The Cullinan Diamond discovery in South Africa

The Cullinan Story

In its natural state, the Cullinan weighed 3106 carats, was of exceedingly rare quality, and the size of a human heart. It goes without saying that a diamond of this size and splendor caused excitement around the world. Where would it be kept? Would it be preserved, or cut? If cut, who would wear such precious jewels?

In 1907, the question was answered. South Africa’s Transvaal Colony government purchased the gem and gifted it to King Edward VII of Great Britain, as both a birthday gift and a celebration of five years of peace between the two countries following the end of the Second Boer War in 1902. This is where the diamond’s journey began.

First, the diamond had to make its way to London. With the hungry eyes of the international press watching, the colonial government set up a decoy of armed guards and military personnel to make a grand production of transporting the diamond to the British capital. Meanwhile, the actual diamond was sent in a simple parcel in the post, to the London offices of one of the mine’s associates.

Asscher family and team inspect the Cullinan

Upon the diamond’s arrival in London, King Edward VII immediately turned to Joseph Asscher for advice about how to treat such a precious gem. While the King originally intended to keep it in the rough, Asscher pleaded for him to have it cut and polished, assuring him that he would oversee every step of the process. Eventually, the King caved and told Asscher that not only would he have the stone cut, but it would be created for the British Crown and Royal family’s jewelry collection.

First, the stone needed to make another journey—this time, to Amsterdam, the heart of the diamond cutting and polishing industry. Again, a decoy was set up, this time with a Royal Navy Ship setting sail across the North Sea with an empty box, and much public fanfare. Abraham Asscher was on a separate ship, the diamond in his pocket, hoping to arrive in Amsterdam without incident.

After arriving in Amsterdam, the Asscher family staged photoshoots with the diamonds to keep the press satisfied, all the while planning the most complex diamond-cutting operation in their history.

The tools used to cleave the mighty Cullinan

According to their calculations, the diamond could be cleaved into two pieces. From there, it could be cut into a set of smaller diamonds. But if something went wrong, it could all shatter into dust.

Joseph Asscher had new tools made—the tools he normally used could not cut a diamond of this size. He spent one month carefully creating an incision, just one centimetre deep. On the 10th of February 1908, he was ready to cut the stone.

The day came press, notaries and other spectators flooded his atelier, eager to see whether the world’s premier stone-cutter would succeed in cutting the world’s most precious stone, or reduce it to fragments by hitting it in the wrong place. The pressure on Joseph Asscher at this time was immense. When the moment came with an almighty blow, he struck the stone, but it was the knife which broke in his hand, the stone remained intact - asserting its magnificent reputation as the hardest material on the planet remained intact.

It is at this point where the gathered spectators saw Joseph Asscher collapse back from the force of the blow, leading to the story that he fainted, the power of the diamond momentarily overcoming this great master of diamonds. Years later his nephew Louis Asscher when questioned about the story exclaimed 'no Asscher would ever faint over an operation on a diamond - though perhaps the champagne got to Uncle Joe on the day he successfully cleaved it'.

Joseph Asscher Cuts the Cullinan Diamond

Four days after the first attempt, Joseph Asscher came back to his workbench with new tools. Armed with larger knives and heavier blades, and with only a public notary as a witness (as opposed to the previous attempt with thronging presses) he wasted no time in quickly striking the diamond, deftly cleaving it in two. From there, he was able to keep to the plan of creating nine large stones, to be included in the crown jewels, and ninety-six smaller stones, which would be retained by the Asscher's as their fee for their work on the diamond.

From there, the largest stone—now known as the Cullinan I—was passed onto Henri Koe, a 20-year veteran of the Royal Asscher Diamond company, and its Chief Polisher. Koe began polishing the Cullinan I on 2nd March 1908 and continued meticulously finessed for the next six months.

By May the following year, Koe began polishing the second diamond, this time with a team of four additional expert polishers, each working fourteen-hour days.

In November, the Cullinan II was finished, and finally ready to be presented to the King. Upon seeing the sparking gems, King Edward VII immediately named them the Great Star of Africa, and the Smaller Star of Africa and ordered the first stone to be set in the Sovereign’s Sceptre with Cross, and the second to be placed in the Imperial Crown, itself.

The four largest Cullinan diamonds during the cleaving process

The Final Cullinan Suite:

Cullinan I “The Great Star of Africa” is the largest of the Cullinan diamonds. It weighs 530.2 carats, and is cut with 74 facets, allowing it. Today, all four of the Royal Asscher Diamonds signature cuts have 74 facets as an homage to the Cullinan I

Cullinan II Known as the “Smaller Star of Africa,” the Cullinan II has a prestigious home at the front and centre of Great Britain’s Imperial Crown. It sits alongside the Stuart Sapphire, St. Edward’s Sapphire, the Black Prince’s Ruby and 2,868 additional brilliant-cut diamonds, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds and 269 pearls.

Cullinan III While it is not as renown as the Cullinan I or II, the Cullinan III nevertheless has a unique history of its own. The pear-cut diamond weighs 94.4 carats (18.88 grams) and is thought to have been Queen Mary’s personal favorite of the collection. Exceptionally inventive with her jewelry collection, Queen Mary first had the Cullinan III and IV set for her coronation crown, and later for the Delhi Dubar tiara. In more recent years, the diamond has made its home on a brooch worn by Queen Elizabeth II, often alongside the Cullinan IV.

In 1958, Queen Elizabeth II visited the Netherlands, and stopped by the visit Louis Asscher, brother of Joseph Asscher. She told him, “Here Mr. Asscher, you can take them in your hands, you held them in your hands before!”. Though his eyesight was failing, he was deeply moved by the opportunity to hold the legendary diamond again.

Cullinan IV The Cullinan IV is a square cut diamond and comes in at 63.6 carats (12.72 grams). It sits alongside its sister diamond, the Cullinan III as part of Queen Mary’s private jewels. The two diamonds are fondly known by the Monarch as “Granny’s chips”

Cullinan vi brooch

Cullinan V An unusually romantic heart-shaped diamond, the Cullinan V is 18.8 carats (3.76 grams) set in a platinum and diamond brooch, worn by Queen Mary. The brooch was specially designed to flaunt the unusual heart shape, and is now one of Queen Elizabeth II’s favorite pieces, after inheriting it from Queen Mary in 1953.

Cullinan VI The Cullinan VI is a marquise-cut diamond of 11.5 carats. It is typically worn alongside the Cullinan VII—and while it does not make public appearances as often as the Cullinan V brooch, its selective engagements makes its outings all the more exciting.

Cullinan VII Like the Cullinan VI, the Cullinan VII is also a marquise-cut diamond. It weighs 8.8 carats, and is set as a pendant on the grand Deli Durbar necklace, which Queen Mary had made for the Delhi Durbar. It is set alongside nine emeralds, originally owned by the Duchess of Cambridge.

Cullinan VIII Britain’s Crown Jeweller Garrard at the honor of setting the Cullinan VIII, an emerald-cut diamond weighing 6.8 carats (1.36 grams). He set it in platinum, and adapted it to be both a brooch to be worn alongside the Cullinan VII and a stomacher, as part of the Delhi Durbar parure.

Cullinan IX Last but not least, the Cullinan IX is a pendeloque or “stepped pear-cut” stone, weighing 4.39 carats. It sits in a platinum ring, created by Garrard and Co. in 1911.