The History of Diamonds in South Africa

Diamonds in South Africa have a long, rich history spanning almost 150 years. The first South African diamond was discovered in 1867 by a 15 year-old boy - Erasmus Jacobs - on the banks of the Orange River near Kimberley in the Northern Cape Province.

Unaware of the enormous influence his discovery would have on shaping South Africa's economy for years to come, Erasmus picked up a particularly shiny pebble in the riverbed and took it home for his sisters to play with. This 'shiny pebble' would later be named ‘Eureka’ and weighed 22 carats.

His discovery sparked a diamond rush that saw 30,000 prospectors flock to the Kimberley area to seek their fortunes. During the course of the next 15 years, South Africa produced more diamonds than India had in the past two centuries.

Subsequently, this rush also led to the formation of one of the Northern Cape’s, and ultimately South Africa's, biggest tourist attractions - The Big Hole in Kimberley. This is the largest man-made hole on earth, evidently being dug in search of diamonds, with a perimeter spanning nearly 2km. The hole yielded approximately three tons of diamonds and, during the mining process, over 20 million tons of earth was excavated.

The diamond finds in Kimberley also led to the establishment of what is today known as the largest diamond company in the world - De Beers. Founded by Cecil John Rhodes, De Beers currently controls about 50-60% of diamond production worldwide (acquired by Anglo).

The Cullinan Diamond

Before the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley, the gems were very rare and only found in small quantities in India and Brazil. However, South Africa-s diamond treasure-trove did not end in Kimberley. A mere 35 years after the discovery of the first South African diamond, one of the richest diamond Kimberlite pipes was discovered in 1902 in Cullinan, near Pretoria. Three years later, these Kimberlite pipes produced the world`s biggest diamond to date. Simply known as the Cullinan Diamond, this gem weighed in at a staggering 621g - translating into 3,106 carats - and today forms part of the crown jewels of the United Kingdom’s royal family.

Diamonds are still being mined at Cullinan to this day, with the Premier mine at Cullinan producing some of the biggest diamonds in the world. As recently as 2010, a 507 carat diamond was found there and was sold for US$35.3m, breaking the record for the highest price ever paid for a diamond.

South African Diamonds Today

There is no doubt that the discovery of diamonds in South Africa made diamonds readily available to the western world. Currently, South Africa contributes 5% to the global diamond production and ranks 7th in the world in terms of rough diamond production.Furthermore, diamond mines are a great contributor to the local economy. Diamonds are mined across South Africa, with mines in five of South Africa's nine provinces - including the North West, Gauteng, Free State, Limpopo and the Northern Cape provinces. Open pit, underground and alluvial mining methods are used and thousands of local workers are employed in this industry.

Additionally, diamonds are also mined offshore in the Atlantic Ocean near the mouth of the Orange River in the Northern Cape. These diamonds are in fact smaller than inland diamonds, but they are of unsurpassed quality when evaluated according to the 4C's.The discovery of diamonds in 1867, and the subsequent discovery of gold in 1886 in the Witwatersrand, has shaped and influenced the future of South Africa and its people by helping the country to become one of the economic powerhouses in Africa.

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