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The Birth of the Modern Diamond Industry

The Birth of the Modern Diamond Industry

 The Birth of the Modern Diamond Industry


IT HAPPENED in January 1871. Adrian van Wyk, a Bible-loving farmer, was living with his family in a semidesert region of South Africa known as Griqualand West. But his peaceful existence came to an end when a stream of strangers arrived on his farm and set up camp there. Watching them from his porch chair, Van Wyk could not believe what was happening!

Within a few days, his land swarmed with thousands of men​—as far as his eye could see! Why, some were even in his front garden staking out claims without his permission and without even greeting him! What had happened? Why all the excitement? A new rush had begun as word spread that there were diamonds aplenty on Van Wyk’s farm.

What Led to That Diamond Rush?

Some 12 years earlier, a five-carat diamond had been found near the Vaal River, about 40 miles [70 km] north of Van Wyk’s farm. The man who found the diamond sold it to the priest in charge of the Berlin Mission Society for five pounds. No further record has been found of that first diamond discovery. But as word about it spread, people started investigating.

Our story moves ahead nine years, to the farm of Schalk van Niekerk alongside the Orange River, a few miles south of its confluence with the Vaal River. The Jacobs family had a house on Van Niekerk’s farm. The Jacobs children enjoyed playing a game they  called five stones. In their collection they had a shiny stone that their older brother Erasmus had found.

One day early in 1867, Van Niekerk visited the Jacobs. Mrs. Jacobs knew that he was interested in precious stones, so she told him about the bright stone that her children played with. “At night, in the candle-light, it glitters wonderfully,” she said. After examining it, an exciting thought struck Van Niekerk. “I have a feeling this is a diamond!” he exclaimed. He recalled that he had read of a way to test a stone to see if it was a diamond. So he drew the stone across the windowpane at the rear of the humble dwelling. He was startled to see a deep impression left in the glass and apologized for having damaged it. * Mrs. Jacobs gladly gave Van Niekerk the stone, refusing to accept payment for it.

On his next trip to nearby Hopetown, Van Niekerk showed the stone to friends, but none could confirm that it was a diamond. The stone passed from one pair of trustworthy hands to another and then by post until it reached a physician, Dr. Atherstone, of Grahamstown. He enlisted the help of a schoolmaster. In the school’s laboratory, tests were made to check the stone’s specific gravity, and found that it corresponded to that of a diamond. Next, the stone was handed to a local jeweler, who tried in vain to mark it with his file. Others were consulted, and all came to the same positive conclusion that Van Niekerk had. Dr. Atherstone then confirmed by letter that the stone was a diamond weighing 21.25 carats. Van Niekerk was given 350 pounds for the gem, and he promptly shared the money with Mrs. Jacobs. Appropriately, the stone is called Eureka, an expression indicating “triumph on a discovery.”

A Shepherd and an Honest Farmer

Our story moves on another two years to an area below the merging point of the Orange and Vaal rivers. There an African shepherd named Booi was grazing his sheep when he saw something shiny on the ground. He stooped down to pick up a bright walnut-shaped stone and then dropped it into his pocket. He had heard that there was interest in certain stones in that area, so in his wanderings to find work, he offered it first to a farmer and then to a trader. They,  in turn, directed him to Van Niekerk’s farm.

Finally, Booi arrived at Van Niekerk’s farm and showed him the stone. Immediately, Van Niekerk saw the possibility that he was looking at a diamond larger and more valuable than the one Mrs. Jacobs had given him. He asked the humble shepherd what he wanted in exchange for the stone. “Master,” Booi respectfully replied, “you can give me what you think is right.” Without hesitation, Van Niekerk handed over nearly everything he had​—500 fat-tailed sheep, 10 oxen, the wagon he used to carry his vegetables to town, and even the saddled horse he had been riding! As for Booi, he no doubt considered himself a wealthy man​—all for a shiny walnut-shaped stone!

Van Niekerk immediately went to Hopetown to sell his diamond. There an astonished group of businessmen agreed to pay him 11,300 pounds for the 83.5-carat stone. Eventually, it became known as the Star of South Africa. * The cut-and-polished stone became the main part of the beautiful necklace seen on this page. When word of this diamond reached the outside world, incredulity vanished, and thousands of men from places as diverse as North and South America, England, Europe, and Australia made a beeline to South Africa to make their fortune.

The Rush Gets Under Way

Initially, diamond digging took place along the Orange and Vaal rivers. Then, in 1870, word got out that impressive finds were being made on farms farther inland between the two rivers. Thus, the river diggers began their rush to the area where Adrian van Wyk’s farm was located. Unknown to Van Wyk and his neighbors, their farms were located above extinct volcanoes. The  diamonds were discovered in so-called blue ground found within ancient volcanic pipes.

Meanwhile, hastily constructed tent villages sprang up, which were soon followed by corrugated-iron structures. With insufficient water and no infrastructure, these villages were basic, to say the least. The new arrivals put up with clouds of dust, swarms of flies, summer days that reached over 106 degrees Fahrenheit [40°C], and winter nights that were sometimes below freezing. They endured all this discomfort in the hope of making a big fortune.

What happened to Adrian van Wyk after his farm was overrun by the diamond diggers? Initially, he gave the diggers permission to work a portion of his farm for a small fee payable monthly. But as more and more diggers invaded his farm, the situation became too unruly for Van Wyk to control. When a mining company offered him 2,000 pounds for his farm, he gladly accepted it, signed the papers, and left for more peaceful pastures.

Not far from Van Wyk’s was another farm, owned by two brothers surnamed De Beer. Their name was used to register the De Beers Consolidated Mines, still functioning as the world’s largest diamond producer. The city of Kimberley embraces the area on which those humble farms once stood. Activity on the De Beer brothers’ farm became very intense, and men dug a pit so deep and wide that it became known as the Big Hole.

Prior to South Africa’s early diamond discoveries, these precious gems were being mined in India and Brazil. But not enough could be found to satisfy the world market. With the discovery of great quantities of diamonds in South Africa, the modern diamond industry was born.


^ par. 8 Over a century later, that same pane with its deep scratch mark can be viewed in South Africa’s Colesberg Museum.

^ par. 13 The name of this diamond is sometimes confused with that of another called the Star of Africa.​—See the box “Premier Mine,” on page 16.

[Box/Pictures on page 16, 17]


In 1903 a diamond mine began to function about 20 miles [30 km] east of Pretoria, South Africa. It was aptly named Premier Mine. Two years later, when the mine pit was 30 feet [10 m] deep, a laborer pointed out a shiny object on the rocky wall. His manager carefully climbed down and cut out the object with his penknife. In his hand he held the largest rough diamond ever mined; it was the size of a man’s fist. This massive 3,106-carat diamond was named after the mine’s discoverer, Thomas Cullinan. When cut, the Cullinan diamond produced nine large gems and 96 small ones. One of these portions, the Cullinan I, or the Star of Africa, is the largest cut diamond in the world. It graces the British royal scepter, as seen on this page. After a century Premier Mine continues living up to its name by producing many large, high-quality diamonds.


The British royal scepter

The rough Cullinan diamond, the size of a man’s fist

[Box/Picture on page 17]


◆ Diamonds are the hardest natural substance known to man.

◆ Diamonds are formed from carbon, as is pencil lead, or graphite. Why, though, are diamonds hard while graphite is soft? They differ because of the way in which the carbon atoms are arranged.

◆ Diamonds are weighed in carats. A carat is equal to a fifth of a gram or a 142nd of an ounce.

◆ Often, it is necessary to sift through some 400 tons of rock, gravel, and sand to mine one carat of diamond.

[Box/Picture on page 18]


During the four-year period from 1869 to 1873, the population around the present-day city of Kimberley grew from a handful of farmers to about 50,000 people. Many of these were fortune hunters who came from all corners of the globe. Thousands walked 650 miles [1000 km] from the dock at Cape Town. Using picks and shovels, they turned a hill into the biggest hole ever dug with human hands. When digging finally stopped, the crater had a depth of 787 feet [240 m]. Underground mining continued to a depth of 3,600 feet [1,097 m]. By 1914, when all mining ceased here, “25 million tons of soil” had been removed, according to the Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa. From all that rock and soil, the same source adds, three tons of diamonds were extracted at a value of more than 47,000,000 pounds.

[Picture on page 17]

Dr. Atherstone

[Picture on page 17]

Schalk van Niekerk

[Picture on page 17]

The Eureka diamond

[Credit Line]

De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd.

[Picture on page 18]

The Star of South Africa

[Pictures on page 18, 19]

The Big Hole in 1875. The ropes were used by hundreds of different mine claimants to lower workers into the pit and hoist up diamond-bearing ore

[Pictures on page 19]

The diamond rush led to hastily constructed mining camps

[Picture Credit Lines on page 16]

Crown ©/The Royal Collection © 2005, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II; Photo:

[Picture Credit Line on page 16]

Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images

[Picture Credit Line on page 17]

Portraits: From the book The Grand Old Days of the Diamond Fields by George Beet

[Picture Credit Line on page 18]

Photos: De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd.

[Picture Credit Line on page 19]

Photos: De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd.