The response to the discovery of the first diamond in South Africa was hilariously muted. “Stranger things… have come to pass in the world than the discovery of Diamonds in South Africa,” read The Colesberg Advertiser in April 1867, as displayed on a wall inside the Cape Town Diamond Museum, a tiny hidden gem in The Clocktower Centre at the V&A Waterfront.
But this reluctance to be excited – presumably in case it turned out to be a fake or a fluke – was soon overcome. And the public’s fascination with diamonds has not dimmed in the past 150 years.
I joined a tour of the Cape Town Diamond Museum along with the Friends of Iziko in order to learn more about the history of diamonds in South Africa. The legacy of Cecil John Rhodes and his ilk has been a source of controversial discussion these past few years – especially among the youth – and I hoped not only to discover how the South African diamond mining industry came to be, but also what were the social repercussions of that triumphant find. Although I found little enlightenment on the latter, the visit to the museum still proved a fascinating and eye-opening introduction to our diamond mining heritage.
The journey of a diamond is a long one. Since before the days of the dinosaur, from extreme temperatures deep inside the Earth, precious stones have slowly been carried to its surface. A timeline on the wall chronicles some interesting facts: from the diamond’s creation, its first discovery in India, the first time a diamond was used in an engagement, and the criteria for what makes a diamond valuable. I learned that South Africa’s first diamond, The Eureka, was discovered by Erasmus Jacobs in 1867, near Hopetown on the Orange River. Within 10 years 95% of the world’s diamonds came from Kimberley.
I had hoped to learn more about the average miner, but the museum did not provide that detail. Perhaps it can address this in future, But there was some interesting mining gear on display, as well as mini-biographies of the key figures of the diamond rush and their contribution to the diamond industry in South Africa, and an insight into the nine stages of diamond cutting and polishing.
But the definite highlight of the museum is a display of the replicas of famous diamonds, including The Eureka, the cursed Hope Diamond, The Taylor-Burton (purchased by actors Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) and The Cullinan – the largest diamond ever found. I gawked through the glass, starstruck at the stone celebrities rotating in their individual cases, glittering with hard beauty as they twirled.
It really is a small museum – just one room that takes about 20 minutes to have a good look around. It feels more like the introductory room for a larger, more sophisticated exhibition and indeed it has the potential to expand. But as it is, the Cape Town Diamond Museum is an enriching and enjoyable introduction into the history of diamonds in South Africa, and a genuinely interesting stop for any history lover.
The Cape Diamond Tour by Friends of Iziko Museum took place at on 8 March 2018. The Cape Town Diamond Museum opens Mondays to Fridays from 9am to 9pm.