just outside of Pretoria, South Africa. The mine had been open for only three years near the site geologists had discovered a large pipe of kimberlite rock, known to contain diamonds, in the rich African soil. As he was wrapping up his morning rounds Captain Wells saw something sparkle in the rock. Looking closer, he could see that sparkle was a diamond—and a large one at that.

When Wells pulled the diamond from the earth, he held in his hand the largest gem quality diamond ever found. Weighing almost one and a half pounds, the gem now known as the Cullinan Diamond would draw massive interest to gem mining in South Africa. But what now? No diamond this large had ever been found before—who could afford such a rare thing?

Mine owner Tom Cullinan was equally interested as to what would become of the large diamond. First, the diamond was sent to the South African capitol Johannesburg where it was on display at a local bank. From there it made its way to London for inspection by King Edward VII and any hopefully attract an interested buyer in the process. Great fanfare ensued when a steamship commanded by the Royal Navy was said to transport the diamond on the long journey. All the while the actual diamond was sent to Buckingham Palace by Royal Mail in an unremarkable box.

From Rough to Riches

For two years the diamond sat without a qualified buyer. Ultimately, the Prime Minister of Transvaal (the British colonial state that is now known as South Africa) convinced the State to buy the gemstone as a gift to the King for his 66th birthday. Adjusted for inflation, the Cullinan Diamond was gifted to King Edward at a cost around $21.8 million USD.

Upon receiving the diamond in London, the King had his royal jewelers examine the gem in detail. They established the Cullinan Diamond as being colorless and weighing approximately 3,106.75 carats. When asked what could be done to make the diamond wearable, the jewelers said there was only one man capable of cutting and polishing a diamond of this scale: Joseph Asscher.

The Asscher family, based in Amsterdam, were renowned as being the premier diamond cutter in the world. Joseph, along with his brother Abraham, had pioneered modern cutting techniques including the Asscher cut which is still patented and protected by descendants of the original Asscher clan. When Abraham came to collect the Cullinan from the King in London, he simply slipped the $20 million dollar gem into his coat pocket where it stayed until his return to the Netherlands. So much for pomp and circumstance!

Back in their workshop, the Asscher brothers started to plan how to best fashion the rough Cullinan Diamond into a series of smaller, more wearable gems. After eight months of three cutters spending 14 hours a day at the task, the Cullinan was split into nine ‘major’ diamonds. The principal gemstones are as follows:

The nine major stones from the rough Cullinan diamond

The Family Tree

-Cullinan I: named the Star of Africa, is pear shaped and weighs 530.2 carats. It is currently part of the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom, being held at the top of the Sovereign’s Scepter with Cross. It is removable and can be worn as a pendant brooch.

-Cullinan II: or the Second Star of Africa. Cushion cut, this diamond weighs 317.4 carats and is set in the front of the Imperial State Crown.

-Cullinan III: or the Lesser Star of Africa. Pear shaped, this diamond weighs 94.4 carats and is commonly worn as a brooch with Cullinan IV by Elizabeth II.

-Cullinan IV: also known as the Lesser Star of Africa. Square cut, this diamond weighs 63.6 carats and was first worn by Queen Mary on a trip to Amsterdam in 1958. While abroad, the Queen visited the Asscher workshop and showed the diamond to Louis Asscher, nephew of Joseph the original cutter, who had cut the diamond almost 50 years prior.The nine major stones

-Cullinan V: often worn by Queen Mary as part of the stomacher she wore to the Delhi Durbar in 1911. The diamond weighs 18.8 carats and is cut to resemble a heart.

-Cullinan VI: At 11.5 carats, this marquis cut diamond was also part of the stomacher Queen Mary wore to the Delhi Durbar in 1911.

-Cullinan VII: originally given by Edward VII to his wife (and consort) Queen Alexandra. She then passed the diamond on to Queen Mary who reset the 8.8 carat gem into a pendant that hangs from the diamond-and-emerald necklace worn at the Delhi Durbar in 1911.

-Cullinan VIII: cut in an oblong shape, this diamond weighs 6.8 carats. This is the smallest of the Cullinan diamonds to make up the stomacher of the Delhi Durbar set.

-Cullinan IX: the smallest of the major gems cut from the original rough, this pear-shaped diamond weighs 4.39 carats and is set in a ring, cast in platinum, that is known as the Cullinan IX Ring.

For those of you keeping score at home, those nine stones equal about 1,055 carats of diamond. While the Royal Family claims to possess a myriad of ‘minor’ gems and unpolished diamonds cut from the original Cullinan, that leaves about 2,000 carats of unaccounted for diamond material leftover from Joseph Asscher’s original cutting. Where did those diamonds go? Oh, the secrets still hidden in the Tower of London…

Diamonds with the Gunderson’s Difference

At Gunderson’s, we’re passionate about finding you a diamond that you can call your next family heirloom. Our staff of GIA trained gemologists relentlessly search out the best diamonds available on the market—doing the hard work for you. Stop in to one of our locations today and see how the Gunderson’s Difference makes us the perfect jeweler to trust with your most precious purchases.