Golconda and its famous diamonds: myth or reality?
A little history
Described as the world's oldest source of diamonds, Golconda is a mythical Indian region located next to Hyderabad (state of Andhra Pradesh) near the Golconda fort, where diamond mining is said to have begun over 2,500 years ago. At that time, diamonds were not cut yet and remained in rough, often octahedral, form. Strong beliefs were associated with them: seen as lucky charms or grigris, they could only be worn by men. Diamond colors were also linked to caste: white diamonds were associated with Brahmins, brown/red with nobles and warriors, yellow with farmers and merchants, and black with servants. Kings could wear diamonds of any color.
Map of India with the Golconde mine, credit Gallica
Thanks to the development of the silk routes, Europe had access to diamonds as early as the 10th century. They were worn as a symbol of success and were said to have medicinal and spiritual benefits. By the 14th century, it was possible to cut diamonds, and they began to be faceted.
Map of the silk roads, credit L'Histoire.fr
Until the 18th century, India was the world's only diamond producer. But resources were limited and mining became increasingly complex. The discovery of mines in Brazil in the 18th century and in South Africa in the 19th century led to the globalization of diamond mining.
The best-known diamonds: the Koh-i-Noor, the Sancy, the Regent - to only name a few - are said to have originated from the famous Golconda mines, an Indian town renowned for its diamonds. Here, they were cut and sold before being exported, mainly to Europe. The most famous mine from which they were extracted is called Kollur, with others in the Kurnool, Cuddapah, Sambalpur and Panna regions.
Golconde and its diamonds are mentioned in the famous tale of Arabian Nights, as well as in Marco Polo's Book of Wonders and, above all, in Les six voyages de Jean-Baptiste Tavernier en Turquie, en Perse et aux Indes. Marco Polo was one of the first to describe the magnificence of Golconda and its gems, as well as mention an alluvial vein.
Pictures of the One Thousand and One Nights, credit Léon Carré
Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, a merchant and trader in precious goods who sold his wares to Louis XIV, was the first European to enter the Golconda mines, and one of their greatest connoisseurs. In fact, he inventoried 23 of them throughout the kingdom. Tavernier traveled for over 40 years, visiting the Middle East and India on numerous occasions. He visited Aleppo, Constantinople, Golconda and Goa, from which he regularly brought back stones, thousands of which he sold to King Louis XIV. In 1676, he published the account of his travels Six voyages en Turquie, en Perse, et aux Indes.
Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, credit Les Six Voyages de Jean-Baptiste Tavernier
Type IIa diamonds
Golconda was not the only diamond-producing region in India, but it was by far the one with the purest and largest diamonds. This is because Golconda diamonds are predominantly type IIa, a very rare sub-category that accounts for 0.8% of all diamonds. A Golconda diamond is most often a type IIa, but a type IIa will not necessarily come from Golconda: they may originate from Brazil, for example. They are mostly colorless, pink or brown and contain no nitrogen. These diamonds are very pure and for the most part of D or even "super D" color, a color that could surpass the current D, the whitest diamond color. According to certain hypotheses, type IIa diamonds could form much deeper, at a depth of 360 km. Their inclusions, meanwhile, are highly characteristic: ices, cleavages and sulfide inclusions. According to the LFG, the Laboratoire Français de Gemmologie, a Golconda-type diamond will be D to F in color, FL -Flawless- to VVS -Very very slightly included- in clarity, and type IIa. It must weigh more than 5 carats and have an old-cut. Remember that an old-cut diamond does not have the same number of facets as a modern-cut diamond.
Diamonds Types, credit GIA
Golconda's best-known diamonds
The Regent was discovered in 1698 in Golconda, cut in England by Joseph Cope and finally acquired by Philippe d'Orléans, regent at the time. The rough weighed 426 carats. It’s an exceptional diamond, with an impressive size - currently over 140 carats -, rare purity and a beautiful brilliant cut. It’s one of the most sumptuous jewel that belonged to the French crown. If you'd like to admire it, you can visit the Galerie d'Apollon at the Musée du Louvre.
The Régent, credit House Bianchi
The Koh-i-Noor or "Mountain of Light" is an exceptional diamond that also comes from Golconda. It was first mentioned in 1526, in the Memoirs of Babur, a Mogul king. It first belonged to an Indian sultan, before being passed through a number of royal courts: Mogul, Persian and Afghan. In 1849, the Koh-i-Noor was brought to the United Kingdom after the dismantling of the Singh kingdom. In 1852, to add brilliance and clarity to the stone, it was cut from 186 carats to 105.6 carats. Since then, the Koh-i-Noor has been one of the British crown jewels and is regularly worn by the UK's sovereigns, mounted on crowns. Reputedly a cursed diamond, it may only be worn without fear by a woman or a god. At the coronation of King Charles, Queen Consort Camilla wore Queen Mary's crown, but without the Koh-i-Noor, which she had replaced with another diamond.
Queen Mary's Crown set with the Koh-I-Noor, credit Getty Image
Golconda diamonds: myth, legend or reality?
There's a famous legend, evoked in numerous stories, about mining in Golconde, involving an unreachable pit filled with the most beautiful diamonds the Earth has ever known. The gems are said to have been extracted using the following stratagem: to take advantage of the presence of numerous birds of prey, the men would throw pieces of raw meat onto the coveted diamonds, causing the meat to adhere to the diamonds. The birds of prey would then scurry off in search of their prey, bringing back the desired diamonds. Here we see all the hallmarks of a legend: facts firmly rooted in reality (exceptional diamond mines) that drift into fantasy. This legend in particular was recounted in Marco Polo's Book of Wonders and in One Thousand and One Nights, to name but a few.
Today, India is one of the world's leading diamond-cutting centers. The Golconda mines have not been massively exploited since 1948.
Thanks to the Property of a Lady article, which offered new insights into the Golconda mystery.
Thanks to Larousse des Pierres Précieuses, a very informative and well-documented book.
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