Likening the color of fancy yellow diamonds to that of the canary seems to have been around forever. But in all probability, the practice is little more than a century old. Even then, we can be sure that meanings of the word “canary” as a descriptive term for diamonds have shifted considerably.
To start with, this finch-family member comes in two breeds, wild and domestic, each with distinctly different plumage colors. “Wild canaries,” the 1991 World Book informs us, “are dark green and olive-colored” while “most tame canaries are bright yellow,” Thus you could very well end up arguing about exact shades of meaning for this word when it is used as a synonym for yellow.
No doubt, moderns have in mind the glowing yellow of the tame variety. But since these yellows vary from pure to orangey, and match with fancy to fancy-intense stones that in mid-1992 cost from $5,000 to $50,000 per carat in 1-carat sizes, the term “canary” obviously has some latitude. To confuse matters more, it is far from certain that our forebears would have defined “canary” anywhere near the way we do today. Indeed, don’t even be sure they would have thought of comparing the yellow of a diamond to that of a canary at all.
For two reasons. First, the breakthrough breeding of one-color canaries with bright yellow plumage seems to have occurred around the time seafaring jeweler Jean-Baptiste Tavernier was making his seven voyages to Asia (1641-1677) described in his epic narrative, “Travels in India.” Although canaries became domesticated as early as the 14th century, notes the Encyclopedia Americana, it wasn’t until 1677—two years after Tavernier published his book—that “completely yellow birds” were first reported, these in Germany. Were their yellows pale or bright, pure or modified?
Second, even if Tavernier and his contemporaries had seen tame canaries similar to those in homes today, it is doubtful their highly saturate color would have come to mind when looking at diamonds. The extremely few fancy yellow diamonds found in India (which produced at least 95% of the world’s diamonds until around 1730) usually were modified by either green or brown (same as the yellow of the wild canary).
Fancy yellows from Brazil were as rare as ones from India and their color, too, was a far cry from the boisterous sunflower-hue commonly thought of as “canary.”
In any case, for use of the term “canary” to take hold in the diamond trade, one would have had to see both the bright-yellow variety of this bird and its diamond counterpart on a regular basis. That couldn’t have happened before 1869 and the discovery of vivid yellow diamonds in South Africa. Only these stones could have conjured up the vibrant plumage of what was by then, thanks to selective breeding, a bright yellow songbird. Then, and only then, the stage was set for “canary” to become a diamond slang-word.