The Cullinan Diamond: A Royal Birthday Gift

Portrait of Queen Mary, from L'Illustration (France), edition no. 3713.


What does one give a King for his birthday? How about the world’s largest rough diamond ever found to that date? It happens that England’s King Edward VII, was the recipient of just that for his 66th birthday. So how did the King end up with this remarkable diamond?

Cullinan Diamond in the rough, 1908.

The story starts far away from London in January 1905 when a 3,106-carat rough diamond was discovered at the Premier Mine, near Pretoria in the Transvaal, then a British colony, in what is now South Africa. The diamond was named the Cullinan, after Thomas Cullinan, Chairperson of the Premier Mine.

The decision was made to send the diamond to England to find a buyer. An elaborate plan was put in place to transport the Cullinan Diamond. The rock was shipped to England on an armored boat complete with detectives, armed guards and much fanfare. However, it was all a ruse to throw everyone off track, the real Cullinan Diamond had been sent to a broker in England via registered mail. When the diamond didn’t sell after some time, the Transvaal government purchased the stone for £150,000, or somewhere in the area of $21 million in today’s money.

A Birthday Gift

Cullinan I – IX.

The Transvaal government then decided to gift the rock to King Edward VII of England on November 9, 1907 for his 66th birthday as a way of mending relations between the two countries that had become frayed during the second Boer war.

The Asscher Diamond Company was eventually retained to cut the diamond. Based in Amsterdam, the firm was renowned for having the most skilled diamond cutters in the world. Once again, the diamond was sent off  with great fanfare and lots of security, but this time to Amsterdam. In reality, Joseph Asscher, who headed the firm, had slipped into England undetected to pick up the stone, which he allegedly put in his pocket and then left the country with it unnoticed.

Cutting the Cullinan Diamond

Imperial State Crown with the Cullinan II Diamond.

Once the diamond was in Asscher’s possession, the real work began. It took three artisans, working 14 hours a day, eight months to polish the stones. The rough diamond yielded nine large stones, 97 smaller stones and some diamond shards. The nine largest stones were named Cullinan I – IX. The largest, the Cullinan I is pear shaped and weighed in at 530-carats and the second largest, the oval shaped Cullinan II is a hefty 317-carats. They were later renamed the Star of Africa, also known as the Great Star of Africa and the Second Star of Africa, respectively. These two gems were set in a brooch for King Edward’s wife, Queen Alexandra. King Edward eventually bought the Cullinan VI and VIII as a gift for his wife.  The two largest Cullinan Diamonds (I & II) were then put on display at the Tower of London, where the public could visit what were the world’s largest faceted diamonds at the time.

Head of the Sovereign's Scepter with Cross, showing the Cullinan I diamond.

When Edward passed away in 1910, his son George ascended the throne. In 1911, When George V was coronated as King of England, the Cullinan III and IV were set into the coronation crown  of his wife, Queen Mary. At the same time, King George V had the Cullinan I set in the Sovereign’s Scepter and the Cullinan II set into the Imperial State Crown, however, they could be remounted as a brooch. The remaining numbered Cullinan Diamonds were purchased by the South African government, which then gifted the sparklers to Queen Mary in 1910. In 1953, Queen Mary bequeathed the gems to Queen Elizabeth II. The Cullinan Diamonds three through nine were the personal property of Queen Elizabeth II and remain the personal property of the British Royal family. The Cullinan I and II diamonds are a part of the British Crown jewels and were last seen at the coronation of King Charles III in May 2023.

Featured image (top of page): Portrait of Queen Mary, from L'Illustration (France), edition no. 3713. Mary is wearing her crown, with the Koh-i-Noor diamond in the front cross, without its arches. She also wears the Cullinan I diamond suspended from Cullinan II as a brooch on her chest, 1914.

First: Cullinan Diamond in the rough, 1908. Second: Cullinan I – IX. Third: Imperial State Crown with the Cullinan II Diamond. Fourth: Head of the Sovereign's Scepter with Cross, showing the Cullinan I diamond.

Authored by Amber Michelle