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Diamond Portraits: Erasmus Stephanus Jacobs

Diamond Portraits: Erasmus Stephanus Jacobs

The young teen who stepped out of his house one morning in 1860s never imagined that he would make a discovery that day that would forever change the course of history of the diamond industry, South Africa, and even the aspirations of brides around the world. His discovery would lead to a Eureka!.

Not much is known about Erasmus Stephanus Christoffel Jacobs. According to most accounts, he was born in 1851, which would have made him 15-years-old in 1866. Family decedents state his birthday as July, 20, 1853, which would have made him 13-years-old on that fateful day. We do know that he was born in Hopetown, South Africa to a family of Boer farmers living on the Orange River in Northern Cape, South Africa.

South African historian, Mr. Beet met Jacobs, who recounted the events of that day. His father, Willem Schalk Jacobs, wanted to fix a clogged water pipe and asked him to find a stick to help clear it. He went looking for a stick on the banks of the nearby Orange River and decide to take a short break and rest by the water after he found his stick. While there, he noticed a clear blue-white stone that sparkled, or as he described it, it “blinked” at him. He picked up the stone, played with it for a while and later gave it to his sister to play with. At one point, their mother gave the shiny stone to their neighbors, probably as a small present for their kids. Their neighbor, Shalk van Niekerk, was a farmer who collected gems as a hobby. After examining the stone, he suspected it had some value and offered to buy it from her. Mrs. Jacobs, according to the story, laughed at the idea and simply gave it to him.

At the time, diamonds were previously mined only in India and then in Brazil. Compared to today’s volume of diamond production, the quantity of diamonds that were mined in those two countries over the years was very small, and few people ever saw diamonds at that point. A few months after Jacobs found the diamond, Shalk van Niekerk offered the stone to John O’Reilly, a travelling salesman.

According to Dr. James Shigley , Shalk van Niekerk showed the stone to a civil commissioner in Colesberg, Lorenzo Boyes. When he examined the stone, he discovered that it could scratch glass. He then sent it to Dr. W.G. Atherstone, a physician and amateur geologist residing in Grahamstown who, based on its physical properties, pronounced it to be a diamond weighing 21.25 carats.

The stone changed hands a number of times. An early buyer was Sir Phillip Wodehouse, the governor of the Cape Colony, who purchased it for £500. This stone that young Jacobs found was later to be named Eureka, ancient Greek for “I found it” and the famous call made by Archimedes upon discovering the principle of volume displacement.

After Sir Phillip Wodehouse confirmed that the pebble was indeed a diamond, the news of the find started to spread. It was first met with doubt, but farmers in the region began looking for for “blink klippe” (bright stones). In 1869, another large find was made. The Star of South Africa, an 83.5 carat rough diamond, was discovered, triggering the first diamond rush.

Today most diamonds are mined at primary sources – the sight where they were brought to the surface by geological eruptions. The diamond found by Jacobs was likely carried from a primary resource by water erosion down the Orange River, making the initial and following diamond finds alluvial resources. It is possible that others encountered diamonds along the river before Jacobs did, not realizing what they were.

Finding the Eureka brought fame to Erasmus Jacobs. The diamond was displayed at the 1867 Paris Exhibition, and taken to Windsor to show to Queen Victoria. It remained in the United Kingdom in private hands. In 1946, the Eureka was auctioned at Christie’s in London set in a bangle. The winning bid was £5,700. Twenty one years later, 100 years after the diamond's discovery, De Beers purchased the diamond and donated it to the South African people. It was placed in the Kimberley Mine Museum, where it continues to be on display.

The discovery brought great riches to many people in the 150 years since it was found since and Erasmus Stephanus Jacobs saw some of it himself. According to the family, his father was paid for the stone, however it is not clear by whom or how much. They do know that with the money he received, Jacobs’ father bought five farms. Jacobs died on May 5, 1920, leaving behind a world-class story, nine children, and many grandchildren. 

The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity. No one should act upon any opinion or information in this website without consulting a professional qualified adviser. 

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