Zn is an essential trace element, involved in many different cellular processes. A relationship between Zn, pancreatic function and diabetes was suggested almost 70 years ago. To emphasise the importance of Zn in biology, the history of Zn research in the field of diabetes along with a general description of Zn transporter families will be reviewed. The paper will then focus on the effects of Zn on pancreatic β-cell function, including insulin synthesis and secretion, Zn signalling in the pancreatic islet, the redox functions of Zn and its target genes. The recent association of two ‘Zn genes’, i.e. metallothionein (MT) and Zn transporter 8 (SLC 30A8), with type 2 diabetes at the genetic level and with insulin secretion in clinical studies offers a potential new way to identify new drug targets to modulate Zn homeostasis directly in β-cells. The action of Zn for insulin action in its target organs, as Zn signalling in other pancreatic islet cells, will be addressed. Therapeutic Zn–insulin preparations and the influence of Zn and Zn transporters in type 1 diabetes will also be discussed. An extensive review of the literature on the clinical studies using Zn supplementation in the prevention and treatment of both types of diabetes, including complications of the disease, will evaluate the overall beneficial effects of Zn supplementation on blood glucose control, suggesting that Zn might be a candidate ion for diabetes prevention and therapy. Clearly, the story of the links between Zn, pancreatic islet cells and diabetes is only now unfolding, and we are presently only at the first chapter.