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March 11, 2016

What Is Unique About South African Diamonds?

Text by Shirin Mehta. Photographs by Charu Khosla

Visit one of the finest jewellery stores of Cape Town and learn about South Africa’s dazzling mineral wealth

Gobsmacked even as you enter the historic Huguenot House (circa 1752), boutique, on Loop Street in the heart of Cape Town, you realise that this is going to be more than a jewellery-store experience. A 1993 restoration of the interiors has uncovered wall murals of the former householders as gods Luna, Bacchus and Ceres, today back on view. The walls were painted to resemble wood panelling, the ceiling fashioned of South African yellowwood and the floor of burnished teak. To offset this charming room, today, are wooden, jewellery-display cupboards, a carved sideboard and plush sofa. No wonder, we take a breath before proceeding.

Prins & Prins Diamonds is one of Cape Town’s numerous excellent diamond and jewellery stores, showcasing South Africa’s dazzling mineral wealth. You may select your diamond, tanzanite or gemstone from a large collection, choose a ready setting for a quick two-day delivery, customise your own special piece or merely browse through the private showrooms laden with ready creations. And all this in a beautiful, historic setting! As we are free to wander, we drink in the beauty of the place, walking through a tiny courtyard with vine trellis and wrought-iron chairs to the old kitchen area where an ancient well is covered underfoot. Utensils discovered on the site, fossils, ancient guns decorate the place. It is charming.

In the basement, we observe goldsmiths precisely at work. Here is located, also, the Prins & Prins Diamonds Museum of Gems and Jewellery. Unambitious in scale but packed with information, the exhibition, Earthly Treasures And Human Ingenuity, is dedicated to their interaction, showing how ‘human craftsmanship in stone and metal has, since prehistory, created items to communicate, to beautify and to create wealth with’.

The charming Dr Petré Prins, though bustling and busy, takes time off to show us around and for a quick chat….

What is unique about South African diamonds?
South African diamonds travel uniquely through fire, ice, water and wind. Volcanoes erupted millions of years ago bringing up the diamonds. Glaciers scoured the earth bringing these down. The wind and rivers carried them into the sea. Most South African diamonds are marine diamonds and De Beers has huge boats dredging the sea floor. We are fortunate that nature did the mining for us.

Where are the diamonds cut?
We cannot cut the small diamonds in South Africa so these are sent to India where the technique exists and they are then sent back to us. We only cut diamonds that are over a quarter of a carat.

Which are some of the unique gems that come from South Africa?
Tiger’s eye, blue lace agate. Tanzanite comes only from Tanzania and is available here.

Why would an Indian buy diamonds here?
First of all, while we send diamonds to India to be cut, Indians are unable to buy them there since they are sent back. On the other hand, you can find stones here that are not available anywhere else in the world. Unique diamonds are easily available here. Besides, you are buying from a wholesaler rather than a retailer. Tourists also get back the 14 per cent tax when they leave the country.

A tip for diamond buyers?
Today, diamonds are being branded but these are actually the same as unbranded ones — only more expensive. We do not brand our diamonds, though most of the big diamonds, half-carat upwards, have an international certificate.

What are the design trends of the day?
Unfortunately, styles change dramatically every five years. Modern communication, as well as the fact that it has become easy to make jewellery by machine, is responsible. Styles are put out on the Internet and things become fashionable. That is the modern way of things. We endeavour to create things that will last.

World’s Largest Diamond

The world’s largest gem-quality diamond at 3106.75 carats was discovered in South Africa at the Premier Mine outside Pretoria, in 1905. It was presented by the Transvaal provincial government to King Edward VII who had it sent to Amsterdam where it was split into nine big diamonds and 96 smaller stones. The largest of these, called Cullinan I or Great Star of Africa, was set in the royal sceptre while the second-largest or Cullinan II, the Lesser Star of Africa, was set in the Imperial State Crown.

Other large diamonds from South Africa include the Red Cross Diamond, a canary-yellow, cushion-shaped diamond at 205 carats, (present owner unknown), and the De Beers Diamond, a coloured diamond that in 1928 was set in a ceremonial neckpiece called the Patiala Necklace, by Cartier.

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