South African diamonds gave birth to the modern diamond industry. Two teenagers — Erasmus Jacobs and Cecil Rhodes — helped make this happen. Learn how Jacobs found the first South African diamond and how Rhodes built up a diamond empire. In this blog, we’ll cover:

Erasmus Jacobs’ Surprise Discovery
Cecil Rhodes’ Diamond Empire
How South African Diamonds Changed Diamond History
Famous South African Diamonds
Diamonds Do Good
Are South African Diamonds Ethical Diamonds?

Erasmus Jacobs’ surprise discovery

Teenagers, farmers, a shepherd — these were the first to discover diamonds in Northern Cape Province, South Africa, and by doing so, give birth to the modern diamond industry. The first significant South African diamond was found in 1866 by Erasmus Jacobs, a farmer’s son, who collected ‘pretty stones’ with his friends near the banks of the Orange River. A neighbor, Schalk Van Niekerk, intrigued by a particularly shiny pebble in the collection, offered to buy it from the boy’s mother, who then gave the pebble to Niekerk for free. The stone passed through several hands before an amateur geologist identified it as a diamond weighing 21.25 carats (cts). This enormous South African diamond was named Eureka, meaning “I have found it.”

Found by 15-year-old Erasmus Jacobs, the 21.25 ct Eureka diamond was the first significant diamond discovered in South Africa. It is on display at the Kimberley Mine Museum.
Photo: Courtesy of De Beers Group.

This discovery was treated with disbelief by most, and interest was lukewarm until 1869 when a shepherd found an enormous pebble. He first tried to trade the pebble for a place to sleep and then for breakfast. Everyone turned him down. Eventually, he made his way to the same man who first noticed Erasmus Jacobs’ shiny rock—Schalk Van Niekerk. In exchange for the pebble, Niekerk gave the shepherd a horse, 10 oxen and 500 sheep, nearly all of his earthly goods. His gamble paid off. The pebble turned out to be a South African diamond weighing 83.50 cts, and Niekerk sold it for £11,200 (equivalent to US$56,000 at the time), almost 100 times the value of what he gave the shepherd. This stone, named the Star of South Africa, made its way to England where it was cut into a 47.69 ct pear-shaped stone and purchased by the Earl of Dudley.

The pear-shaped, 47.69 ct Star of South Africa makes up the pendant in this diamond necklace. This fabulous diamond was found by a shepherd in 1869. Courtesy of De Beers Group

The discovery of this South African diamond sparked a diamond rush in the area where it was found. As more diamonds were discovered on local farms, including on the De Beer brothers’ farm in 1871, this hot and barren place quickly transformed into a town named Kimberley with a population of 50,000.

South Africa’s Premier Diamond Mine was an open-pit mine that opened in 1902 and operated for several decades.

Cecil Rhodes’ diamond empire

Another boy — an enterprising seventeen-year-old Englishman named Cecil Rhodes — launched what many consider as the modern diamond industry. Rhodes embarked for South Africa to try his hand at cotton farming. When farming failed, he traveled to the diamond fields of Kimberley where he made a living by pumping water from the diggings. By the age of eighteen, he had enough funds to start buying mining claims. Miners sold out to businessmen like Rhodes because, as they dug deeper, the ground became harder, and this harder ground made mining too risky and costly for individual miners. Rhodes, with the help of the Rothschilds, soon owned all of the De Beers’ claims. By 1888, he had also bought out all of the Kimberley diamond mines. Combining his holdings, Rhodes formed De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd., a company that would grow to become a worldwide diamond monopoly.

The Kimberley Mine in South Africa, known as The Big Hole, is an example of an open-pit mine. Open-pit mining involves removing diamond-bearing kimberlite rock and processing it to extract diamonds. Photo: Robert Weldon/GIA.

How South African diamonds changed diamond history

The South African diamond rush changed two things: 1. The world’s supply of diamonds 2. How diamonds are found. Within a decade after diamonds were found in South Africa, the world’s production of diamonds increased tenfold. Before the South African diamond discoveries, the world’s diamond supply was limited. India had been the world’s primary supplier throughout history until Brazil emerged onto the world’s diamond stage as a primary producer in the 1700s. Diamonds from these countries were alluvial diamonds, however, that had been carried downstream from their host rock by rivers. These diamonds were rare and hard to find and therefore reserved for monarchs and royalty.

Octahedral diamond crystal in kimberlite matrix from South Africa. Photo: Robert Weldon/GIA.

The earliest diamonds in South Africa were also alluvial, but later diamonds were found in their host rock, kimberlite. Finding the host rock meant that diamonds could be mined in higher concentrations and greater quantities than before. This made large-scale open-pit mining worthwhile, transforming how diamonds are unearthed.

More diamonds were uncovered during the South African diamond rush than had been found in India in 2,000 years. Diamonds became affordable for the wealthy middle class for the first time. Fast forward to more than a century later, diamonds are now a popular and fairly accessible gem, and South Africa — currently the world’s 6th largest producer of diamonds by volume — continues to be a dominant player on the world’s diamond stage.

Famous South African diamonds

Diamond octahedron from South Africa. Photo: Robert Weldon/GIA

Diamonds do good

Diamonds, along with other mineral resources, have been the lifeblood of South Africa’s economy since their discovery. South African mines produced roughly ten million carats of diamonds, worth over US$1.2 billion, in 2018. The diamond industry creates jobs for tens of thousands of South Africans — diamond mining alone employed over 16,000 people in 2018 — and taxes on diamond companies help build roads, schools and hospitals. As a result, a greater number of children in mining towns attend schools than in non-mining areas.

Students participate in the Junior Gemology program conducted by GIA at a rural primary school in Limpopo Province, South Africa. Photo: Crystall Nel/GIA.

In addition, many diamond companies give back to their mining communities. Forevermark, an offshoot of De Beers, builds schools and hospitals near its mines and partners with UN Women to support women who are in business or in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. De Beers also created the Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve, which is home to lions, elephants, leopards, African wild dogs and more. Anglo American funds the Zimele program, which helps small or medium-sized business owners grow their businesses, which ultimately results in more jobs.

Impala photographed at the Kruger National Park, Lower Sabie Region, South Africa. Courtesy: Robert Weldon.

Elephant photographed at the Kruger National Park, Lower Sabie Region, South Africa. Courtesy: Robert Weldon.

Are South African diamonds ethical diamonds?

Consumers searching for ethically sourced diamonds should consider diamonds from South Africa. South African diamond mines are world class in terms of their safety and environmental standards, and wages in the industry are high. South Africa is also a participant in the Kimberley Process, a global process set up by the UN to prevent ‘conflict’ diamonds from entering the mainstream diamond market. The process, named after Kimberley, South Africa, helps ensure that 99.8% of the world’s diamond production does not contain conflict diamonds.

A diamond cutter polishing a diamond at the Harry Oppenheimer Diamond Training School in Johannesburg, South Africa. Courtesy: Robert Weldon

GIA, to help consumers know where their diamonds come from, is collaborating with diamond mining companies in South Africa as well as Canada, Botswana, Russia, Namibia and Lesotho to confirm the origin of diamonds from these places. This helps consumers wear their diamonds with peace-of-mind, knowing that their diamonds supported the miners in the country where they were mined.

How does GIA determine a diamond’s country of origin?

Select mining companies send rough diamonds to GIA in documented, sealed and untampered parcels. GIA then collects data and images of the rough for analysis. The rough is sent on to be cut and polished and then sent back to GIA. GIA then uses the markers and data identified during rough analysis to scientifically match each polished diamond to its original rough, thereby confirming the diamond’s country of origin.

Learn where your diamond is from with the GIA Diamond Origin Report, Diamond Origin brochures and the Diamond Origin app.

The diamond’s origin is then stated on the GIA Diamond Origin Report, which contains a full and unbiased assessment of the diamond’s 4Cs quality (Color, Clarity, Cut, and Carat Weight) as well as a plotted diagram of the diamond’s inclusions. For added security, the diamond is laser inscribed with its unique report number. For consumers curious about their diamond’s journey and the impact their purchase has on local communities, the Diamond Origin app provides full-color images of the diamond in both its rough and polished states, as well as rich content about the diamond’s country of origin.

Rings like this Alvadora engagement ring from Brilliant Earth can be set with Russian, Botswanan or Canadian diamonds with GIA Diamond Origin Reports. Courtesy: Brilliant Earth.

A diamond’s journey is every bit as breathtaking as its sparkle. A GIA Diamond Origin Report helps tell a dazzling story — of a diamond’s journey from the depths of the earth to your jewelry box, and of the people in the country who helped make it happen.