Prins & Prins: beyond the diamonds, a treasure box with gems from the past

Walking the streets of Cape Town, one cannot miss the impressive colonial architecture of the Prins & Prins diamond store. Whether you are shopping for stones, interested in how they are dug up and cut, or curious about the early days of Cape Town, this is a door you want to push!

The building where the Prins & Prins diamond store is housed today was built in 1752 as a family home. Given its size, it must have been a pretty wealthy family settling in. With Cape Town expanding with the arrival of many immigrants, artists had a hard time making a living, as their skill sets were not the most sought after. Some of them decorated mansions in exchange for board and food. Stéfan, sales and marketing manager at Prins & Prins shows us around proudly while explaining: “We bought this building that was in a terrible condition in 1980. It should have been demolished, but the demolition of this three-story mansion would have been too pricey and the government auctioned it off. It took us five years to restore and save this building, and we have found stunning art works underneath the last layer of paint!” Stefan points out to a mural. A very classic Pompeii-style painting from 1792 decorates the wall. “It was very exotic and stylish here back then to have classic Italian paintings like this”, Stefan explains passionately. Above the restored painting the indigenous yellowwood beam supports the ceiling. One of Cape Town’s most exclusive jewellery stores appears to be a true treasure box with gems from the past.

 

“The family who had this mural painted left in 1810 or so and the building was bought by a merchant who painted over the murals and used it as a trading post for the wine made by the French Huguenots. This is why it was called the Huguenots house. Afterwards it was turned into an office, a storage house and even a night club.”

As we step into a quiet patio, Stéfan takes us to another surprise that was uncovered during the restoration: a well. It had been used as a rubbish dump for years: “We had it all dug up and could investigate what people ate back then, the tools they used… This dump has turned into an open book describing the daily life of Capetonians”, Stéfan explains as he shows us the cleaner up utensils that are displayed by the well.

Stéfan now takes us down a steep staircase to reveal what most visitors come for: the underground diamond workshop and museum. Seeing skilled craftspeople working delicate jewels is precious: a woman is focused on heating up a golden ring to gently resize it; a man is looking through a large magnifying glass to mount a shiny diamond; an apprentice is working on a specific order. Silently we move on to the museum section where origins, usages, extraction processes, and ways of working these precious and semi-precious stones are explained.

 

If the Prins & Prins visit gave us a much better understanding of the diamond making process from formation to one’s finger, it made us realize that we are only touching the surface of this complex industry. A thousand-year old marketing tradition has ruled defining what a precious stone was versus a semi-precious (do you actually know the difference?), what colour a sapphire, an emerald or a ruby  should be (when the colour of a stone changes based on the chemical mix at the time of formation), etc. Push the door of Prins & Prins and explore this mineral treasure!

Claire & Marcella

Travel tips:

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