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I’ve never been a jewellery fiend but diamonds are a big part of South Africa’s history. And I’ve been intrigued by the diamond industry ever since I started to plan a novel based, in part, in South Africa. So it seemed logical to pay a visit to the Cape Town Diamond Museum. I’m glad I did: it was a fascinating insight into a sparkling trade.
Shimansky Diamond Museum, Cape Town

Our guide, Shameela, at the Cape Town Diamond Museum

The Long History of Diamonds

The Museum is attached to the Shimansky diamond showroom, in the Clock Tower on Cape Town’s V&A; Waterfront. Visits are by guided tour and we were shown round by Shameela, starting with an exhibition of diamonds through history. I hadn’t known that diamonds were formed more than 3 billion years ago, that they were first discovered in India in 2500 BC, or that they were first used decoratively in 322 BC. I was slightly more familiar with the history of diamond cutting in Europe but was surprised to learn that, although they were not found in South Africa until 1887, within ten years the country was supplying 95% of the world’s diamonds!
Diamond Museum, Cape Town

The exhibition includes the history of diamond mining in South Africa

The Diamond Industry Today

Cutting diamonds

Diamonds are cut according to set designs

Shameela showed us the workshop where diamonds are cut and polished. Unfortunately it was a holiday; on another day we could have seen the cutters at work. It is an exacting process: the cutters are extensively trained and the diamonds have to be of the highest quality. Something else I had not realised was that there are international standards for diamonds, and a number of classic cuts. Each cut is designed with mathematical precision and the cutters aim to achieve the exact standard with every stone. The diamonds themselves are graded according to the “4 Cs” – cut, colour, clarity and carat.

But increasing emphasis is being placed upon a 5th “C” – confidence. Purchasers want to be confident about the source of their stones, to be sure that they have come from a reputable supplier and that they are not so-called “conflict diamonds”, illegally traded to fund wars or terrorism elsewhere in Africa. Shameela assured us that all of Shimansky’s diamonds are certificated and are sourced from within South Africa (or from Australia in the case of pink diamonds).

The Diamond Museum Showroom

Diamond ring, Shimansky

I try on their most expensive diamond ring!

For many visitors it is the finished product that is the main attraction. We stopped to look at full size replicas of some of the world’s most famous diamonds – including the Koh-i-Noor and the Taylor-Burton diamond – and then it was on to the showroom, where a selection of loose stones (for making up to your own design) and finished jewellery were on sale.

The items on sale come in a range of prices but Shameela let me try on their most expensive ring, a large diamond in a platinum setting. It glittered seductively and I could see why people throughout the ages have been attracted by the stones. But this one was beyond my reach, and regretfully I handed it back.

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