‘The Diamond Maker’ is an 1894 short story by the British science-fiction author H. G. Wells (1866-1946). In the story, a narrator tells of his encounter with a man who claimed to have made diamonds artificially. Like many of Wells’s greatest works of fiction, this is a story in which the seemingly impossible – at least by late Victorian standards – becomes possible.
First, here’s a brief summary of the story’s plot. The narrator is a man, presumably a lawyer, who works in Chancery Lane in London. One evening he is walking along the Embankment, watching the lights on the river, when a poor and shabby-looking man approaches him. The man shows the narrator a large diamond and claims that he made it himself:
The thing was not unlike an uncut diamond of the darker sort, though far too large, being almost as big as the top of my thumb. I took it, and saw it had the form of a regular octahedron, with the curved faces peculiar to the most precious of minerals. I took out my penknife and tried to scratch it – vainly. Leaning forward towards the gas-lamp, I tried the thing on my watch-glass, and scored a white line across that with the greatest ease.
He then details how he was able to create the diamonds by using explosives in his home. After one botched attempt, he succeeded in making several diamonds, which he left to cool for two years, taking a number of low-paying jobs in order to survive while he waited.
Once the diamonds were ready, however, he found it difficult to sell them. He showed one to a receiver of stolen goods, who then promptly took it without paying, knowing that the man would never prosecute him. Professional diamond-dealers won’t touch them. So the man offers to sell one to the narrator for one hundred pounds, even though he knows they are worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.
The narrator, who isn’t sure whether to believe the man’s claim that he created diamonds artificially, tells the man that he cannot buy a diamond that evening, but that if he calls at his office the next day, at a time of his choosing, he may be interested. However, the man doesn’t show up the following day, instead writing several letters to the narrator asking for money, and showing up once at the narrator’s office while the narrator is out.
‘The Diamond Maker’ ends with the narrator pondering the man’s story, and wondering whether he can really have found a way to create diamonds.
It’s possible that Wells was recalling, in ‘The Diamond Maker’, an 1880 paper by James Hannay, who claimed to have made artificial diamonds. Certainly it is possible to create synthetic diamonds: by 2006, some 600 tons of synthetic diamonds had been created in labs, twenty times the weight of real diamonds that have been mined in human history. (I am indebted to Sun Kwok’s Stardust: The Cosmic Seeds of Life for this figure.)
‘The Diamond Maker’ contains a large diamond which recalls the gigantic gems found in King Solomon’s Mines, in H. Rider Haggard’s runaway bestseller from almost a decade earlier. (Indeed, part of me wonders whether Wells’s description of the way the diamond-maker ‘turned a haggard but very composed face upon’ the narrator wasn’t a wry nod to the author of King Solomon’s Mines.) In Haggard’s novel, the large diamonds found in the treasure-cave, though presented as real, are essentially the stuff of fantasy and fairy tales (as is Ayesha in She, for that matter), but in ‘The Diamond Maker’, Wells does what credible science fiction does, and offers a plausible scientific basis for the existence of large diamonds.
But as is often the case in Wells’s fiction, all that glisters is not gold – or diamonds. Just as Griffin’s experiments with invisibility lead to nothing but trouble and eventual ostracism for him in The Invisible Man (1897), so the diamond-maker’s scientific skill cannot save him from penury, when so many people – even the more credulous narrator – are suspicious of his diamonds.