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Complicating Carbon: The not-so-simple world of diamonds

By Sonja Sanders

I’m curious about how jewellery merchants of long ago could buy diamonds and know for certain they were purchasing the ‘real thing’ and not another variety of cut, colourless gemstone. How often did they worry about that?

In the 1400s, the wealthy of Europe would wear diamonds brought back from India by merchants with caravans filled with interesting and exotic items, sometimes acquired over years of travelling. These days, people can fly to a vacation destination and return home a week later with beautiful diamond jewellery. Sure, acquiring these stones has become simpler, but our concerns surrounding diamonds moved away from the ‘simple’ some time ago.

I was a little girl when I first heard a jewellery store clerk say to a customer, “If a stone can cut glass, it’s a diamond.” Do we put faith in that test? The notion remains instilled in many. Recently, a client approached me and asked if I would test her diamond; before I could reply, another customer interjected with, “If it cuts glass, it’s a diamond.” I couldn’t believe what I’d heard.

As it turns out, the customer who was asking me about her diamond was actually wondering if the stone was natural or synthetic.

Making sparkly waves

Maybe I’m making assumptions, but the diamond industry of yesterday seems much simpler than how it exists in the modern era.

In the 1500s, jewellery makers didn’t have a lot of choice in diamond cutting styles; most stones were either table-cut, with a flat top and a few facets, or a rose-cut, with the flat bottom and a dome of facets.

By the 1700s, the cutting techniques used for gems and diamonds had become more advanced, but the finished products were still far from the expertise we have come to expect today. As these techniques evolved through the Victorian era, the industry saw the introduction of step cuts, old mine cuts, and old European cuts (the latter of which preceded the modern brilliant cut). Machinery was progressing at a rapid rate, which allowed gem- and diamond-cutters to develop more refined skills.

Synthetic diamond screeners can be used by retailers, manufacturers, and appraisers to identify lab-grown diamonds. <br /> <span style="font-size: 10pt; font-family: arial, helvetica, sans-serif;"><i>Photos courtesy Jewellery by Sanders</i></span>
Synthetic diamond screeners can be used by retailers, manufacturers, and appraisers to identify lab-grown diamonds.
Photos courtesy Jewellery by Sanders

Entering the 1900s, the cut of a diamond became more important. Designers began creating platinum-set luxury jewellery for the elite; the royalty of the Edwardian era appreciated the high fashion of the time and enjoyed showing their wealth. As more and more homes became fitted with electricity and lighting features, socialite ladies were excited to show off their diamonds in complimentary light—and, of course, sparkly diamonds attracted plenty of attention. In 1919, Marcel Tolkowsky’s development of the round, brilliant-cut diamond—with specifics for the placement of facets, their angles, and the ideal depth of the stone—was good timing.

By the 1930s, the use of platinum had slowed and white gold increased in popularity. Married women were encouraged to sport a wedding set, complete with both an engagement ring and a wedding band, and pretty soon the industry was selling more diamonds than ever before.

Quality assurance

Behind the scenes, the 1800s saw the introduction of an industry-established grading system that determine diamond quality using grades like A, B, and C. However, this system soon allowed classifications such as ‘double A’ and ‘triple A,’ which, even regionally, made grading confusing and inconsistent.

This was remedied in 1919, when Robert M. Shipley, the founder of the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), made it his mission to academically and scientifically develop a grading system for diamonds that would bring integrity to the industry and establish good faith with the public. In the decades that followed, a diamond grading system was developed and internationally accepted in countries across the globe. Education in diamonds and the world of gemstones at large was becoming a must to the various tiers of the jewellery industry.

Of course, GIA is not the only institute or association that promotes the ongoing education of gemmologists and jewellers, and we are so very thankful to them all. Dealing in diamonds is in no way simple; in the years that I have worked in jewellery and gemmology, I have seen how much of a challenge it is to remain on top of new developments, which have only become more complex with today’s rapid automation.

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