The King of Gems

The diamond is the birthstone for April, its golden sparkling rays attributed to the sun, under whose influence it is with Jupiter. The ‘King of Gems’, also called adamas, the ‘Adam of Gems’, the diamond is the hardest substance known to humans, with a unique radiance. Although the word ‘diamond’ is said to have come from the Greek adamas, many authorities agree that when the word adamas is used, a stone other than the diamond is being referred to because the Greeks are not thought to have known the true diamond. 

Suggested by the brilliant flashes of light emitted by the diamond, it is known in Sanskrit as indrajudha, ‘Indra’s weapon’ or vajra, ‘thunderbolt’. The Assyrian word for diamond is elmêshu, the word el meaning ‘God’. This divine association is also found in the Hebrew word for diamond, which is yahãlõm, and Yah or Yaw are Hebrew words for ‘God’, showing how highly the ancients prized diamonds. 

Before the discovery of diamonds in Brazil and South Africa during the early part of the eighteenth century and later in many other parts of the world, all diamonds came from India. The marketing of diamonds in India goes back to about 3000 BCE. References in Roman literature about fabled diamonds date from the first century CE. Although diamonds have been mined in India for thousands of years, the rest of the world popularly believed diamonds came from The Valley of Diamonds, described in Pliny’s Natural History. According to Pliny, the Valley of Diamonds was an unimaginably black pit that was so steep, no man could descend it and return. To retrieve the gemstones from the pit’s floor, clever men threw chunks of meat down. Birds of prey would swoop down, pick up the meat, and with it, the diamonds stuck to it. Once they had dropped the meat into their nests, the clever men stole the diamonds. Many grisly, horrible variations of such tales persisted for centuries.

Most virtues ascribed to this sought-after gemstone are directly traceable either to its hardness or transparent purity. Because of its indestructibility, it has always been regarded as an emblem of eternity. Symbolically linked with love and innocence, the diamond is traditionally a love-bearing gift popularly used in engagement rings in America and parts of Europe. Traditionally, also a symbol of good luck, the diamond is believed to inspire courage in a man and pride in a woman. Diamonds, associated with wealth, power, and prestige, indicate success and security. Coloured diamonds, red and yellow, were in the past assigned only to royalty. 

Many myths and legends concern the powers of diamonds to ward off evil and dangers. Because of its brilliance, this stone, like a continuous shining light, was thought to protect the wearer from evil. During the Middle Ages, alchemists asserted that diamonds could render the wearer invisible. According to widespread superstition, the protective powers of a diamond were lost if the stone was sold or bought – only when given as a gift did the spirit dwelling in this most precious gem not take offence. If the stone was given as a pledge of love or friendship, then its protective powers were believed to be greatly enhanced.

Because of its hardness, the diamond was used to cut other stones, giving origin to the idea that the gem was indestructible. This caused the firm conviction that anyone swallowing a diamond was doomed to die. It was believed from as early as the seventh century onwards that diamonds put into one’s mouth fractured the teeth and if swallowed, ruptured the intestines, a falsity, however, proved because slaves who worked in diamond mines often swallowed the stones to conceal them, never suffering ill effects, the gems recovered naturally. Similarly, diamond dust, when taken internally, was widely believed to act as a dangerous poison.

In direct contradiction to the diamond being seen as highly toxic, one of its most noteworthy medicinal virtues was that it was widely considered an antidote to all poisons and believed to protect against pestilence and, most of all, the dreaded plague. During the Middle Ages, aristocrats wore diamonds specifically to ward off the Black Death engulfing Europe. This notion probably stems from the fact that the plague attacked the poorer classes first, whereas the rich, decked out in diamonds were spared to start with – an observation highlighting the squalid conditions of the poorer classes rather than the wearing of diamonds.


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