Frederick Wells, the mine's supervisor, was doing a routine examination 18 feet (5.5 metres) below the surface when he noticed a glimpse of dazzling rock on the wall above. He dug out a huge, deformed lump of what he considered was worthless rock crystal with a penknife. After all, a rock that large — weighing more than a pound and nearly the size of a human heart — couldn't possible be a diamond. But he was mistaken. It was, in fact, a diamond.
The Cullinan diamond, named for Premier Mine owner Thomas Cullinan, was and still is the biggest gem diamond ever discovered. It weighed 3,106 carats uncut and measured around 4 inches by 2.5 inches by 2.3 inches (10.1 by 6.35 by 5.9 centimeters). The blue-hued Hope Diamond, by comparison, weighs little more than 45 carats. The rough stone was given to King Edward VII in 1907 (more on that later) and cut into nine big diamonds known as Cullinan I through IX, graded from largest to smallest.
The Cullinan I diamond, popularly known as the "Great Star of Africa," is the world's largest colourless cut diamond. It is more over 530 carats in weight and is set on the Sovereign's Scepter, which is part of the British royal family's valuable crown jewels. At 105.6 carats, the Cullinan II is the world's second-largest cut diamond and the brilliant centrepiece of the family's Imperial State Crown. According to Evan Smith, a senior research scientist at the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), the Cullinan diamonds are not only some of the world's biggest cut diamonds, but they are also some of the most beautiful, containing all of the most-prized attributes of gem diamonds.
"The Cullinan diamonds are the ultimate colour, they're quite massive, and they have excellent clarity," Smith adds. "They're the epitome of what makes an appealing diamond - something entirely colourless and virtually transparent on the inside."
Royal Gift and Colonialism
Cullinans I and II were prominently displayed when Queen Elizabeth II was laid to rest in 2022. During the Queen's burial procession, both the sceptre and the crown (together with a third jewelled piece known as the Sovereign's Orb) were put on her casket.
While heads of state paid tribute to Elizabeth for her dignity, strength, and poise during her nearly 71-year reign, others criticised her for never formally apologising for atrocities committed during Britain's colonial era, which included colonial rule over part or all of South Africa from 1795 to 1961. The discovery and sale of the record-breaking Cullinan diamond are intertwined with that tangled colonial history.
The Premier Mine, where the Cullinan was discovered, was located in the Transvaal region. Dutch immigrants known as Boers escaped the British-controlled Cape Colony in the early nineteenth century and journeyed to the hot, arid interior of South Africa near modern-day Pretoria. The Boers overcame local tribes and established the Transvaal Republic.