If you’re looking for big diamonds, there’s one particular area where the world’s biggest diamonds come from – Southern Africa, incorporating South Africa, Botswana and Lesotho. Ever since the world’s biggest ever diamond, the Cullinan diamond, was found in South Africa in 1905, this area of Africa has continued to produce the biggest and best diamonds the world has ever seen.

Weighing a massive 3,106cts, the Cullinan diamond was gifted to King Edward VII in 1907, on behalf of the Transvaal Colony government. It was subsequently cut into 105 separate diamonds, the biggest of which is the 530ct pear cut Cullinan I, mounted in the Sovereign’s Sceptre as part of the Crown Jewels. The second biggest diamond to come from the Cullinan is the 317ct cushion cut Cullinan II, set at the front of the Imperial State Crown. Visitors to Great Britain’s Tower of London can see both these diamonds, which are on display to the public under armed guard, in the Jewel House.

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The 530ct pear-cut Cullinan I diamond set in the Sovereign’s Sceptre (left) and the 317ct cushion cut Cullinan II diamond, set in the Imperial State Crown (right). Image source: Cyril Davenport (1848 – 1941), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But, from 1905 to 2006, finding big diamonds was a rare occurrence. De Beers uncovered some large diamonds at some of their mines, like the 253.7ct Oppenheimer diamond found in Kimberley in 1964, and the 599ct Centenary diamond, found at Premier diamond mine (now Cullinan) in 1986. Occasionally, the odd large diamond would come out of Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Brazil, but these were few and far between.

In Lesotho, a relatively unknown and small diamond mine, Letšeng-la-Terae, had been owned and operated by De Beers in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. It’s remote location and extremely low carat grade (proportion of diamond carat per tonnes of rock) meant that it was economically unfeasible to mine, and it was subsequently closed for 20 years. Then, in the early-2000’s, the diamond mining industry started to see a sharp rise in prices for large diamonds.

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Situated 3,100m above sea level in Lesotho’s Maluti Mountains, Letseng-le-terae is the world’s highest elevation diamond mine. Image courtesy of Gem Diamonds

These higher prices meant that Letšeng-la-Terae was now economically viable and in 2006, De Beers sold the mine to Gem Diamonds. Significant improvements in diamond processing technology, combined with a focus on recovering big diamonds (given the new higher prices and demand) led to immediate results and in August 2006, a magnificent 603ct diamond was discovered at Letšeng-la-Terae.

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The largest Southern African diamond found in over 40 years. The 603ct Lesotho Promise was cut into 26 diamonds set in a single necklace. Image source: Graff Diamonds

At the time, this was the largest diamond discovered in Southern Africa in 40 years, and was noted as the 15th biggest diamond ever found. It was sold on auction to Graff Diamonds and its polishing partner SAFDICO in October 2006 for $12.36million. Looking back now, the discovery and sale of this diamond kick-started the most significant big diamond rush we’ve ever seen.

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The 550ct Letseng Star diamond, one of the many large, exceptional quality diamond discovered at Letseng-le-Terae. Image source: Gem Diamonds

By 2015, Letšeng-la-Terae had produced six of the 20 largest diamonds ever discovered – 478, 493, 527, 550, 601, and 603 ct diamonds. But, they were about to be over-taken by a new mine in Botswana, one that was to start shattering most known diamond records.

De Beers owns one of Botswana’s most significant diamond mines, the Orapa diamond mine. Twenty-five kilometres south of Orapa, De Beers also owned a kimberlite (the type of volcanic rock that diamonds are found in) known, rather nondescriptly, as AK6. Discovered in 1969, it was believed to be too small and of too low grade to be economic and it was never developed. In 2003, a reassessment of the resource indicated that it was potentially more lucrative than initially believed and, in 2009, it was sold to Lucara Diamonds and renamed Karowe.

In 2012, diamond mining at Karowe began, and just as was the case at Letšeng-la-Terae, it was suspected that large diamonds were present, but were not being recovered due to the destructive rock crushing processes used to extract diamonds. Using innovative technology, Lucara decided to implement X-ray transmission (XRT) techniques in 2015 at Karowe to scan for large diamonds.

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The incredible 1,109ct Lesedi-la-Rona diamond, discovered at Karowe Mine in Botswana. It is currently the world’s 4th largest rough diamond ever found. Image Source: Lucara Diamonds

And, on the 15th November 2015, history was made when a 1,109ct diamond was found at Karowe, using their brand new XRT technology. Exactly one day later, an 813ct diamond was found. The 1,109ct diamond was, at that stage, the second biggest diamond ever found, and the largest diamond found in over 100 years. Named Lesedi la Rona, it sold for $53 million, also to Graff Diamonds.

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The day after the discovery of the 1.109ct Lesedi-la-Rona, this incredible 813ct diamond, the Constellation, was found. Image source: Lucara Diamonds

Since then, Karowe has found a 1,758ct diamond, the Sewelô diamond, a partially gem quality diamond and in June 2021, it recovered a 1174ct diamond, making it the first diamond mine ever to have released three +1,000ct diamonds.

 

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Found in 2019, the 1,758ct Sewelô Diamond is a partial gem quality diamond, and was purchased by Louis Vuitton. It’s the second biggest rough diamond ever found. Image source: HB Antwerp

De Beers, having lost out on large diamonds from its previously owned mines (Letšeng-la-Terae and Karowe), was not to be outdone, and in June 2021 it announced the discovery of a massive 1,098ct gem quality diamond from its Jwaneng mine in Botswana.

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The 5th largest diamond ever found, this 1,098ct diamond was found be De Beers in June 2021. Image source:De Beers Group

The 2021 diamond hits keep on coming – on 30th July Lucara announced the discovery of a 393.5ct top white diamond, the 7th +300ct stone it has recovered from Karowe this year.

As we wrap up, you might ask “What about South Africa?”.

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This 39.3ct fancy blue diamond was found at Cullinan diamond mine and was sold to De Beers for $40million. Image source: Petra Diamonds

Don’t worry, we’re not doing too badly either. Cullinan diamond mine is known for big diamonds, and fancy blue colour diamonds, and both have been discovered this year. On 1st April, Petra Diamonds (owners of Cullinan) recovered an incredible 39.3ct blue diamond, which sold for a whopping $40 million. This discovery was followed in late July by the recovery of a 342.92ct top colour, top clarity diamond.

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A magnificent 342.92ct diamond was discovered by Petra Diamonds at their Cullinan Diamond Mine in July 2021. Image source: Petra Diamonds

Now you know where the most of the biggest and best quality diamonds in the world come from – and some of them are proudly South African. In a future article we’ll look at why South Africa, Botswana and Lesotho are so special when it comes to big diamonds. In the meantime, if you’re looking for excellent quality diamonds from South Africa at competitive prices, you’re at the right place. Katannuta Diamonds sells GIA certified diamonds and, with a strong focus on transparency and consumer education, you know you’re making the best diamond decision you can. Contact us via our website, or connect with us on Facebook or Instagram, today.