On January 25, 1905, during a routine inspection at the Premier Mine (now named Cullinan Diamond Mine) in Pretoria, South Africa, a 3,106 carat diamond was discovered. Weighing 1.33 pounds, named ‘the Cullinan’ after the mine’s owner Sir Thomas Cullinan, it was the biggest diamond ever found.
The diamond was discovered by the mine’s superintendent Frederick Wells. When he was 18 feet below the Earth’s surface he spotted a flash of starlight embedded in the wall just above him. At first Wells thought it was only a piece of glass and the sun’s rays were fooling him. But it turned out to be the largest gem-quality diamond ever discovered in the world.
Wells handed over the discovery to Sir Thomas Cullinan who then sold it to the Government of South Africa. The stone was then presented as a gift to Edward VII, the King of Britain for his birthday. Concerned that the diamond might be stolen while in transit from South Africa to Great Britain, Edward made arrangements to send a phony diamond on a steamer ship full of detectives, as a diversionary tactic. The Cullinan travelled quietly to England in a plain box while the fake diamond made its way with much fanfare.
The cutting of the stone was entrusted to Joseph Asscher from Amsterdam who studied the piece for six months before attempting the cut. His first attempt made no impact on the diamond but the steel blade broke. On his second attempt the stone split exactly as he had wanted. However, Asscher fainted from the mental exertion.
The Cullinan was later cut into nine large stones and approximately 96 smaller stones and valued at millions of dollars. The largest piece of the gem, a 530-carat stone, is called the ‘Star of Africa I’ or ‘Culinan I’. It is the second largest stone and has remained the largest-cut, fine quality, colourless diamond in the world.
The Cullinan I, II and III are on display in the Tower of London along with Britain’s other crown jewels. The Cullinan I is mounted on the British Sovereign’s Royal Scepter while the Cullinan II is encrusted in the Britain’s Imperial State Crown.
For a long time after the discovery of the Cullinan, many diamond experts believed the huge stone was only a fragment and that a larger piece existed and awaited discovery or was crushed in the mining process. At one point in time the prospect of finding the ‘missing’ portion of the Cullinan added more vigour to the activities of many miners.