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Diamonds Are Forever: a brief descent into the world of precious stones

by Anna Battista

In his "Naturalis Historia," Plinius the Elder wrote about various gems and also lingered on describing diamonds and their properties. As it would be too long and exhausting to list them here, we will just mention one of their virtues, the one proclaimed in a song by Marilyn Monroe, "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." Whoever will have the chance to visit the exhibition "Diamanti" ("Diamonds"), open at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome until June, will be totally brainwashed by what the Monroe song said.

After enduring a long queue you will be ushered into the main room where old footage from a '60s TV series of Superman will show the superhero producing a diamond after pressing a block of carbon. What does this have to do with diamonds? Well, a lot of things, because the precious stone called 'diamond' is the result of a pressure produced on pure carbon in the heart of the planet. So, after having gone technical, we move on to see the actual gems. The first one is a tiny diamond ring from the 2nd century AD found near Rome, an interesting piece historically speaking, but the incredible stuff must really come.

Now, just close your eyes and pretend that you're visiting the mines of Golconda in India, pretend you are the traveller and jeweller Jean Baptiste Tavernier and that we are around 1670. Now open your eyes again and marvel: you will be able to see in front of you necklaces and collars, "bazuband" (bracelets worn in the upper part of an arm), made of pearl, emeralds and diamonds, jewels worn by maharajas who used huge ornaments made of precious stones to adorn their turbans and belts. The various stones that adorn such jewels had also particular meanings: if maharajas wore diamonds, they wanted to indicate their power; if they wore rubies they wanted to underline their vital strength. And look at that kriss, a sort of sacred short sword, made by shaman blacksmiths, with the hilt shaped like the monkey Hanuman, the protagonist of the Ramayana, or like Garuda, the mythical Indonesian eagle, both staring at you with stoned eyes. And talking about getting stoned, there are even little boxes to store betel paste, both of them covered in diamonds. But if you want, you can also get intoxicated by the light emanating from Nassak, also known as the "Idol Eye Diamond", which was originally mounted on the forehead of a Shiva statue in the town of Nasik near Bombay. In 1818 the town was occupied by the British army which took away the diamond. Looking at these stones you will start thinking that perhaps diamonds were an Indian prerogative and actually, up until 1720, all diamonds arrived to Europe from India.

In Italy diamonds were considered the proper ornaments for kings and queens, because it was believed that the stones had a talisman like power. Eleonora Gonzaga, Caterina de' Medici and Laura Dianti all part of a glorious Italian past, can be admired wearing their jewels in paintings dated around the 16th century. It is well known that in Italy, the Medici family used to love diamonds: they even bought the diamond called "Fiorentino" which was kept in Florence till the Medici dynasty ended. Since we mentioned Italy, it would be almost impossible not to remember that also the Vatican had its own collections: a tiara and a ring were donated by the Spanish sovereign to the Pope. But also kings and queens from Denmark, France, Germany and England loved diamonds: for instance Christian IV of Denmark even had his own portrait made in a cameo formed by a myriad of tiny diamonds.

And the story goes on: when diamonds were discovered near Rio de Janeiro, around 1725, the production of the precious stone moved from India to Brazil and, consequently, the slave trade was redirected to create new work force in the new mines. Brazilian diamonds will adorn the diadems of Napoleon's era, the buttons of the coat of the king of Portugal Joćo VI, the snuff-box of the kings of Portugal and the star necklace and diadem of the queen of Portugal Maria Pia. When Brazilian mines will be exhausted, South Africa will be the next target for diamond hunters. Here in 1866, a little girl was playing with a few stones. Her brother brought her a particularly shining one that was later discovered being a diamond. The stone was called the "Eureka Diamond" and became the cause of the African diamond rush from 1866 on. And here we come to the educational part of the diamond story. Though there are huge diamonds in this part of the exhibition, there are also maps and photographs of the various mines and further information on the various displays about a painful revelation: the greatest African mines are at present in Botswana, but diamonds coming from Sierra Leone, ex-Zaire, Angola, Ghana and Liberia are called "war diamonds" because their profit is used to finance local civil wars. The "war diamonds" cover 4% of the total diamond production and the largest diamond producers, such as De Beers, have signed a document stating that their diamonds don't come from those areas and are therefore "clean". It's in this part of the exhibition that we find a "run-of-mine", that is the monthly production of stones as it comes out of the mine, before going through the various selection stages. And with this we get to our days and to the special jewels going from the Cartier snake shaped necklace containing 2473 diamonds and created for the Mexican actress Maria Felix, to the 1000 carats heart shaped diamond "The Heart for Ever" and to the famous Coco Chanel's star shaped diamond pin.

Probably the best part of the exhibition is the last one, where there aren't any diamonds at all. In the last room we are told that there are meteorites that contain tiny diamonds produced by the stars when they go supernova. A dying star leaves in the space a trail of diamonds, a sort of diamond dew that is incorporated in the solar system. After giving a glimpse to Andy Warhol's glittering pop art piece "Diamond Dust Shoes", we get to the final installation called "Your Strange Certainty Still Kept" by Danish artist Olafur Eliasson: on a black background water falls, but a flashing light effect gives the impression that what is falling is not simple rain, but a pure diamond rain. The little drops transformed into tiny diamonds multiply under the blinding light, giving the viewer the illusion that even us, common mortals who populate this planet, might be able to touch the precious stones with such a fascinating but at the same time cruel history.

Issue 9, April 2002 | next article

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