Every country that hosts the World Cup brings a unique flavor to the world’s most popular sporting event. This year, one reason why there’s so much buzz about the World Cup is its location in Brazil—the land of sun, samba, and soccer.
But from a jewelry standpoint, there’s an interesting similarity between South Africa, the host of the World Cup in 2010, and this year’s host country, Brazil. South Africa has long been an important diamond producer. Brazil, likewise, played a major role in the history of diamonds.
Brazil is not a country that people usually associate with diamonds—especially compared with South Africa, the birthplace of Debeers. But if you’re a diamond lover and a World cup fan, why not take a timeout to learn something new? Here are five key facts about Brazil and diamonds:
1. Brazil ended India’s 2000-year monopoly over the diamond trade.
Beginning in ancient times, almost all diamonds came from India. The earliest historical references to diamonds appear in Sanskrit writings from around 300 B.C. In the Middle Ages, when the monarchs of Europe wore diamonds on their crowns and scepters, those diamonds came from India.
Brazil was the country that ended India’s domination of the diamond trade. According to one story, gold miners in the state of Minais Gerais (meaning “General Mines”) began finding the shiny crystals and using them as chips in card games—not realizing what they were. Then, in 1725, a Portuguese man named Sebastião Leme do Prado recognized the stones as diamonds. How did he identify them? He had once lived in India.
2. Brazil became the world’s biggest diamond producer in the 1700s.
Brazil’s diamond mining industry so grew fast that it quickly surpassed India’s. In the late 1700s, Brazil produced between 25,000 and 50,000 carats of diamonds per year, according diamond expert Ian Smillie. That number had surged to 200,000 carats by the 1850s. The largest Brazilian diamond, a 254-carat stone called the “Star of the South,” was discovered in 1854.
What ended Brazil’s domination of the diamond trade? In 1867, a 15-year old boy in South Africa named Erasmus Jacobs discovered a 21-carat diamond known as the “Eureka” diamond. More diamonds were discovered nearby, and South Africa’s diamond industry exploded. Brazilian diamonds, meanwhile, became harder to find.
Today, diamonds come from all over the world and Brazil’s diamond production is very small—less than 0.1 percent of the value of all rough diamond production.
3. Brazil has its own blood diamond history.
Brazil’s gold and diamond mining industries brought great wealth to the country, but they depended on the injustice of slavery. Slavery had existed in Brazil since the early 1500s. However, to provide cheap labor for the mines, as well as for other activities like sugar production, Portuguese traders began importing more slaves. About 1.7 million African slaves were brought to Brazil in the 1700s.
The slaves who worked in Brazil’s diamond mines endured dangerous and oppressive conditions. Brazil’s slave trade also contributed to violence in Africa. Many of the Africans that became slaves in Brazil (as well as in the United States) had been captured in wars between African peoples.
Although Brazil’s diamond history is marred by violence and exploitation, we believe that Brazil can help build a more ethical diamond industry in the future. As part of our non-profit fund, we have funded a “development diamond” pilot program that is helping impoverished diamond miners in Brazil and Sierra Leone to earn a decent living.
3. Brazil is one of only two countries where black diamonds are found.
Brazilians in the early 1800s made made a stunning discovery in the Bahia region: they found diamonds that were black or grayish in color. Geologists do not believe that black diamonds were formed in the same way as conventional diamonds. The leading theory is that black diamonds are from outer space and that they landed on Earth as part of asteroids.
Black diamonds, also called “carbonados,” are so rare that they have been found in only two countries: Brazil and the Central African Republic. If you buy a natural black diamond, it is best if you can trace it to Brazil; the Central African Republic is now in the grips of a diamond-fueled civil war that has displaced a million people.
5. Pele’s hair has been turned into diamonds.
Last but not least comes the oddest tidbit having to with Brazil and diamonds, not to mention soccer. Pele, the Brazilian soccer star who led Brazil to three World Cup victories, has turned his hair into diamonds.
Taking advantage of the fact that it is now possible to create diamonds in a laboratory setting, souvenir-makers took strands of Pele’s hair and turned them into 1,283 diamonds. Each diamond will be sold in a gold-plated box that depicts Pele scoring a goal. The cost for a Pele diamond is about $7500.