From the Archives: Kimberley Diamond Sorter

Today marks the first biweekly post highlighting archival images from the National Museum of African Art’s Eliot Elisofon Archives. The archives houses over 300,000 fantastic images chronicling many aspects of life from across the entire continent of Africa over the last 120 years.

Every other week, this blog will highlight one image from the Archives’ vast holdings that ties directly to the works in Earth Matters. Selections are intended to broaden and enrich our understandings of the exhibition – and spark discussions about all the many ways that the Earth matters.

Here is today’s selection:

Constance Stuart LarrabeeKimberley Diamond Sorter (1948), Constance Stuart Larabee (1914-2000), Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, EEPA 1998-062176

A few days ago, this blog highlighted contemporary news stories discussing Africa’s recent economic boom which has affected many African nations and is driven by the continent’s wealth of natural resources. The treasure trove of resources lying just below the African landscape, however, has long been known. Indeed, they fueled the Industrial Revolution.  The diamond mines at Kimberley in South Africa’s Northern Cape Province (which gave rise to the DeBeers Company), are a potent example.

The “Big Hole,” as the largest of these mines is colloquially known, is the site of the richest diamond deposit ever discovered. Its massive size (today, abandoned, it covers about 42 acres) and once seemingly unending riches captivated the world’s imagination – a phenomenon revealed in the Earth Matters exhibition with two historic stereographs from c.1930 (see below!).  This mine drew prospectors hoping to strike it rich from around the world. Active from the early 1870s until De Beers closed the mines in 1917, today the site of Kimberley mines hosts a DeBeers museum.  It has also been added to the list of Tentative World UNESCO Heritage Sites.


Two visitors look at photos from the Kimberley mines through stereoscope viewers at the opening of Earth Matters – Credit: Glenn Virgin Photography

In a related photo from the Archives, Kimberley Diamond Sorter (1948) [above], renowned photographer Constance Stuart Larrabee (1914-2000) has captured a diamond sorter for the DeBeers Company. He wears a specialty magnifying glass over his eyes in order to see the imperfections in the piles of uncut diamonds in front of him. Next, the sorter would have grouped the uncut diamonds into different grades before cutting them into the form with which we are more familiar as sold on the market. The man is framed by the doors to one of the safes used to keep diamonds after-hours, hinting at the enormity of the operation at Kimberley.

There is no doubt that Africa has enormous resources at its disposable – Earth Matters highlights some of those resources, but also asks deeper questions: How do we use those resources responsibly? Where do the minerals in our jewelry, our computers, our cell phones, come from? Who dug them out of the ground, and at what cost? Who benefits (and who doesn’t) from this global tug-of-war over Earth’s resources?

What do you think? Voice your opinion in the comments, and make sure to visit Earth Matters in person, and get involved in the conversation.


One thought on “From the Archives: Kimberley Diamond Sorter

  1. Pingback: From the Archives: Photography’s role in shaping African identity | Earth Matters

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