Diamonds and pieces of eight: how Stuart England won the rough-diamond trade

India was the only known source of diamonds during the Middle Ages, and merchants of Venice and Genoa controlled their importation into Europe. But when the Portuguese discovered the sea route to India in 1497 they were able to cut the Italians out of this as well as the spice trade. Most of the jewellers in Lisbon being New Christians,1 as forcibly baptized Jews were then called, they came to be the principal buyers of unpolished or rough diamonds there. Since the king of Portugal’s factory or agency at Antwerp was the staple for pepper and other Portuguese colonial products In the six? teenth century, it also became a staple for rough diamonds.

The economic characteristics of the diamond industry are unique. Polishing large gemstones is capital intensive and polishing small stones is labour intensive. This meant that it was profitable to polish large stones close to the market, in

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