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Some doctors in the Middle Ages believed that diamond powder taken orally could be curative, with unfortunate consequences for their patients. Catherine de Medici (1519-89) is reputed to have used it to kill her enemies.
This gem was also steeped in water and used for healing. The Greeks employed the diamonds in treating diseases in this manner. They would steep the gem in water or wine, and drink the liquid for gout, diseases of the heart and circulation. The liquid was also used as a salve.
"Placed on, or bound round the brow, the jewel soothed and calmed the temper restraining the evil passions, promoting peaceful and calming thoughts in the mind." (Hodges)
Diamonds were also credited with protection against poison and disease. In the Middle Ages, it was thought to ward off the plague. Queen Elizabeth the First was given a diamond for protection against the plague, and wore it constantly against her bosom.
Queen Donna Isabell the Second, of Spain, wore a diamond in her girdle. When an assassin attempted to attack her with a dagger, it was stopped by the presence of the gem.
The Diamond in Antiquity
Diamonds in antiquity were mined in India and perhaps in China. There may of course been other sources, now exhausted, but history does not record them. The gem may have been mentioned in Vedic texts under the name of mani; the Sinologist/linguist Berthold Laufer says not, because the mani is pierced and strung like a bead. Or it have been known to the Avestan people of prehistory under the name of vispa.bama, the stone 'containing all light' which shone forth from Mithra's chariot-wheels and also Mithra's divine nimbus; the archeologist/linguist Ernst Herzfeld says perhaps not, because the vispa-bama may have been an emerald rather than a diamond. And Herzfeld translates the word mani or menu as crystal, mentioning the mountain Menu.xam 'Crystal-source'.
Ancient Assyrian texts mention several words for gemstones, among which was "the precious stone elmeshu, perfect in celestial beauty" and, elsewhere, "Like an elmeshu ring may I be precious in thine eyes." Again, this might have been a word for the diamond.
The India word vajra, 'thunderbolt' - that is, the god Indra's weapon, the lightning itself - came eventually to be synonymous with the diamond. However, this was not its original meaning. The first incontrovertible mention of the diamond (according to Berthold Laufer) hails from the early Pali scripture of Buddhism. There, in the Questions of King Milinda, one may read about the three desirable qualities of the diamond: it should be pure throughout, it should never be alloyed with lesser substances, it should always be mounted with the most precious of gems. These are metaphors, as transparent as the Christian metaphors of Physiologus, and meant to guide Buddhist monks . . . who should be pure throughout, who should never alloy their virtue by association with wicked men, who should always seek company of the most excellent kind.
A similar train of thought can be found in the tales of diamonds being melted by the heat of goat's blood. This is metaphor, not science - a parable, not a piece of observation.
A Hindu gem-treatise names diamonds of many colors, each meant to be worn by a different caste: white as shell for Brahmins, for Kshatriya as brown as the eye of the hare, for Vaisya, colored like the petal of a kadali flower, and for the Sudra, with the sheen of a polished blade; while kings might wear diamonds red as coral and diamonds yellow as saffron. In the Arthacastra of Kautilya - another piece of Indian literature, and dated to perhaps the third century BC - a more prosaic description of the diamond is found. Six kinds of diamonds are described, classified according to the mines where they are found. These differ in lustre and degree of hardness, some being of regular crystalline form and others of irregular shape. The best of all, though, should be large, heavy, capable of bearing blows, regular in shape, able to scratch a metal surface, refractive and brilliant.
The Taoist adept Ko Hung (fourth century A.D.) has the following notice on the diamond: "The kingdom of Fu-nan (Cambodja) produces diamonds which are capable of cutting jade. In their appearance they resemble fluor-spar. They grow on stones like stalactites on the bottom of the sea to the depth of a thousand feet. Men dive in search for the stones, and ascend at the close of a day. The diamond when struck by an iron hammer is not damaged; the latter, on the contrary, will be spoiled. If, however, a blow is dealt at the diamond by means of a ram's horn, it will at once be dissolved, and break like ice."
This motif, diamonds being fished from the ocean, is an old Indian fable. It turns up again in the Supparaka-jataka, which is also in the Pali collection of Buddha's birth-stories. Laufer recounts it: "According to this legend, the diamonds are to be found in the Khuramala Sea. The Bodhisatva was aboard a ship, acting as skipper for a party of merchants. He reflected that if he told them this was a diamond sea, they would sink the ship in their greed by collecting the diamonds. So he told then nothing; but having brought the ship to, he got a rope, and lowered a net as if to catch fish. With this he brought in a haul of diamonds, and stored them in the ship; then he caused the wares of little value to be cast overboard."
Hindu mineralogists entertained the notion that the diamond floated on the water; and there is a fabulous account of a diamond of marine origin in the Tsa pao tsang king, translated from Sanskrit into Chinese in AD 472: a merchant from southern India, an expert on pearls, traversed several kingdoms and everywhere he went, he showed a pearl of great price. No one could recognize the specific qualities of this jewel . . . till at last the merchant met Buddha, who said, "This wishing-jewel (cintamani) originates from the huge fish makara, whose body is two hundred and eighty thousand li (Chinese leagues) long. The name of this gem is 'hard like the diamond' (kin-kang kien, a Chinese rendering of Sanskrit vajrasara, an attribute of the diamond). It has the property of producing at once precious objects, clothing, and food, and securing everything according one's wish. He who obtains this gem cannot be hurt by poison, or be burnt by fire." (Text, again, by Berthold Laufer.)
Dioscorides of the first century A.D. observed on the diamond, "It is one of the properties of the diamond to break the stones against which it is brought into contact and pressed. It acts alike on all bodies of the nature of stone, with the exception of lead. Lead attacks and subdues it. While it resists fire and iron, it allows itself to be broken by lead, and this is the expedient employed to pulverize it."
Pliny says that the diamond is tested on the anvil, and is found true when struck with a hammer; the hammer rebounds, the anvil splits, the diamond is unmarred. This of course is pure parable. Hit a diamond with a hammer, and you have diamond splinters - something which used to be done regularly in the diamond-mines of India, and was observed by Tavernier. Pseudo-Aristotle's lapidarium reports that the diamond cannot be overpowered by any other stone save lead, but lead pulverizes it. This is a direct quote of Dioscorides. In a Syriac/Arabic treatise on alchemy (translated by R Duval, and dated around the tenth century AD), it is also written that lead makes the diamond suffer.
Now, lead is not harder than diamond, nor did anyone ever think it was. The meaning becomes clear when other references are assembled.
Muhammed Ibn Mansur, who wrote a treatise on mineralogy in Persian during the thirteenth century, said regarding this point, "On the anvil, the diamond is not broken under the hammer, but rather penetrates into the anvil. In order to break the diamond, it is placed between lead, the latter being struck with a mallet, whereupon the stone is broken. Others, instead of using lead, envelop the diamond in resin or wax."
An Armenian lapidarium of the seventeenth century is also explicit on the matter: "The diamond is bruised by means of lead in the following manner: lead is hammered out into a foil, on which the diamond is put; and when completely wrapped up with it, it is placed on an iron anvil, the lead being struck with an iron hammer. The diamond crumbles into pieces from these blows, but remains in the leaden foil, and is not dispersed into various directions, as it is prevented from so doing by the ductility of the lead. Released from the latter, the broken diamond is fit for work. In want of lead, the diamond is covered with wax and wrapped up in twelve layers of paper, whereupon it is smashed by hammer-blows. In order to secure it in pure condition and without loss, the whole mass is flung into boiling water, causing the wax to melt, the paper to float on the surface of the water, and the diamond-splinters to sink to the bottom of the vessel. Then it is pounded in a steel mortar and is at once ready for industrial purposes. With this pounded diamond (diamond-dust) the jewellers polish good and coarse diamonds."
The pounded diamonds were being used as tools, not jewels. They got their value from their hardness, not their beauty. They were industrial material.
The same viewpoint is illustrated by the following (Mines and Minerals, vol. XXIII, p. 552; this is an anonymous commentator on Chinese diamond-digging, circa 1903): "The Chinese procure the diamonds by the following method: After the summer rains which, according to them, produce diamonds on the surface of the soil, whence the uselessness of digging to find them, they walk back and forth over the sand of the torrents. The fragments of diamonds, on account of their sharp points and edges, penetrate the rye straw of their sabots to the exclusion of other gravel. When they think there is a sufficient quantity they make a pile of the sabots and burn them. The ashes are afterwards passed through a sieve to separate the diamonds. Those which we saw were small, varying from the size of a grain of millet to that of a hemp seed. They are generally of a light-yellow color like those of the Cape, though there are some perfectly white. When they find them of sufficient size they break them, as they told us, in order to make drill points, for, not knowing how to cut them, the Chinese in general do not consider them as precious stones. They prefer the jade, the amethyst, the carnelian, and the agate. Only the rich Chinese of the ports and of Peking have bought cut diamonds, imported from India or Europe, to ornament their hats or their rings, since the Dutch first brought them into China in the sixteenth century. The Shan-tung collectors sell them throughout China, and their trade is of considerable importance."
The practical object in the use of lead is here clearly indicated; but what appears in this work of recent date as a merely technical process was in its origin a superstitious act, as is explained by Tifashi, who wrote toward the middle of the thirteenth century. According to this author (and to Pliny before him) the diamond is a golden stone; and in the same manner as gold is affected by lead, lead is able to pulverize the diamond.
Thus also, psuedo-Aristotle has the diamond " boring " all kinds of stones and pearls, and Qazwini styles it a "borer"; one Chinese commentator names the stone tsuan, "awl". And this takes us straight back to the Arabic stories of Sindbad the Sailor, from the ninth century AD. Sindbad tells, "Walking along the valley I found that its soil was of diamond, the stone wherewith they pierce jewels and precious stones and porcelain and onyx, for that it is a hard dense stone, whereon neither iron nor steel has effect, neither can we cut off aught therefrom nor break it, save by means of the load-stone."
The kun-wu blade
Laufer writes: "In the book going under the name of the alleged philosopher Lie-tse, which in the text now before us is hardly earlier than the Han period, we read the following story: "When King Mu of the Chou Dynasty (1OO1-945 B.C.) was on an expedition against the Western Jung, the latter presented him with a sword of kun-wu and with fire-proof cloth (asbestos). The sword was one foot and eight inches in length, was forged from steel, and had a red blade; when handled, it would cut hard stone (jade) as though it were merely clayish earth." The object of these notes is to discuss the nature of the substance kun-wu. Asbestine stuffs were received by the Chinese from the Roman Orient, and likewise the curious tales connected with them. If asbestos came from that direction, our first impression in the matter is that also the substance kun-wu appears to have been derived from the same quarter; and this supposition will be proved correct by a study of Chinese traditions." ... he goes on to deduce that the red blade which cuts jade is no weapon, but a tool. It is a gem-cutting edge of diamond bits enclosed in soft reddish copper.
"The kun-wu sword of Lie-tse has repeatedly tried the ingenuity of sinologues. HIRTH, who accepted the text at its surface value, regarded this sword as the oldest example in Chinese records of a weapon made from iron or steel; and while the passage could not be regarded as testimony for the antiquity of the sword-industry in China, it seems to him to reflect the legendary views of that epoch and to hint at the fact that the forging of swords in the iron-producing regions of the north-west of China was originally invested in the hands of the Huns. Thus Hirth finally arrived at the conclusion that the kun-wu sword may actually mean "sword of the Huns." FABER, the first translator of Lie-tse, regarded it as a Damascus blade; and FORKE accepted this view. F. PORTER SMITH was the first to speak of a kun-wu stone, intimating that "extraordinary stories are told of a stone called kun-wu, large enough to be made into a knife, very brilliant, and able to cut gems with ease." He also grouped this stone correctly with the diamond, but did not cope with the problem involved.
"The Shi chou ki ("Records of Ten Insular Realms"), a fantastic description of foreign lands, attributed to the Taoist adept Tung-fang So, who was born in 168 B.C., has the following story: " On the Floating Island (Liu chou) which is situated in the Western Ocean is gathered a quantity of stones called kun-wu. When fused, this stone turns into iron, from which are made cutting-instruments brilliant and reflecting light like crystal, capable of cutting through objects of hard stone (jade) as though they were merely clayish earth."
"Li Shi-chen, in his Pen ts'ao kang mu, quotes the same story in his notice of the diamond, and winds up with the explanation that the kun-wu stone is the largest of diamonds. The text of the Shi chou ki, as quoted by him, offers an important variant. According to his reading, kun-wu stones occur in the Floating Sand (Liu-sha) of the Western Ocean. The latter term, as already shown, in the Chinese were familiar with the diamond. To Chao ju-kua of the Sung period, India was known as a diamond-producing country, though what he relates about the stone is copied from the text of Pao-p'u-tse, quoted above.""
Laufer also writes: "It is somewhat surprising that the Chinese were not acquainted with the diamonds of Borneo; at least in none of their documents touching their relations with the island is any mention made of the diamonds found there. sources, however, bear on the question as to when these mines were opened, or when the first diamonds were discovered, and whether this was done by natives or Europeans. As nearly as I can make out, Borneo diamonds were known in the European market in the latter part of the seventeenth century. In a small anonymous book entitled The History of Jewels, and of the Principal Riches of the East and West, taken from a Relation of Divers of the most Famous Travellers of Our Age (London, 1671, printed by T. N. for Hobart Kemp, at the Sign of the Ship in the Upper Walk of the New Exchange) I find the following: " Let me therefore tell you, that none has been yet able in all the world to discover more than five places, from whence the diamond is brought, viz., two rivers and three mines. The first of the two rivers is in the Isle Borneo, under the equator, on the east of the Chersonesus of Gold, and is calls Succadan. The stones fetched from thence are usually clear and of a good water, and almost all bright and brisk, whereof no other reason can be given, but that they are found at the bottom of a river amongst sand which is pure, and has no mixture, or tincture of other earth, as in other places. These stones are not discovered till after the waters which fall like huge torrents from the mountains, are all passed, and men have much to do to attain them, since few persons go to traffic in this isle; and forasmuch as the inhabitants do fall upon strangers who come ashore, unless it be by a particular favor. Besides that, the Queen does rarely permit any to transport them; and so soon as ever any one hath found one of them they are obliged to bring it to her. Yet for all that they pass up and down, and now and then the Hollanders buy them in Batavia. Some few are found there, but the largest do not exceed five carats, although in the year 1648, there was one to be sold in Batavia of 22 carats. I have made mention of the Queen of Borneo, and not of the King, because that the isle is always commanded by a woman, for that people, who will have no prince but what is legitimate, would not be otherwise assured of the birth of males, but can not doubt of those of the females, who are necessarily of the blood royal on their mother's side, she never marrying, yet having always the command."