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The Cullinan

In its natural state, the 3106-carat Cullinan was a diamond of exceedingly rare quality the size of a human heart. It was, undoubtedly, the largest gem-quality rough diamond ever discovered. Naturally, a diamond of this size and splendor sent a ripple of excitement across the world. Where would it be kept? Would it be preserved in its rough form or cut? If cut, who would wear such precious jewels?

The many questions arising from the Cullinan’s discovery were answered in 1907. South Africa’s Transvaal Colony government purchased the gem and gifted it to King Edward VII of Great Britain as a birthday gift and commemorative tribute for five years of peace between the two countries following the Second Boer War’s end in 1902. And it is here that the Cullinan’s journey began.

First, the diamond had to make its way from the African continent to Europe’s seat of the British monarchy, London, England. With the ravenous eyes of the international press watching the diamond’s every move, the colonial government set up a decoy of armed guards and military personnel, intentionally making a grand production of transporting the Cullinan to the British capital. But in fact, the enormous diamond was placed in a regular parcel and simply posted to the London office of one of the mine’s associates!

Upon the Cullinan’s arrival in London, King Edward VII quickly turned to Joseph Asscher for advice on what to do with such an unprecedented gem. While the King was initially partial to keeping it in the rough, Asscher pleaded to have it cut and polished, assuring the monarchMonarch that he would personally oversee every step of the process. Eventually, King Edward caved and informed Joseph Asscher that not only was he to cut the stone, but he would be performing the task for the British Crown and Royal Family’s jewelry collection! It was safe to say that this message from the King created a little added pressure to the whole endeavor.

For Joseph Asscher to cut the stone, the Cullinan would need to make another journey - this time to Amsterdam - the heart of the diamond cutting and polishing industry at the time. As with its maiden voyage from South Africa, the Cullinan’s next travel leg would involve another ruse. To much fanfare and public attention, a sealed box containing the Cullinan was placed on a Royal Navy ship that promptly set sail across the North Sea to The Netherlands. As you may have suspected, that sealed box was empty. 

Joseph’s brother Abraham Asscher meanwhile, was on a separate passenger ship heading to Amsterdam. He didn’t have any luggage with him, only the heavy coat to keep him warm during the voyage. One of the deep pockets of Abraham’s coat offered a little less space than the other, for in it lay a human heart-sized uncut diamond that was the talk of the world.

Abraham Asscher and the Cullinan arrived safely at Tolstraat 127, Amsterdam, the headquarters and cutting factory of Asscher Diamond Company. The Asscher family immediately invited the press to photograph the priceless uncut marvel, satiating incessant demands regarding the diamond’s whereabouts. But keeping the press satisfied was the least of the family’s concerns, for they were in the throes of planning the most complex diamond-cutting operation in their history and the history of the craft.

According to Asscher Diamond Company’s calculations, the Cullinan could be cleaved into two pieces. Then, a set of smaller stones could be cut. But as anyone familiar with the delicacy of diamond cutting knows, one tiny error could result in the entire precious rock shattering into dust. Joseph Asscher had new tools made to minimize this risk after concluding that a diamond the Cullinan’s size demanded customized equipment. As soon as the tools were ready, he put them to work, spending the entire following month carefully creating an incision just one centimeter deep. On the 10th of February, 1908, he was finally ready to cut the world’s biggest rough diamond.

Press, notaries, and other spectators flooded Asscher’s atelier, eager to witness the world’s greatest stone-cutter splitting the world’s greatest uncut stone. Or fail and reduce it to worthless fragments. 

The pressure on Joseph Asscher was monumental as the moment finally arrived to strike the splitting knife wedged into the meticulously selected two-centimeter incision on the Cullinan’s surface. Using a hammer, he came down on the knife (and diamond) with a resolute, almighty blow. Instantly, a breaking sound pierced the air! But it was not that of a diamond dividing. Alas, what broke was the knife in Joseph Asscher’s hand. The world’s largest uncut diamond stubbornly remained intact, asserting the precious stone’s magnificent reputation as the hardest material on the planet.

Joseph Asscher collapsed backward from the force of the blow, witnessed by gathered spectators. A myth grew from this moment, telling of how the Cullinan’s strength overwhelmed the greatest diamond cutter of his time, rendering him unconscious upon defeat. Years later, when questioned about the story, Joseph’s nephew Louis Asscher 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.”

Four days after the failed attempt, Joseph Asscher was back at his workbench with new tools. Armed with larger knives, heavier blades, no thronging press battalion, and a singular public notary in attendance, the second attempt at the diamond got underway. New knife slotted firmly in the groove, Joseph deftly struck at it, and the remarkable, resolute Cullinan split in two. 

From the first divide, Asscher successfully realized the plan of creating nine large stones that would become part of The Crown Jewels. Ninety-six smaller stones were retained by the Asscher’s as their fee for cutting the Cullinan.

The largest stone - now known as Cullinan I - was passed onto Henri Koe, a 20-year veteran of the Royal Asscher Diamond Company and its Chief Polisher. On the 2nd of March 1908, Koe began working on Cullinan I and continued meticulously finessing it for the next six months. By May the following year, Koe and four additional expert polishers began on the second diamond, each working fourteen-hour days. By November, Cullinan II was finished and finally ready to be presented to the King. Upon seeing the sparkling gems, King Edward VII immediately named them the Great Star of Africa and the Smaller Star of Africa. The monarchMonarch had the first stone set in the Sovereign’s Sceptre with Cross and the second, Smaller Star of Africa, in the Imperial Crown itself!

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. Today, all four of the Royal Asscher Diamonds signature cuts have 74 facets as an homage to the Cullinan I.

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

Cullinan III: While not as renowned 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 rumored to be Queen Mary’s personal favorite from 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 Durbar tiara. These days, the diamond has made its home on a brooch worn by Queen Elizabeth II, often alongside the Cullinan IV. During an official trip to the Netherlands in 1958, Queen Elizabeth II visited Tolstraat 127 to meet with Louis Asscher, brother of Joseph Asscher. During the meeting, Her Majesty said this, “Here, Mr. Asscher, you can take them in your hands. You held them in your hands before!” Despite his failing eyesight, Louis Asscher immediately recognized the legendary diamond upon holding it, and was deeply moved by the Monarch’s gesture.

Cullinan IV: A square-cut diamond that 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 were fondly referred to by the Monarch as “Granny’s chips.”

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

Cullinan VI: The Cullinan VI is a marquise-cut diamond of 11.5 carats. Typically worn alongside the Cullinan VII, the Cullinan IV makes far fewer public appearances than the Cullinan V brooch. Its rare appearances do make Cullinan VI’s outings all the more exciting.

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

Cullinan VIII: Britain’s Crown Jeweler, House of Garrad, had the honor of setting the Cullinan VIII, an emerald-cut diamond weighing 6.8 carats (1.36 grams). Set it in platinum, Cullinan VIII was adapted to be both a brooch 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 House of Garrard in 1911.


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