We present the first of two articles on the small volume fraction limit of a nonlocal Cahn–Hilliard functional introduced to model microphase separation of diblock copolymers. Here we focus attention on the sharp-interface version of the functional and consider a limit in which the volume fraction tends to zero but the number of minority phases (called particles) remains $O(1)$. Using the language of $\Gamma$-convergence, we focus on two levels of this convergence and derive first- and second-order effective energies, whose energy landscapes are simpler and more transparent. These limiting energies are only finite on weighted sums of delta functions, corresponding to the concentration of mass into "point particles." At the highest level, the effective energy is entirely local and contains information about the structure of each particle but no information about their spatial distribution. At the next level we encounter a Coulomb-like interaction between the particles, which is responsible for the pattern formation. We present the results here in both three and two dimensions.