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As poetry, this early seventeenth century quatrain lacks merit, but as a capsule summary of diamond fever, it has no equal:

Your wife and children sell, sell what you have,
Spare not your clothes, nay, make yourself a slave,
But money get, then to Currure make haste
There search the mines, a prize you’ll find at last.

The poem was written by a Portuguese business man who around 1610 went to mine diamonds in India, then the world’s main source for this gem. From among India’s many diamond deposits, he chose one at Currure. After spending an amount equal to 45,000 British pounds sterling in his search without finding a single stone, the prospector sold his clothes and belongings to keep the venture going.

Penniless, the Portuguese vowed that if by the end of his workers’ next pay day his luck hadn’t changed, he would poison himself. Luckily, a 437.40-carat rough was found on the very day he planned to take his life. To celebrate his deliverance, the miner wrote the poem quoted above and had it inscribed for posterity on a stone tablet.

What fired this all-or-nothing quest for diamonds?

The answer can be found in the annals of another European diamond hunter who went to India three decades later: French jeweler Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, who made the first of six journeys to India in 1641. Besides its many diamond mines, India boasted the greatest royal collections of pearls and precious stones every assembled. The merchant hoped to become as important a jeweler to the courts of India as he had the courts of Europe.

In his famous book, “Travels in India,” first published in 1676, Tavernier describes the many fabulous gems he bought, sold or was shown, reserving his highest praise for the diamond. “The diamond is the most precious of all stones, and it is the article of trade to which I am most devoted,” he wrote. Although his name is mostly linked with many famous fancy color diamonds, one of them the French Blue (later called the Hope Diamond), Tavernier preferred the finest white diamonds above all others.

Until he voyaged to Asia, Tavernier may have thought that his preference for colorless diamonds was purely European. But once in India, Persia and Borneo, where white diamonds enjoyed the same supremacy of regard, he quickly learned that his tastes were universal. Today, of course, the diamond is the backbone of jewelry sales throughout the world. Yet the fact that colorless (and near-colorless) diamonds have held their present-day standing for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years may come as a shock to those who attribute their preeminence solely to the machinations of the De Beers cartel.

Before Forever

Undoubtedly, the De Beers cartel, formed in 1888 as a response to the overabundance of South African diamonds, has contributed mightily to the diamond’s hegemony. Nonetheless, for its first 50 years, the cartel occupied itself with supply-side issues, focusing on market control and price stability. It wasn’t until 1939 that future De Beers Chairman Harry Oppenheimer, a staunch believer in the power of advertising, paid a historic visit to N.W. Ayer in New York to discuss a diamond campaign.

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