The Diamonds Out of Space: Aerolite Gems

Diamond from the sky

A noted German savant is quoted as saying that all diamonds found on the earth came from the moon, imbedded in aerolites. There must be some mistake about that. He evidently meant moonstones. Daily Inter Ocean [Chicago, IL] 16 April 1893: p. 28 

Since it is time for the Perseid meteor shower light show, it is a chance for me to pretend to be erudite about aerolites. Meteors were a matter of great fascination to the press of the past. There were stories of meteors striking ships, homes, horses, men and aeroplanes. (See my previous look at killer meteors and the many times and places the noted stockman David Misenthaler was axed by an aerolite.) There were tales of men who watched meteors fall and calculated their landing place or who saw the cosmic visitors fall right at their feet. Reporters told breathlessly of the whistling noises, the showers of sparks, and the red-hot masses buried in farmers’ fields. Papers reported on the fabulous prices received by meteor finders. But meteors proved to have an even more lucrative facet. 

Perhaps all of you already knew that it was once believed that diamonds came whizzing out of space in aerolites that buried themselves in the earth.  It was news to me and it is an unaccountably enchanting image, like cracking open a geode to reveal a starry universe within. Here are some notes on the gems that fell to earth. 

These are the basic “facts” about meteor diamonds, widely disseminated in the 19th-  and early 20th-century papers.

 DIAMONDS FROM THE SKY

Singular Discovery Resulting From the Study of a Meteoric Stone.

New York Sun.

Since the time of the German philosopher, Ernst Florens Friedrich Chladni, who was born in Wittenberg, in 1756, scientists in all parts of the globe have made a study of meteoric stones. Their fall, their origin, and composition have been subjects of the closest examination, but it has always been found that the stones, no matter how complex their external or internal appearance, were of the same composition, being made up of rocky substance and metallic iron. These two elements varied considerably in proportion one to the other, so that some of the aerolites appeared to be almost entirely stony, others almost entirely metallic, and others again to contain nearly equal proportions of the metallic and stony ingredients.

This similarity in the meteorites lessened the interest of scientists in this direction, and it was not until the latter part of 1886, that it was reawakened by the falling of a peculiar stone in Siberia. September 4, in that year a meteoric stone weighing about four pounds fell at Novy Urej, Krasnoslobodsk, in the government of Penza, Siberia. M.M. Jorelfeif and Latchnioff, [M. Jerofejev and P. Lachinov, the papers had difficulty with Russian transliteration.] two gentlemen of that country who were versed in this branch of science, secured it, and in it found what they supposed to be diamonds of microscopic size.

They caused the fact of their discovery to be published abroad and in a short time the whole scientific world was agog over the wonderful event. Letters came from all parts of the globe asking for fragments of the meteorite and pictures of the stone. Anybody who had any interest in mineralogy was anxious to secure a specimen of the phenomenon and study it at his leisure.

M.M. Jorelfeif and latchinoff were slow in parting with even the smallest chip of the stone, and it was not until a few weeks ago that a piece reached this country. It came to Mr. George F. Kunz, of Tiffany & Co. The specimen weighed exactly four grains, just one five-hundredth part of the stone, and, because of its minuteness, it was feared that the quality of the meteorite could not be ascertained. The fragment, however, was divided into sections and a small piece subjected to a thorough examination through a strong microscope. Only some grains of olivine or peridot were discovered in this inspection.

Mr. Kunz then took the small pieces of the meteorite and boiled them in hydrochloric, sulphuric, and then in nitro-muriatic acids. His cooking process had the effect of removing all the magnetic and native iron, leaving only the skeletons of olivine, to which, it was discovered, clung small bright black particles, one of which was elongated and rounded. The correct forms, however, could not be definitely determined; they appeared to be two joined cubes with rounded ends.

On crushing one of these mysterious looking objects with a sapphire the surface of the gem was deeply scratched, a fact which at once gave evidence that there was some diamondiferous quality in the stone. Mr. Kunz took from his gem cabinet several highly polished sapphires, and with each of the particles found clinging to the olivine made several minutes, but deep scratches on the faces of the gems. There is only one mineral that can scratch the polished surface of a sapphire, and that is a diamond. Mr. Kunz, therefore, at once decided that the particles in the stone were diamonds, or a new mineral having all the qualities of the diamond. They may possibly be the amorphous form of the diamond known as the carbon or carbonado, so minute are they; but because of their great scratching power, it is believed there is no doubt of their being genuine. The establishment of these facts is of special interest to the scientific world, since some of the most eminent scientists have scoffed at the idea of precious stones ever being found in meteorites.

Professor Fletcher, curators of the mineralogical department to the British Museum, a few years ago, secured a meteorite which was found in the subdistrict of Youndegin, Australia. It was of a substance entirely different from any ever found before, and he examined it most thoroughly through a one-quarter-inch objective. From its structure the professor concluded that while it was different from native graphite, the sharpness, separateness and completeness of the crystals, the brightness of the faces, the delicacy of the acicular projections, and especially of the obtuse, almost flat, square pyramids, were quite sufficient to prove that the form had never been any other than that in which it was found; in other words, that it was not a pseudomorph. He called it the Cliftonite.

In a paper read before the Mineralogical Society of England, January 15, 1887, Professor Fletcher says that the stone he found was probably of the same nature as that of M.M. Jorelfeif and Latchinoff, only that the gems were not completed. He argued that during a hurried crystallization of the carbon, circumstances initially favorable to the formation of the diamond had finally permitted the existence in his stone of carbon in a graphite form only.

The discovery of diamonds coming from the worlds above us is another of the many mysterious things that will probably never be explained. How is such a mineral formed, and whence come the small particles which the experts have pronounced as diamonds. The little white stone, as everybody knows, is found buried deep in the ground. A suggestion might be offered that a particle of the “blue” or diamondiferous earth was throw up in the air, and forming into a stone by reason of its journey through the different changes of atmosphere, fell to the earth again in the form found by M.M. Jorelfeif and Latchinoff. This may be one explanation of the phenomena, but it is a weak one, as it is hardly possible that the passage through the air could work such a remarkable change in the appearance of the natural mineral. However whether the mystery is ever made clear or not, it is known that the stone fell and contained diamonds. This fact alone will never cease to be regarded as one of the most wonderful occurrence in the scientific world. Cleveland [OH] Leader 8 April 1888: p. 11 

This article even suggests that you can see on the surface of South African soil the burnt traces of the meteor track as it buried its precious cargo. The explanation for played-out Brazilian mines is also ingenious.

 Investigations made some 15 years ago tended to support the conviction that the diamond might be of cosmic origin. Later, in the year 1887, an English mining expert contributed to current literature some notes in which he showed that the mother-stone of the diamonds in South Africa bore a remarkable resemblance to certain meteorites, of which had had the opportunity of making a close examination. Finally in a black meteoric stone which fell at Now, Russia, and a piece of which is preserved in the Vienna Natural History Museum, there were found small crystal diamonds representing one percent of the size of the stone. But the really useful commercial diamonds is only found in a zone running through Southern Asia, South Africa, and South America, where the conditions of the surrounding earth often seem to confirm the aerolite theory. In Africa the majority of the diamonds are found at a good depth below the surface, and the burned track of the meteorite may frequently be traced in the soft soil. On the other hand, particularly in  Brazil, mines are heard of which have become completely exhausted after a short working, pointing to the probable circumstance that the diamond-carrying meteors have, in this case been of comparatively of small size, or have fallen on extremely hard rocks, on which they have at once been dashed to pieces. Nelson [New Zealand] Evening Mail 1 December 1892: p. 3 

Sky-born gems were reported from the past and the present. 

Diamonds In the Meteors

Professor Berthelot has pointed out that in the writings of Avicenna there is mention of a metallic aerolite which fell in Dorjan, in central Asia, in the eleventh century which could neither be broken nor worked up into arms or tools. One of the blocks of native iron found at Ovijak, in Greneland, in 1870, is so hard that it can neither be scratched nor cut, and Professor Nordenskjold suggests that this may be due to the presence of black diamonds disseminated through the iron. Idaho Statesman [Boise, ID] 28 October 1894: p. 5 

Aerolite Resembles Diamonds

An aerolite recently fell as a ball of fire in Candor, N.Y., and penetrated the earth six feet. Steam poured from the hole in volumes. The aerolite is in the shape of a ball. It weighs 2 pounds and 14 ounces and measures 1 foot and 8 inches in circumference. It is composed of white and yellow stones, varying in size. All of the stones are square, with a smooth surface and as clearly cut as if made by a workman. They are of various colors and resemble diamonds. Kalamazoo [MI] Gazette 12 November 1897: p. 7 

It is a fact that not many years ago a piece of an aerolite fell, down in the Canada del Diablo, in Arizona, and in it there was a little cavity lined with microscopic blank diamonds. The way they came to find them was that the circular disk they were trying to slice off a cross section with, broke, and they were obliged to break open the aerolite, and when they cracked it open there was a little cavity lined with diamonds, and it was those little microscopic crystals which had broken the steel.

“Now, whether those stones existed in the aerolite when it left its mysterious starry home, or whether they were formed by the excessive friction and changed conditions it encountered after it entered our atmosphere, of course no man knows, but I incline to the opinion they were already there when the stone started on its long journey through space. Of course we have actually seen diamonds manufactured by science, but this was accomplished by such extraordinary processes that the minute crystals resulting cost altogether too much to be made an article on commerce. – Prof. George Davidson. The Independent [Honolulu, HI] 20 March 1899: p. 4

 The cosmic origin story was still being repeated in 1908.

 NEW DIAMOND RULE

That diamonds are born in the interstellar spaces, and that, fused in the mass of vast meteorites, they crashed down upon the semi-plastic earth ages ago, is the theory recently advanced in two Russian savants, Latschmof and Jerolef. [Once again, M. Jerofejev and P. Lachinov] This hypothesis, it is said, has also found a supporter in Sir William Crookes, the great English scientist.

The production of diamonds has been proved to be dependent upon their chemical components being simultaneously subjected to incalculable pressure and tremendous heat. When the cooling takes place under this great pressure these precious stones are the result. Only nature, however, has thus far been able successfully to exert these conditions. Meteorites which, though of large bulk are tiny compared to those of ages past, have been found to contain particles having all the characteristics of diamonds. That is, briefly, the basis of the theory advanced by the Russian scientists. They say that millions of years ago immense aerolites dashed against the terrestrial crust and penetrated it to a considerable depth. The crystalized carbon which they contained was finally disseminated and formed the diamond fields of South Africa for example.

But the major part of the work of making diamonds was done, according to the Russian view, when the stupendous molten masses, hurled through millions of miles of space, went smashing into the earth.

At any rate there are still plenty of diamonds for those who have the price, and whether they erupted from the center of the earth or traveled a thousand years from some cold place among the far-off stars isn’t likely to make a pin’s difference in their cost. New York Press. Evening Post [Charleston, SC] 28 December 1908: p. 5 

It was entertaining to find two pieces of fiction, one based on a film screenplay, about family fortunes being changed by meteorite diamonds.

The screenplay story was “The Diamond from the Sky” by Roy L. McCardell. There were stills from the “photoplay,” so I assume the movie was a reality. The story involves a British earldom, a gypsy boy bought from his mother and raised as an heir to a fortune while the rightful heir, a girl is stolen by the gypsies. There is also an organ grinder’s monkey who steals the sky diamond and hides it in a tree, Virginia duels, knightly jousts, slurs against Honor, and, I assume, a happy ending. The synopsis alone was exhausting. Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 21 August 1915: p. 1 

The story “A Blessing From Heaven” by Marion Marshall from The Lafayette [IN] Advertiser for 13 January 1894: p. 7, tells of a poor, but devoted man who gets money for his meteor diamonds and wins the girl.  I find it interesting that the notion of cosmic diamonds was being used as a plot point, showing that the average reader would understand the concept.

There is, of course, also the aerolite jewel and its celestial casket from Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars.

A few years later, stories of aerolite diamonds were still being printed, but were about to be supplanted by off-world platinum. This glowing article  sounds like a prospectus from the syndicate with the mineral rights. “a minor planet?”

PLATINUM FROM A METEOR

AN ARIZONA REPORT VAST STORE IN HUGE AEROLITE

The biggest meteor that ever fell from the skies is believed to be buried beneath the eminence known as Coon Butte, in Arizona, and Coon Butte itself, it is asserted, was brought into existence as a result of the impact of the meteor with the earth.

All around the eminence the ground is covered with fragments of meteoric iron, embedded in which have been found many microscopic diamonds, and the belief that the main mass of the meteor contains diamonds and valuable metals led recently to the formation of a syndicate, which acquired the right of excavating the meteor under the mineral laws of the United States.

Shortly after beginning operations at Coon Butte an enormous mass of meteoric iron was located 1400 ft below the surface and reliable estimates of the size of the meteor suggest that is as really comparable to a minor planet and that it weighs at least 1,000,000,000 tons.

Samples of the meteoric body have now been subjected to expert examination, and they have yielded, in addition to a number of small diamonds, one ounce of platinum to every five tons.

One-fifth of an ounce of platinum per ton may seem a very small amount, but it is really quite a big proportion. Platinum is one of the rarest of metals, and averages only about 1 1/2dwt per ton of the ores in which it is found, or barely one-third the amount found in the Arizona meteor.

If platinum is distributed throughout the 1,000,000,000 tons of the meteor at an average proportion of one-fifth of an ounce per ton, it must contain altogether well over 5,500 tons of that valuable metal, the value of which at the present price of platinum—about £24 an ounce—is some £4,800,000,000. If such an amount of the metal could be made commercially available, there would probably be a big slump in the price, but if it became as cheap as gold, only one-sixth of its present price, it would yield the Coon Butte syndicate something like £800,000,000.

Anyhow, the syndicate has no doubt that it will succeed in recovering the whole of the meteor, and shafts are now being sunk around Coon Butte in connection with the most remarkable and what, it is hoped, will prove the most profitable mining operations ever carried out anywhere on the earth. Auckland [New Zealand] Star 16 October 1925: p. 5 

Diamonds from beyond the stars continue to make news today, as in this 2012 article about the Siberian meteor crater diamonds. 

The diamonds described are small, dark, unspectacular—for industrial use rather than jewelry. Does anyone have any stories of anyone actually wearing these cosmic diamonds? Any sky diamond artifacts in your collection? Polish with a soft cloth and send to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com.