The Cullinan diamond, the largest gem-quality diamond ever found, was presented to King Edward VII on his birthday today in 1907. Now WE know em

Captain Frederick Wells and the Cullinan diamond

Captain Frederick Wells and the Cullinan diamond

On January 26, 1905, Captain Frederick Wells, superintendent of Premier Mine #2, one of South Africa’s most productive mines, was proceeding with his daily inspection.

During this daily round, Captain Wells saw a flash of light, reflected by the sun on the wall of the shaft.

As he got closer, he could see a partially exposed crystal, embedded in the rock, however he initially believed it to be a shard of glass, placed by one of the miners as a practical joke.

Using just his pocket knife he managed to release object which turned out to be the largest gem-quality diamond ever found.

The rough diamond weighed 1.37 lbs, was 3 7/8 inches long, 2 1/4 inches wide and 2 5/8 inches high. The diamond was twice the size of any diamond previously discovered.

British chemist and physicist Sir William Crookes performed an analysis of the rough diamond, ascertaining a weight of 3,106.75 carats.

Crookes noted its remarkable clarity, but also a black spot in the middle. The colours around the black spot were very vivid and changed as the analyser was turned, pointing to an internal strain.

Because one side of the diamond was perfectly smooth, it was concluded that the stone had originally been part of a much larger diamond, that had been broken up by natural forces. Crookes also noted that “a fragment, probably less than half, of a distorted octahedral crystal; the other portions still await discovery by some fortunate miner.”

Photo of the original Cullinan rough diamond

Photo of the original Cullinan rough diamond

Cullinan Diamond

The stone was immediately named after Sir Thomas Cullinan, owner of the Premier Mine, who had discovered the site after many years of unsuccessful searching.

Naturally the discovery became a global sensation.

Captain Frederick Wells was awarded ₤3,500 for the find and the diamond was purchased by the Transvaal South African government for ₤150,000 and insured for ten times the amount.

The Second Boer War had ended just three years earlier in 1902 with a British victory and annexation of South Africa by the British Empire.

It was then suggested that the diamond be presented to the King of England, Edward VII as ‘a token of the loyalty and attachment of the people of Transvaal to his throne and person’.

A vote was staged to determine what should be done with the Cullinan diamond.

Oddly enough, in the aftermath of the Boer War the Boers voted in favor of presenting King Edward VII with the diamond and the English settlers voting against such a move.

The final vote was 42 against and 19 in favor.

In the wake the vote, the British Prime Minister of the time Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman decided to leave the decision of whether to accept the gift up to the king himself.

However, Winston Churchill (later the prime minister) eventually managed to persuade the king to accept the diamond.

Journey to England

Due to the immense value of the Cullinan diamond, the British authorities in charge of the transportation were posed with a huge potential security problem.

Detectives from London were placed on a steamboat that was rumored to carry the stone, where a parcel was ceremoniously placed in the Captain’s safe and guarded throughout the entire journey. However this was a diversionary tactic, meant to attract those who would be interested in stealing it.

The real Cullinan diamond was sent to England in a plain box via parcel post, albeit registered.

Upon receiving the stone safely in England Sir Francis Hopwood and Mr Richard Solomon (the Agent-General of the Transvaal government in London) traveled from London to Sandringham, Norfolk by train, accompanied by just two experienced Scotland Yard policemen.

They reached their destination safely, despite reports of a potential robbery looming.

November 9, 1907

King Edward VII was related to nearly every other European monarch and came to be known as the “uncle of Europe”. The king usually smoked twenty cigarettes and twelve cigars a day.

The Cullinan diamond was presented to the king on his 66th birthday, November 9, 1907.

The large birthday party included the Queen of Norway, the Queen of Spain, Bendor Westminster and Lord Revelstoke.

The King had the secretary of state, Lord Elgin, announce that he accepted the precious gift “for myself and my successors” and that he would ensure that “this great and unique diamond be kept and preserved among the historic jewels which form the heirlooms of the crown”.

Winston Churchill was later presented with a replica of the diamond, which he allegedly delighted in showing off to friends and displaying it on a silver plate.

Principal diamonds cut from the Cullinan

The original rough Cullinan diamond was cut into three large parts by Asscher Brothers of Amsterdam, and eventually into 9 large gem-quality stones and a number of smaller fragments.

At the time, technology had not yet evolved to guarantee quality of the modern standard, and cutting the diamond was considered difficult and risky. To enable Asscher to cleave the diamond in one blow, an incision was made, half an inch deep. Then, a specifically designed knife was placed in the incision and the diamond was split in one heavy blow. The diamond split through a defective spot, which was shared in both halves of the diamond.

The story goes that when the Cullinan diamond was split, the knife broke during the first attempt. “The tale is told of Joseph Asscher, the greatest cleaver of the day,” wrote Matthew Hart in his book Diamond: A Journey to the Heart of an Obsession, “that when he prepared to cleave the largest diamond ever known, the 3,106 carats Cullinan, he had a doctor and nurse standing by and when he finally struck the diamond and it broke perfectly in two, he fainted dead away.”

Lord Ian Balfour, in his book “Famous Diamonds” (2000), dispels the fainting story, stating it was more likely Joseph Asscher would have celebrated, opening a bottle of champagne.

Glass copies of the nine diamonds cut from the original Cullinan diamond

Glass copies of the nine diamonds cut from the original Cullinan diamond

The Cullinan diamond was split and cut into 7 major stones and 96 smaller stones and are now part of the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom.


Portrait of King George VI by Sir Gerald Kelly, painted sometime between 1938 and 1945. He is holding the Sceptre with the Cross, containing the 530-carat Cullinan I Diamond. The Imperial State Crown containing the Cullinan II diamond is on the right.

Portrait of King George VI by Sir Gerald Kelly, painted sometime between 1938 and 1945. He is holding the Sceptre with the Cross, containing the 530-carat Cullinan I Diamond. The Imperial State Crown containing the Cullinan II diamond is on the right.

Edward VII had the 530.4 carats Cullinan I diamond (known today as the Great Star of Africa) set into the Sceptre with the Cross and is worth an estimated 400 million dollars today.

The 317.4 carats Cullinan II diamond (known as the Second Star of Africa)was set into the Imperial State Crown, while the remainder of the seven larger stones and the 96 smaller brilliants remained in the possession of the Dutch diamond cutting firm of Messers I. J. Asscher of Amsterdam who had split and cut the Cullinan, until the South African Government bought these stones and the High Commissioner of the Union of South Africa presented them to Queen Mary of Teck, wife of King George V on June 28, 1910.

Queen Mary with her Crown containing the Cullinan III diamond.

Queen Mary with her Crown containing the Cullinan III diamond.

Now WE know em



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