The Allure of Asscher Cut Diamonds

There are a number of very enchanting antique and vintage cut diamonds that we all know and love – old miners, old Europeans, rose cuts and cushion cuts to name a few. But the most coveted and hardest to find is the Asscher cut diamond – mostly because a limited number were cut in the early 20th century before production ceased. The story of the famed Asscher cut can be traced back to the Asscher family in Amsterdam in the mid 1800s.

The company was founded by Joseph Isaac Asscher in 1854 as IJ Asscher Diamond Company. As the years progressed, Joseph Isaac’s sons – Joseph and Abraham – came into the business and changed the name of the firm to the Asscher Diamond Company. The firm became one of the most prominent diamond cutting businesses in the world. By the turn of the century and early 1900s, Amsterdam was the preeminent global diamond cutting center teeming with cutters and business. And the Asscher family was at the center of it all.

Famous Diamonds

In 1903, Abraham Asscher was tapped to cut the Excelsior Diamond, which at 995-carats was the world’s largest diamond at the time. Discovered in 1893, the diamond languished in a vault for ten years due to some legal issues. When it finally came out of the vault, the diamond was cut into 11 stones, three of which were purchased by Tiffany & Co.

A couple of years later in 1905, the Excelsior’s place as the largest diamond was usurped by the Cullinan which weighed in at an astounding 3,106-carats. The Cullinan diamond was given to King Edward VII, in 1907 as a birthday gift from South Africa’s Transvaal Colony government. King Edward sought the advice of Joseph Asscher on how to best cut the diamond. After much studying and the development of some new tools to cut the diamond, Joseph Asscher cut the rock in 1908. Nine of the polished gems were presented to King Edward and remain in the British Crown Jewels today – The Great Star of Africa and the Smaller Star of Africa were the two largest. The remaining 96 smaller stones stayed with the Asscher Diamond Company as payment for services.

The Asscher Cut Debuts

In 1902, Joseph Isaac’s grandson, also named Joseph, cut the first diamonds that would bear the family name. The Asscher cut was very different from other cuts of the era which tended to be more round and curvy. The Asscher broke with tradition and was a square, with cut corners that created an octagonal shape giving it a distinctly different look and feel from other diamond cuts that were already available. The cut was so unique that Joseph Asscher had it patented, making it the world’s first patented diamond cut.

Its square shape is not the only trait that sets the Asscher cut apart from other diamonds. It was also the extraordinary sparkle of the stone that comes from the cut corners that allow more light return in the diamond. The Asscher cut is similar to an emerald cut in that they are both step cuts, however an emerald cut is rectangular. The Asscher is distinguished by 58 facets, with a high, two-step crown and a deep pavilion. When you look straight down into the diamond from the top, you will see an “X” that is formed by equidistant converging facets, earning the cut the nickname “hall of mirrors” for the amazing light reflection in the stone.

Art Deco era jewelers were enthralled by the Asscher cut and it became one of the most important diamond cuts of the day. Its square shape was new and modern at the time and its linear architectural form was the perfect complement to the straight geometric lines of the jewelry that was being made in the 1920s and 1930s. The Asscher Diamond Company was thriving.

The End and a New Beginning

When World War II ravaged Europe, the Nazis invaded Holland, stormed Amsterdam and arrested the Asscher family and most of the few hundred employees at the company, all of whom were sent to concentration camps. At the end of the war, ten surviving members of the Asscher family returned to Amsterdam as did about 15 of their cutters. The city’s diamond industry had been gutted.

The Asscher family resolved to rebuild their business. And they did, but they stopped cutting the original Asscher. In 1980 the firm was given the Dutch Royal Predicate from Queen Juliana of the Netherlands. The company changed its name to the Royal Asscher Diamond company. A number of years later the firm introduced the Royal Asscher cut, designed by Joseph Asscher’s great grandnephews, Edward and Joop, which was based on the original cut. Sixteen more facets were added to the design for a total of 74 facets that give the diamond extra shimmer.

The firm continues to cut diamonds today with the fifth and sixth generations of the family at the helm, operating at Tolstraat 127, Amsterdam, the same building where the company started in 1854.

Featured image (top of page): Asscher Cut diamond, 1.87-carats, F/VS2, set in platinum with diamonds and natural Burmese rubies, signed Yard, circa 1935, courtesy Berganza Limited.

Authored by Amber Michelle

Emperor Maximillian’s Diamond Buttons

Have you ever wondered about a rare and exquisite antique piece of jewelry and how it came to be for sale today? All pieces of antique and vintage jewelry have a story to tell, but some stories stand the test of time better, either because the jewel is a family heirloom and the story is passed down with the piece, or because the original owner was a famous historical figure. Sometimes it’s a combination of the two.

This is the story of Emperor Maximillian (1832-1867) and his diamonds buttons that have found their way into today’s jewelry collections. Maximillian was born an Austrian Archduke. He was the second son of Archduke Franz Karl of Austria and Princess Sophie of Bavaria. As a second son, his life path was more open than that of a first born, who was destined to become the next ruler. Instead Maximillian had a very successful career as an officer in the Austrian Imperial Navy where he modernized the institution.

Maximillian Goes to Mexico

In 1859 Maximillian was approached to become the Emperor of Mexico. The country was in tatters from the Reform War and had defaulted on many debts owed internationally. It was thought that having a European ruler would help the country stabilize. Maximillian declined the offer. In order to have its debts repaid, France invaded Mexico in 1862 and a year later the French were in charge of the country. Maximillian was once again asked, by the French, to become Emperor of Mexico and this time he said yes.

He arrived in Mexico with his wife, Charlotte of Belgium in 1864. The country was still reeling from the effects of the Reform War and the dueling factions — liberals and conservatives  —continued to disagree. It’s thought that Maximillian genuinely wanted to help the poor people in the country. He made numerous changes including abolishing child labor, restricting working hours and cancelling the debts of peasants. Maximillian also supported religious freedom and voting rights for those who were not land owners.

The French left Mexico and asked Maximillian to leave with them, instead he chose to stay believing that he could actually help the people of the country. The wealthy class opposed the reforms that Maximillian instituted and he was overthrown by Benito Juarez and his followers. In 1867 he was executed.

Boston, 1981

Fast forward to Boston in 1981. A young woman starting out in the industry, Janet Levy, went on her daily visit to see her great Uncle Sydney DeYoung, the patriarch of J.&S.S. DeYoung, a company specializing in antique and vintage jewelry. When he was 89, Uncle Sydney had a series of strokes and was unable to come to the office, so he asked that any new purchases be brought to him for inspection at the Ritz-Carlton Boston where he was living after his stroke.

One day Janet went to show Uncle Sydney the company’s latest purchases and she handed him a  beautiful antique rose cut diamond ring. She was having a hard time accurately, estimating the weight of the diamond because it was very different from other diamonds that she had seen. For 70 years Uncle Sydney had kept a series of black notebooks, showing tracings of the perimeter of the diamonds he purchased in the past and also measurements of unusual shaped diamonds.  The books were used as references to help estimate the weight of rare and unusual antique shape diamonds. Janet had gone through the series of little black books and there was really nothing comparable in the books to the rose cut diamond she had.

How Uncle Sydney Got Maximillian’s Buttons  

In the early 1930s, during the great depression, one of Emperor Maximillian’s heirs inherited the collection of 76 antique rose cut diamond buttons, belonging to Emperor Maximillian. The antique diamond button collection was brought to Uncle Sydney by one of his customers from the western part of the United States.

Uncle Sydney bought the entire collection of buttons and sold them to Armand Hammer of Hammer Galleries, located on 57th street in New York.  Hammer was an art and jewelry retailer with a great imagination. He realized that many  American customers wanted to purchase items with a royal provenance.  Hammer converted the entire collection of  76 buttons into rings. He developed an advertising campaign “Own a Royal Ring” and began selling the rings in the early 1930’s and continued to sell them through 1947. A letter, dated 1931, from the Museum and Art Collections of the Late Crown Possession in Bavaria, accompanied the set of diamond buttons, confirming that they can be traced back to 1763.

All of the rose cut diamonds in the buttons are thought to be from the Golconda mine in the Northern region (modern day Hydrabad) of India, where the world’s diamonds came from prior to the mid 1800s. Diamonds from the Golconda region were generally larger and higher quality than those from other mines in the area. Additionally, the style of the diamonds indicate that they were cut in the traditional Indian way and most likely brought to Europe by one of the gem traders who went there in search of jewels for the royal and wealthy. It is most likely that at one point the diamonds in Maximillian’s buttons belonged to an Indian Maharajah. Set in silver-topped gold, each button was slightly different, but they all have rose cut diamonds.

After a long and winding journey, the first of four of Emperor Maximillian’s diamond buttons came back to J.&S.S. DeYoung in 1981. Three others have since resurfaced and each one has its fractional diamond weight inscribed in the shank — it’s not just a ring, it’s a real piece of history that’s very personal and tells the story of bygone eras. And that’s the magic of antique jewelry.

You can find Emperor Maximillian’s diamond button ring on the Jewelers Circle.

Featured video (top of page): Rose Cut diamond ring is made from a diamond button that had previously belonged to Emperor Maximillian of Mexico.

Authored by Amber Michelle

Colored Diamonds: Rarity and Value

Colored diamonds, also known as fancy colors, are among the rarest and most valuable of all gemstones and they come in an endless kaleidoscope of divine colors. According to the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), only one in every 10,000 diamonds found has a fancy color. And of those even fewer are the vibrant colors that are most desired and of course the most pricey.

Up until the middle to late 1990s colored diamonds were shunted to the side and pretty much ignored. As the 1990s progressed colored diamonds began to appear at auction and their marketing machines put these superpowered gemstones into the spotlight. People began to take notice and colored diamonds started to gain in popularity as consumers began to understand more about their beauty, value and rarity. Today, colored diamonds at auction command prices that soar to breath-taking heights. To give you an idea of just how high prices can go, the Pink Star, a 59.60-carat  vivid pink diamond sold at Sotheby’s Geneva for $71 million in 2017. The year before that, the Oppenheimer Blue, a 14.62-carat vivid blue diamond sold at Christie’s Geneva for $57.5 million.

How Diamonds Get Color

Very rare .84-carat, kite-shaped, fancy red diamond, courtesy Swissdiam New York, LLC.

Let’s take a look at how diamonds get their color.  The colors in diamonds come about through trace elements when they are forming in the ground.

  • Yellow diamonds get their color from the presence of nitrogen.
  • Blue diamonds get their color from traces of boron.
  • Green diamonds get their color from natural radiation in the earth.
  • Pink and red diamonds are a bit of a mystery. Gemologists believe that they get their blushing shades from an anomaly in the internal structure of the gem as they are forming.

Many colored diamonds have modifying undertones to the stones, which shift the color and can change the value of the gem. For example, a diamond may be graded as purplish-pink. That means that the main body color of the stone is pink, but it has purple modifiers with pink the dominant color. It will look quite a bit different than an orangey-pink, which has an orange undertone to the pink.  Sometimes the blend of colors in a colored diamond is more balanced and then it will be given a name such as blue-green. Modifying colors may also change the value of a colored diamond. The grade that a colored diamond receives from a gemological laboratory can mean a price difference of many thousands of dollars.

“The modifying undertone colors, such as brown in yellow or pink is usually not good, or gray in blue is not great, for example,” explains Rima Farah, president Swissdiam New York LLC, a firm specializing in colored diamonds with offices in New York and Geneva. “You may get some green in a yellow diamond and people will like that neon color, or you may have some green in a blue. That is attractive and may add value. Some people want that pure color of one tone, but some don’t. Most people also don’t realize that when a color is a ‘pure’ shade it’s not what you necessarily expect. There are times when an undertone can make a color muddy and we don’t want that either. A modifying color may or may not add value, it’s not a hard scientific fact.”

Colored Diamond Grading

There is some important terminology to note when you are looking at colored diamonds. There are three factors for determining color:

  • Hue, which is the dominant color of the stone.
  • Tone is whether the color is light to dark.
  • Saturation of color which can be weak to strong.
Pink and yellow diamond ring features a 1.01-carat oval pink center stone with a 1.01-carat oval intense yellow side stone and a 1.03-carat intense yellow side stone with white diamond surround, courtesy, Swissdiam New York, LLC.

Next based on those three criteria, colored diamonds are once again divided into categories:

  • Fancy and Fancy Light: These stones are paler, softer shades of a color.
  • Fancy Vivid and Fancy Intense: These are the most coveted and desired because the color in the gem is balanced.
  • Fancy Deep: These diamonds are deeper in tone, but not too saturated with color.
  • Fancy Dark: These stones tend to have a dark body color and dark tone.

“These terms only define the color,” comments Farah. “An untrained eye might not see that a light pink diamond is pink, but in a fancy pink, they can see the color. It’s a matter of taste and whether or not someone wants more color, then they will like a vivid or intense color. When the color is too strong, the diamond loses sparkle and the color becomes dull.”

The Cut Factor

Yellow and white diamond ring features a 2-carat round fancy yellow center stone with yellow and white diamond accents, set in 18-karat white gold, courtesy Swissdiam New York, LLC.

Fancy colored diamonds are often also fancy shapes (any shape other than round) because they are cut to bring out the maximum color in the stone.

“Cut has a lot of impact on a colored diamond,” says Farah. “The cut determines whether or not the color is maximized. You can take a round colored diamond which may not have much color and turn it into a radiant or other fancy shape and that will increase the color.”

Farah makes one last, but very important point about purchasing a colored diamond. She notes that when white diamonds have a particular grade many people believe that they look pretty much the same, which is why they are comfortable buying a white diamond sight unseen based on the gemological report. Colored diamonds are different because everybody perceives color differently and because there is so much variation from stone to stone due to modifying colors.

“You can have three colored diamonds with the same information on each grading report,” concludes Farah. “But the stones are not the same. To the eye they will all look different, the value cannot be described by a piece of paper. You have to see the stone in person to really see it.”

Featured image (top of page): Ring features a 3.02-carat, oval intense yellow-green center stone, with yellow and pink diamond accent stones set in 18-karat white gold, courtesy Swissdiam New York, LLC.

Authored by Amber Michelle

Harry Winston: A Diamond Legacy

Floral motif diamond and platinum necklace, converts into two bracelets, circa 1959, courtesy J&SS DeYoung.

From the red carpet to royalty Harry Winston jewels are seen sparkling on some of the world’s best known luminaries at some of the world’s most high profile events. Winston himself became quite famous due to the important diamonds and gemstones that he acquired and through his penchant for sharing his passion for diamonds and gemstones with the public.

Harry Winston was born in New York City in 1896. His father had a small jewelry shop and young Harry spent a great deal of time there. The defining moment for his future career as a purveyor of exceptional diamonds and colored gemstones happened when he was just 12 years old. Winston stopped by a pawn shop and was looking through some costume jewelry, when he saw a green stone. The pawn shop owner thought it was a piece of glass, but Winston knew better. He bought the stone for 50 cents. Two days later he sold it for $800. The piece of glass was actually an emerald.

In 1909, Winston’s family moved to Los Angeles where they opened a store. Young Winston worked there alongside his father before moving back to New York City a few years later.

Harry Winston’s First Company

When Harry Winston arrived back in New York City, in 1920, he opened his first business, the Premier Diamond Company. It was a fortuitous year for Winston, he also met his wife Edna, that same year, although they did not marry until 1933.

After opening the Premier Diamond Company, Winston realized the complexity of the diamond market and breaking into it with few resources. Known for being an astute business person, Winston made a name for himself by purchasing the estates of well-known socialites, industrialists and other notable families. These acquisitions gave Winston access to diamonds and colored gemstones that he would not have otherwise been able to acquire. He often took the jewelry apart and reused the stones in his own creations.

Harry Winston ring with 52-carat Colombian emerald, minor oil, diamonds and gold, 1970s, courtesy Paul Fisher.

Winston opened his eponymous store on Fifth Avenue, in 1932. And a couple of years later he was making headlines with the purchase of the famed Jonker Diamond, the 726-carat rough diamond was discovered in South Africa and named after the miner who found it. Winston brought the rough diamond back to New York and promptly sent it out on a press tour around the country. While on tour the uncut diamond was photographed with stars of the silver screen, Shirley Temple and Claudette Colbert. After its press tour the Jonker was finally cut, yielding 12 gems, with the largest weighing 125.35-carats.

That was the start of Winston and his connection to some of the most important diamonds in the world. Harry Winston has also been the guardian of the Vargas Diamond, Winston Diamond, Star of Independence, The Washington and perhaps most famously, the Hope Diamond.

Court of Jewels

Harry Winston and diamonds were so inextricably intertwined that in 1947 Cosmopolitan Magazine, dubbed him the “King of Diamonds”, a title that stayed with him for the rest of his life. Winston loved sharing his passion for jewels with other people and wanted to make sure that the public was informed about gemstones. He also had a passion for philanthropy, so in 1949 he created another headlining event: “The Court of Jewels” a traveling exhibition of spectacular gemstones and jewelry. The exhibition toured several cities and in each destination  money was raised for local charities. He later donated The Hope Diamond and some of the other items from “The Court of Jewels” to the Smithsonian Institution. In fact, he mailed The Hope Diamond to the museum through the United States Postal Service.

The Harry Winston Cluster

Classic cluster diamond and platinum earrings by Harry Winston, circa 1969, courtesy J&SS DeYoung.

Harry Winston is known for the use of exceptional diamonds and gemstones in its jewelry. Winston always let the stone dictate the design rather than the setting being the main focus. With that in mind, the cluster design is one of his most renowned creations and the idea came from a rather unusual source: A holly wreath.

Winston arrived home in Scarsdale one winter night and glanced at the wreath on his front door that was sparkling with snow and frost. The next day Winston went to his head designer, Nevodon Koumrouyan and together they created the now iconic “cluster” design. The Cluster which features diamonds in round, pear and marquise shapes all in one piece is designed so that the gems are angled and in perfect proportion to each other creating spectacular sparkle. The diamonds are always set in platinum so that the setting is barely visible instead emphasizing the gems so they appear to be floating. It’s a look that is closely associated with the firm.

Hollywood has come knocking on Harry Winston’s doors many times. Its sparklers have been worn in a number of films including the Alfred Hitchcock movie “Notorious”, “The Graduate” and  “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”.  And who could forget Marilyn Monroe in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”  purring the famous line – “talk to me Harry Winston” — as she sang “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”.  Winston also started the trend of loaning jewels to stars walking the red carpet for various award shows, which earned him a second nickname: Jeweler to the Stars.

Harry Winston passed away in 1978. His son, Ronald Winston took over daily operations of the business until he retired in 2014. The company was sold to Aber Diamond Mine, which later sold the company to Swatch. But Winston’s legacy of “rare jewels of the world” continues to today as a new generation of clients discover the magic of his jewelry.

Authored by Amber Michelle

The Elegance of Edwardian Jewelry

Diamond and Platinum Edwardian Era Bow Brooch, Photo Courtesy: Paul Fisher, Inc.

Opulent, Refined, Luxurious, Lifestyles of the Rich and Royal, White, Platinum, Pearls, Diamonds all defined the Edwardian era.

WHEN: 1901-1915, the Edwardian era officially began during the reign of King Edward VII in 1901 (although he was coronated in 1902) and ended with the start of World War I in 1914/1915, historians vary as to the exact dates. Edward, the son of Queen Victoria, began to take on many official duties after Prince Albert, the Queen’s husband and Edward’s father, died. The Edwardian style began to develop in the late 1800s and blossomed during his reign. Even though this same time period was known as the Belle Epoque in other parts of Europe and as the Gilded Age in the United States, the jewelry had the same design aesthetic.

FAMOUS MAKERS: Boucheron, Cartier, Chaumet, Fabergé, Garrads, LaCloche, Marcus & Co., Tiffany & Co.

MOTIFS: Bows, Ribbons, Garlands, Laurel Wreaths, Florals, Feathers and Tassels, Stars, Millegrain

THE LOOK: White-on-white platinum with pearls and/or diamonds, light and lacy, intricate, formal and regal

MATERIALS: Platinum, Pearls, Diamonds, Pink Topaz, Peridot, Demantoid Garnet, Amethyst, Turquoise, Blue Sapphire, Ruby , Emerald, Aquamarine, Kunzite, Opal, Moonstone and Alexandrite

King Edward was known for his love of luxury and revelry. There were many parties and celebrations during his reign and dressing up was required. Not just dressing up to look good, but dressing up to show your rank in society and your respect for the rank of those around you.

Status-conscious Edwardians were not shy about piling on jewelry. If you want to see layering at its best, look at women of the Edwardian era. They started with a choker or dog collar and then added more necklaces of varying lengths that dropped to the waist, or longer. The dog collar was particularly popular as Edward’s wife Queen Alexandra favored the style to hide a scar on her neck and others followed suit.

Brooches and pins were also popular, with fashionable Edwardians wearing numerous pins during the day on their bodice, as epaulets and in their hair. It was also customary to wear a few bracelets stacked together on each arm along with several rings.

For an evening event, along with all the other jewelry, tiara’s, jeweled combs or other hair ornaments were worn. Tiara’s were especially important if royalty (king, queen, prince or princess), or upper echelon nobility was present. And for evening, bigger brooches were worn, often a few at a time, with star motifs being favored.

There were a number of technological events in the Edwardian era and two that made a big impact on jewelry and fashion. In 1903, the high heat oxyacetylene torch was invented. The torch was able to easily heat platinum to its melting point, allowing jewelers to stretch the metal until it became very thin. Platinum, which is a very strong metal was then formed into delicate, but very elaborate settings. It was also pierced to create openwork adding to the lightness of the pieces both aesthetically and in terms of weight. Jewelry created in the Edwardian era is surprisingly light weight given its larger sizes.

A second major technical advancement was availability of electricity. It made a big change in fashion. Heavy fabrics, brocades and velvets in dark colors that were beautiful by candlelight looked dreary and drab under electric lights. They were replaced by pastel colors and lighter fabrics such as silk or taffeta. These new styles were the perfect backdrop for the intricate, openwork jewelry of the era.

Diamonds and pearls were two of the most used gems in Edwardian jewelry. Set in platinum they reinforced the era’s formal white-on-white design aesthetic. The diamond mines in South Africa were producing an abundant supply of diamonds making them readily available and cost effective to use in jewelry design.

Pearls on the other hand were much more rare as cultured pearls had not yet been perfected and brought to market. Pearls were natural and much harder to come by making them scarce and far more valuable than other gems.

When World War I erupted, the gracious and luxurious lifestyle of the Edwardian era came to an abrupt end.

Authored by Amber Michelle